It started with the social media-spurred renaissance of Calvin Klein branded underwear cheekily peeking over jeans waistbands in the Instagram feeds of Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner, spawning hundreds of thousands of hashtagged imitators. Now, that other bastion of 1990s Americana – Tommy Hilfiger’s straight-up red, white and blue flag insignia – is making a comeback of its own among the Coachella crowd. Coincidence? Maybe not. The Calvin and Tommy brands are both owned by global clothing giant PVH Corp, and both are being pulled back from the brink of naffness at the same time by appealing afresh to a new generation of hip young things who are all too happy to show off toned abs behind a veneer of of-the-mo athleisure-wear.
Not that Tommy Hilfiger the man necessarily cares about being naff or not; his brand enjoyed retail sales of Dhs24.6 billion in 2014 and he is more than happy with its position as a commercial powerhouse rather than a byword for high fashion creativity. “I would much rather be where I am than where some of them are,” he smiles. ‘Them’ being the designers whose names may be synonymous with FASHION but whose top lines are left trailing in Hilfiger’s populist wake.
It was back in 1985 when Tommy Hilfiger staked his audacious claim on the American design landscape, challenging Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis for the nation’s menswear crown. Womenswear followed in 1996, and soon everyone from Britney Spears to Destiny’s Child was sporting Tommy’s signature red, white and blue.
Tommy girls: Kate Moss S/S97, Gigi Hadid S/S16 and Kendall Jenner S/S15
Mr Hilfiger, now 65-years-old, explains, “Thirty years ago we created this affordable, accessible, wearable premium positioning and we’ve never changed. It’s what people wear.” Albeit not necessarily what discerning fashion clientele wear. Leafing through a copy of Bazaar’s Best Dressed book, he acknowledges that while women – whether in Riyadh, LA, New York or Miami – with “expensive jewellery, who have their glam team come on a daily basis and drive around in chauffeured Bentleys” may not be his core customer, “There are a lot of people coming through Dubai from India, Europe, Asia, Africa, and most people wear affordable, wearable clothes with a sense of style. There are Zaras and H&Ms of course,” he explains, motioning towards the bottom of an imaginary scale, “and the Pradas and Guccis,” pointing to the top. “I think we’re here,” he says, indicating around two-thirds of the way up. And while those Bentley babes are unlikely to welcome Tommy Hilfiger into their walk-in wardrobes, judging by the momentum the brand is seeing on social media their daughters may well soon be sporting the Tommy flag, egged on by aspirational images featuring the likes of 19-year-old model Hailey Baldwin (born, incidentally, in 1996 – the year Hilfiger first introduced womenswear).
Hailey Baldwin for Tommy Hilfiger
In fashion terms at least, the beginnings of this renaissance can be traced back to September 2014 when Georgia May Jagger opened and Kendall Jenner closed the brand’s rock ’n’ roll themed spring/summer 2015 show. Come February ’15, three decades on from the birth of the brand, and Gigi Hadid first walked for Tommy Hilfiger, marking the start of a collaboration that is set to explode in a social media frenzy this September when the model’s debut capsule collection for Hilfiger hits the catwalk in an industry-disrupting see-now, buy-now mega-show. Encompassing womenswear, shoes, watches, sunglasses and fragrance, the capsule of around 40 outfits is likely to propel Hilfiger to the top of the most digitally buzzed-about brand charts. So what’s the secret to connecting with the new generation of post-millennials? “You need the right vibe,” Tommy says “You definitely need the right girls. You need Gigi, she’s our number one girl.” The second time Hadid walked for Hilfiger, for the spring/summer 2016 Mustique-themed collection worn on the previous pages, the brand received a billion impressions. “Many were due to her social media,” Tommy says of Gigi. “She’s great, she’s smart. She’s one of the only girls who came up after the show and thanked me. She’s humble,” he reveals. These southern California girls with their banging bodies, beachy attitude and playful approach are wooing a new generation of teens afresh. “They have a certain look, a certain way of dressing, a certain way of putting themselves together that is different to a lot of the other girls. It’s not like we’re trying to put the girls in stuff they would never wear,” Tommy says, scrolling through his phone to show me pictures of enviably-abbed girls in Tommy Jeans branded crop tops serving as living, breathing billboards. “This stuff has been very cool,” he enthuses, casting round for his PR to supply the necessary lingo. “What do we call it? Throwbacks! We’re calling it throwbacks.” Clearly Tommy himself isn’t the voice behind the label’s emoji-heavy Instagram feed.
Tommy Hilfiger S/S16 in Dubai by Adam Balcerek
“It’s okay to mine it every once in a while, bring it back out and re-do it,” he shrugs of the brand’s re-hashing of its 1990s logo-heavy heyday. It’s a strategy that was fed first-hand to him by Karl Lagerfeld, whose eponymous label was bought by the Tommy Hilfiger Group in 2004 and today counts Hilfiger’s owner PVH among its investors. During the acquisition process, Tommy recounts, “I spent time with him at his apartment in Paris. I said, ‘Karl, how did Chanel become so successful?’ And he said,” – imagine, if you will, the near spot-on German-tinged French accent that Tommy adopts for the re-telling – “‘It is very easy. I go to Coco’s archive and take everything and make it relevant for today.’ And he did!”
