In 1993, LaVelle Sykes was looking for a job. His cousin had just been killed, and he knew he only had two options: Find legitimate work or end up dead on the streets.
But he thought of a local business owner known for giving Black and Brown kids their first jobs: Juan Antonio “Tony” Fernandez, Jr.
When Sykes went to Mr. Fernandez with his dilemma, he was immediately hired as a stock clerk at one of Mr. Fernandez’s Tony’s Sports stores, a local shoe and clothing chain that specialized in streetwear.
“He saved my life,” said Sykes, now the owner of Succezz, a similar business at 2214 S. Michigan Ave. “He taught me everything I know. He did more for me than my own father did.”
Mr. Fernandez died last week in an apparent drowning in Killeen, Texas. He was 54.
On Aug. 11, officers responded to a 911 call about a potential drowning victim at a hotel pool, Killeen police said. Officers attempted CPR on Mr. Fernandez but were unsuccessful in reviving him. An autopsy is pending.
Born Aug. 26, 1966 in Chicago to a Spanish father and Cuban mother, Mr. Fernandez graduated from Senn High School. His parents, Margarita and Juan Fernandez, met in Cuba before moving to the U.S. in 1957, according to an oral history video posted on YouTube.
In the mid-1970s, Fernandez Sr. opened a dress shoe store that Mr. Fernandez began working at when he was 12. His father eventually opened two more stores in the city, he said in the interview.
In 1985, Mr. Fernandez took over the store at 3941 Sheridan Rd., and its $10,000 inventory, to create a hip-hop shoe store. Then, within a six year time span, Tony’s Sports — originally La Moda Sports — established itself as the streetwear store.
By 1989, Mr. Fernandez had expanded to Cabrini-Green. Soon, locations opened in other parts of the city, including Hyde Park, the West Side and Addison Mall. All together, Mr. Fernandez had eight stores, Sykes said.
“Tony is pretty much the founder of streetwear in Chicago,” said Shareef Williams, another former employee at Tony’s Sports. “You knew in the city of Chicago to get fresh in the early 90s, you had to go to Tony’s. You knew Tony had all the newest and hottest clothing at the time.”
Over the years, Tony’s Sports saw major hip-hop artists come through its doors: Mary J. Blige, Busta Rhymes, DMX, Common, Mr. Fernandez said in the interview. It was always a big party at the stores, where a DJ would play music on weekends, Williams said.
“Tony’s was always jumping because everybody from every part of the city — North Side, South Side, West Side — came to Tony’s,” Williams said.
But Mr. Fernandez wasn’t only focused on sales; he was invested in the neighborhoods he served. He would host community events, cover for customers when they couldn’t afford the cost of the apparel and help others looking to jumpstart their career.
“Anybody with passion … he was the platform for their careers, whether it was coming to buy clothes from him or (helping) open their own business,” Sykes said.
Mr. Fernandez moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2003. He ran the stores while he lived in Florida until he closed his last store in 2012.
Even though he no longer lived in Chicago, Mr. Fernandez’s death was met with an outpouring of grief from many locals who shared memories online of back-to-school shopping and bargains at Tony’s Sports.
“His legacy is one that cannot be touched with a ten-foot pole,” Sykes said.
Survivors include Mr. Fernandez’s sisters, his wife, Sandra and their three children, Nina Nicole Wiess, Antonio Joseph Fernandez and Michael Angelo Fernandez.
Services have not yet been announced, but Sykes said that they will be held in Chicago in the near future.
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.