Style and substance

Watching television with his family one evening in 1997, Antwain Hill witnessed a news broadcast that forever changed his life.

A report on a fatal car accident prompted his mother to utter, "Oh my gosh, I feel so bad for that family."

The family’s shock was about to escalate.

Hill’s grandmother then answered her phone, and the message she heard caused her to collapse and fall down a flight of stairs: Hill’s sister, 15-year-old Shamieka, and three cousins were killed in that accident.

Devastated, Hill, then 12, recalls asking himself, "How am I supposed to take care of my sisters and mother being that I’m the man of the family?"

He tried to keep his composure despite the painful loss.

"I’m considered the backbone by members of my family because if I fall, everyone else falls," said Hill, of the 2100 block of South 19th Street. "I tried to stay as strong as possible."

Wanting badly to keep the memory of his fashion-loving sister alive, the teenager decided to start a business in her honor. In 1998, he created Distinct Inc., which includes apparel for men, women and children. Hill’s designs range from the flashy to the sophisticated, and encompass all types of attire, from formal and urban outfits to bedtime wear.

While his clothes are not yet available in stores, he custom-fits his clients at his office on the 1500 block of South 20th Street. Hill said his creations exemplify his business’ mission statement: self-reliance, self-confidence and individuality.

On Saturday, the 20-year-old designer will showcase his dapper threads at a fashion show at Vare Recreation Center, 26th and Moore streets, with family and friends in attendance.

Hall has found solace through his work and believes his sister would be proud of him.

"If she was alive today, she would be my business partner," he said. "I do everything I do for her because she never got the chance."

HILL, WHO GREW up in a close-knit family, always enjoyed how Shamieka would keep him and his two older sisters, Kenyetta, 24, and Tiffany, 21, in style.

He later developed a love of fashion all his own, and especially enjoyed designing men’s clothes.

Naysayers actually pushed Hill into pursuing the field.

"Because I was a guy, so many people told me I couldn’t make it in that industry," said Hill, a fashion-design major at Delaware State University. "I’m the type of person that if someone tells me that I can’t make it, I’ll make sure it gets done."

He is now seeking moral support for his rising business, as well as Saturday’s show, from the same people who helped him get through the pain of losing his loved ones.

As youngsters, Hill and his sisters joined the neighborhood group People Achieving Positive Attitudes (PAPA), aimed at keeping children occupied after school hours.

Darlene Cummings, the group’s founder, always had a shoulder for Hill to lean on.

"My mom had to work every day – all day – to support us, so she was like a second mom," he said. "At the age of 20, I stand as tall as she does and I can still go to her for guidance and for a hug."

Referring to him as her "little prince," Cummings, a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) police officer, notes Hill is a prime example of how showing a child some attention can unlock his inner talents.

"He’s very intelligent. He’s experienced some obstacles, but despite that, he’s going forward with his life and setting examples," said Cummings, whose group strengthened Hill’s creativity through arts and crafts.

Angela Hill, the designer’s mother, is known for her brutal honesty when it comes to her son’s work.

"He tells me all the time I’m his greatest critic, so I have to be hard on him," said Hill, 43.

Asked if she has seen her son progress as a designer, Angela lives up to her reputation. "His first couple of pieces of work were disastrous. But comparing those pieces to what I’ve seen at prom time, he’s grown."

This year, Hill sold seven prom dresses and suits, four Easter outfits and four graduation outfits. His custom creations range from $135 for a casual outfit to $450 for a prom gown.

He sometimes finds inspiration for his designs while people-watching on a downtown bus late at night. But don’t expect to see him sketching on paper.

"I cannot draw. I will sit in front of my sewing machine and whatever I see, that’s what I will put out," said Hill, who also performs at Messiah Dance Works, a studio at 2019 Montrose St.

Hill, who calls Michael Kors and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs his favorite designers, knows how he wants to spend some of the funds from his fashion show, which he is also choreographing. He wants to start Distinct Inc. Academy for the Performing Arts, an after-school program and summer camp with a concentration in dance, modeling and acting. Like PAPA, he thinks his group could offer support to children in need.

"I’m so tired of seeing kids who are 12 or 13 on corners at two in the morning," Hill said. "It’s really driving me crazy."

Another portion of the proceeds will go to PAPA, he added.

Hill would not mind becoming a household name. Meanwhile, he enjoys the ability to simply make people look good.

"I’m not in it for the riches or the fame," he said. "I’m in it to give people who never had the chance to be somebody or look the part feel like they are somebody."

Antwain Hill’s fashion show will be held Saturday, 5 p.m., at Vare Recreation Center, 26th and Moore streets. The cost is $15. For more information, call Hill at 215-551-2123.