“Luxury is the word on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Everyone knows what luxury looks like now, and everyone wants it. But luxury is unreachable for most people. If I can sell an affordable version of luxury, that’s a great position for our business.”
Tommy Hilfiger has returned to New York fashion week after a two-year absence, riding a wave of “quiet luxury” fashion and on a hunch that “dressing up is back. We are moving away from streetwear into a more polished look. It’s in the air – I can feel it,” he says.
Billed as “a New York moment”, the show was a coming of age for a brand that has long aligned itself with popular culture and youth, through close ties with hip-hop and sport. Invitations borrowing the typeface and layout of a New Yorker magazine cover summoned guests to a Friday night at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, a Manhattan institution hosting the first catwalk show of its 110-year history.
Trays of martinis and old fashioneds made for a cocktail party atmosphere. At his office the morning after the show, Hilfiger recalled his pre-show jitters. “I was thinking, are they ever going to sit down? How are we going to start this show?”
Ralph Lauren is sitting out the season, Calvin Klein went dark as a catwalk name five years ago, and Marc Jacobs has taken to staging shows outside the fashion week timetable. This presents an opportunity for Hilfiger to claim a headlining spot in American fashion, in the city where he started his brand in 1985. He seized it with pedal-to-the-metal exuberance, ending the show with a beaming victory lap dressed in a varsity jacket and gleaming white trainers.
Hilfiger knows how to distill the American dream into a memorable image. Plenty of New York designers make nice clothes, but only Tommy Hilfiger throws the kind of party where the first sight on entry is guest Sylvester Stallone, being served french fries (in a canapé-sized silver cone) and ketchup.
Hilfiger makes no claim to the avant garde, but scents the favourable winds of change early, and course-corrects his brand of Americana to ride them. “Some designers are too early with a look and a feel, or too late. In this business, timing is everything.” Price is also crucial, as high-end luxury labels continue to raise prices. Taking a coat from his showroom rail, he points out that at Loro Piana, the refined Italian brand made famous by featuring on screen in Succession and on Gwyneth Paltrow in court, “a camel cashmere coat would cost $6,000. Ours is $600”.
The bones of the collection were classic American preppy. Think sturdy chinos and plush cable knit sweaters, felted wool blazers and striped rib scarves, pleated skirts and button down shirts, all in Ivy League school colours of burgundy, navy, camel and ivory.
Oversized proportions brought them up to date. Generous coats were layered over wide trousers that puddled at the ankle; shirts had elongated cuffs and exaggerated pointy collars. Seventeen of the 59 models wore baseball caps, the trophy accessory of the moment.
“They are an accessory everyone wants in their wardrobe now. It’s acceptable now to wear a baseball cap with a dress, in the evening, in a restaurant. We do them in cashmere,” said Hilfiger.
Except for one cable knit sweater flying the red white and blue Tommy flag, the streetwear codes that have dominated the brand for decades were nowhere to be seen. “This is where I started out, by rebelling against traditional preppy and making it oversized and relaxed and cool. And now we are doing the same thing again, in a way,” the designer said of his new take on preppy.
In another gravitational pull toward the establishment, Hilfiger is dropping the “see now, buy now” concept in which clothes go on sale in sync with being on the catwalk, and reverting to what he called “the traditional way of doing things” so that this collection will go on sale in the autumn.
See now, buy now is now limited to the celebrity front row, who are dressed by the brand in current season clothes. “Modern celebrities have lives which are advertising campaigns in and of themselves. These people are constantly photographed – by themselves and by others. They have enormous fan bases. And those fans are attracted like bees to honey, when their favourite celebrity tells them they should be wearing a peacoat by Tommy Hilfiger.”