You don’t get much more relevant for 2016 than Gigi Hadid posing it up in patriotic sportswear, her athletic limbs suddenly making the rest of the catwalk troupe look strangely unappealing. “Gigi is a perfect Tommy girl,” the man himself decrees, “she’s not stick thin. I’m so tired of these anorexic-looking girls. I don’t want my wife, my daughters to think that’s beautiful, to be a skeleton. It affects your self-esteem.”
Gigi Hadid for Tommy Hilfiger by Getty Images
The following evening I meet Tommy’s wife, the 46-year-old handbag designer Dee Ocleppo, and she is beautiful, warm and wonderfully down-to-earth. Like her husband, Dee has an eminently sensible approach to diet, admonishing him for skipping breakfast that morning and extolling the benefits of starting the day with “a little light protein, to keep you away from the bread basket later.” It’s a small window into the dynamic of this couple behind whose glamorous exterior lies an intimate domesticity.
Tommy and Dee Hilfiger's Miami home photographed by Douglas Friedman
Tommy credits his three daughters (with his first wife Susan; he also has a son with Susan and one with Dee) with more common sense than to be swayed by fashion industry dictates, but adds, “A lot of their friends and a lot of young women feel that if they’re not skeletal, they’re not cool.” It’s a subject close to the heart of the designer and he hopes that when an image of Gigi in his tropical string bikini gets beamed around the social media sphere, it goes some way to normalising a more achievable body type. “I would like to think that by making that statement, maybe other people would realise that a woman who is naturally beautiful but who has a little bit of meat on her bones is very attractive. Men prefer that,” he confides. “A lot of the models look sick. If you look at Gucci and Prada’s advertising, it’s like...” he trails off in mock horror. “I like diversification. I like Latin girls, black girls, Asian; I like a mix because that’s our customer base. I want it to be closer to what real life is about.” So convinced is he that traditional catwalk clones are on the wane, he is enlisting the services of his star model to cast the next show. “Gigi and friends,” he declares, “I think that would be fun.”
As well as choosing the models, Ms Hadid has been taking her design duties very seriously indeed. “She’s picking the fabrics, trying every single thing on. Wanting that button, not that button. Wanting that watch with that outfit,” he lists, before being momentarily distracted by my studded shoes. “Valentino?” No, super-old Louboutin. “Very cool,” he nods approvingly, radar ever-attuned to street style nuance.
The Gigi collection will be the first step in shifting Tommy Hilfiger’s business model towards a direct-to-consumer show cycle. It will be available to buy in-store and online immediately after being broadcast on a global multi-media network during New York fashion week in September. Come February 2017, the brand will, for the first time, move its entire collection in-season, embracing the see-now, buy-now shift that is also being adopted by the likes of Burberry and Tom Ford. “A lot [of designers] are confused as to what to do, but eventually everyone’s going to change,” Tommy predicts of the seismic shift that is threatening to disrupt the fashion industry paradigm. I tell him that Burberry is going one step further by ditching the tags of autumn/winter and spring/summer altogether in lieu of collections simply labelled September and February. “I think that’s smart,” he nods.
Resistance to such change is coming most strongly from the traditional high fashion centre of Paris. But then Tommy and his American cohorts have always played a different game to les Français. “Ralph is a big brand. Michael Kors is very powerful. Marc Jacobs is incredibly powerful. Diane, Vera, Tory... there’s some real power brands. Are they on the level of Saint Laurent, Dior, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Balmain? No. I don’t think so. Maybe Marc is as close as it gets,” he says of fashion’s transatlantic dichotomy.
Models with Tomy Hilfiger in Dubai by Adam Balcerek
Still, what the US contingent lacks in high fashion credentials, it makes up for in commercial nous. However, now that the exoticism of America, which so appealed to me in the late 1990s, has had its gloss worn thin by the accessibility of cheap package flights, discount strip malls and pop culture overload, how does Americana retain its allure? “Think of Hollywood, where movies come from,” Tommy enthuses, himself having made a cameo in both Zoolanders. “Think about the lifestyle in Beverly Hills. Most musicians are from America. Think about places from Aspen to Miami, San Francisco to Brooklyn. A lot of style emanates from those places and floats throughout the world.”
He is adamant that, “It’s not Paris or Milan or London. It’s America, it’s different.” And its power to disrupt is unrivalled. “Think of Silicon Valley, which has bred executives that are the most successful on earth and not one of them wears a suit. They wear hoodies.”
Tommy is primed to sell sweats by the truckload to employees of Coca Cola, Google and Apple, not giving a fig that his lack of couture aspiration ostracises him from fashion’s inner circle. Almost. “Karl’s not snobby,” he smiles, “he looks like he is but he’s just a very smart guy.” As a whole though? “Yeah, the industry is – fashion is pretty snobby.”
While planet fashion is battling it out over whether see-now, buy-now is a natural evolution of a progressively consumer-driven marketplace or an affront to creativity and craftsmanship, another tussle – that for the presidency of the United States of America – is being waged stateside, with an increasingly disconcerting potential outcome. Tommy tells me he is glued to CNN as Donald Trump edges ever closer to securing the Republican party nomination. What does this standard-bearer of the American dream make of his country’s political situation? “It’s scary,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, “we’re not going there.” And with that, Tommy Hilfiger, the man who built an empire on the aspirational associations of the red, white and blue, leaves the building.
The full version of this article appears in the May 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia