Photograph from the Torch Sportswear lookbook.

Torch Sportswear Brings Vintage HBCU Gear to a New Generation

Many of the brand's customers didn't attend HBCUs. What are they tapping into when they wear the gear?

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Jan 31 2018, 4:02pm

Photograph from the Torch Sportswear lookbook.

One of the joys of vintage clothing is that it puts the buyer in touch with an imagined past. An old garment suggests another time, or place, or both—maybe a black turtleneck suggests 1960s Oakland, or a pair of Reebok Workouts conjures early Cash Money-era New Orleans. And in purchasing it, one hangs onto—or, more likely, recalls—a piece of that memory.

Torch Sportswear, Amechi Ugwu’s line of vintage clothing and memorabilia from historically black colleges and universities, has a sort of free-floating nostalgia to it (and a must-follow Instagram). A lot of the gear is from the 1980s and 1990s—a Spelman snapback, a Florida A&M allover print tee, a Shaw pullover by Starter—and recalls the period when HBCUs captured the black zeitgeist and experienced a brief surge in enrollment. (The recently revived African American College Alliance clothing line digs up the same memories.)

The venture’s first incarnation started six years ago, when Ugwu was still a student at Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The bookstore tees weren’t to his liking, so he and a friend printed up some crewneck sweaters with oversized logos under the brand name Circa 1880 (the name came from the opening words of a history of the school).

“We seriously had no business plan,” Ugwu told me. “We were just like, ‘Oh, we think this is cool.’ We found someone who would print the stuff for us without asking any questions about licensing, and we were slinging it out of backpacks and duffle bags on campus.”

A few years out of school, he decided to bring it back under the name Torch (“passing the torch” of memory, history). Half of the company was supposed to be the vintage stuff, and the other half was going to be licensed gear like hoodies and tees. He’s still working on getting the funding and licensing together to get back into school merch, with a Kickstarter planned for Black History Month, but a few months ago he figured a good way to build buzz would be liquidating his backlog through his prospective brand’s website.

Some of the gear came from thrift stores, eBay, and the like, but a healthy portion came by word of mouth: “A lot of it is just from personal collections,” he said. “Finding other private collectors—people’s aunts and uncles and friends whose parents went to these schools and buying stuff off of them.” It’s like a homecoming tailgate, with the clothes people would have worn in the place of stories about what they did and who they were: the A&T ball cap your uncle wore that one day his line brother bricked his fade, or the Bethune-Cookman basketball jersey your aunt still has from that season she went all-MEAC.

People have long used clothing to imagine a connection to a period before theirs, or to a place to which their connection is tenuous. (There’s anecdotal evidence of a recent surge in HBCU interest as black students seek refuge from anticipated microagressions at predominantly white institutions—the so-called “Missouri effect.”) In the introduction to the 1972 edition of Drums and Shadows, a Depression-era collection of oral histories of the Geechee people of Georgia coast, the anthropologist Elliott Skinner described a trend he was noticing among black students:

Contemporary Afro-Americans are probably more deeply interested in Africa than any other native-born generation in the history of the United States. This interest is articulated in Black Studies programs, in a concern for Black culture, and for Afro-American anthropology. The reasons for this are obvious: Blacks recognize the need to deal with their past and to know where they have come from so that they can chart their future course in history. Moreover, they feel that they must now control their own destiny. The DRUMS are being beaten more purposely than in the recent past, and the attempt is being made to dispel the SHADOWS.

Fewer and fewer black students do their drumming on HBCU campuses. More than 60 years after Brown v. Board mandated integration, they’ve seen their share of black undergraduates shrink from a near-monopoly to about 10 percent. “They’re not negro schools anymore. It’s not the only place we can go to get an education,” Ugwu, who is also a salesman at the Armoury, said.

Still, there’s a history there worth preserving. Ugwu sees a parallel in Ebbets Fields’s work with Negro league baseball teams: “They’re real nerds about it, and that’s the cool thing about it. When you find something that’s so niche, they’re digging up minor league baseball team jerseys and recreating them, it’s cool that people are able to connect with it.”

Ugwu’s website has a Journal that features pictures of Lincoln University students at a Black Panther rally in Germany alongside video of the Notorious B.I.G. at Howard and Claflin University’s 1899 football team. On Instagram, the Journal photos sit next to lookbook pics shot on 35mm. This doesn’t necessarily offer a rose-tinted view of history, but it provides a refuge, an aesthetic safe space for young black people to get to “know where they have come from,” in Skinner’s words, like one of those HBCU-centric social media accounts whose mission is to say: Black people have been through a lot, man, but even with all that bigotry and disrespect, we’ve been able to create a nice thing or two and, for real, HBCUs are dope and they’ve produced a lot of dope things and people. Tag a follower who loves HBCUs and black people and the nice things they create.

Editor's note: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story stated that Amechi Ugwu attended Texas Southern University in Houston. He attended Southern University in Baton Rouge.