Tommy Hilfiger and Patrick Freyne set sail for New York Fashion Week
Designer Tommy Hilfiger's nautical-themed fashion show leaves Patrick Freyne feeling all at sea - and that's before the writer's run-in with Kim Kardashian
Tommy Hilfiger with models backstage at his show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy Hilfiger Women’s Fall 2016 show during New York Fashion Week. Photograph: Peter White/WireImage
The lobby of my fancy New York hotel is filled with fashionable people staring at their phones. They are largely dressed in black and have studious expressions on their faces. They are all beautiful and young.
I walk a gauntlet of these young people to get to the reception desk. I feel a little like Peter Ustinov as “the old man” in the final scene of Logan’s Run. I fear they will gather round me inquisitively. “What is it?” they will ask, touching my grizzled locks, wizened face and brown Marks & Spencer corduroys as I wince adorably.
A lithe, graceful man in a long coat and black leather gloves is coaxing a Chihuahua in a parka through a revolving door.
A pretty young English woman is repeatedly fixing her hair then delivering monologues to an iPhone. “Just vlogging,” she says brightly to a muscular porter.
A long-haired youth with a guitar case is talking to a woman with an undercut and a snare drum. He is reading a one-line Twitter review of their band on his phone. “They say we put the ‘ass’ in ‘fantastic’,” he says. He thinks this is a compliment but she isn’t so sure.
“Why are you not staying on your friends’ couches or in some sort of youth hostel?” I want to shout.
The tall, willowy receptionists appear before me. I can only perceive them as a youthful, multi-racial, gender-indeterminate mass. They tell me (in unison?) that there’s 24-hour room service and a 24-hour gym. Are they mocking me?
I get my room card and go to the elevator. The elevator features moving picture art works embedded in the walls. I watch naked women, pop icons and men in devil suits swirling into a vortex.
“That’s awesome. I have to find out the artist so I can get something for the apartment,” drawls a 12-year-old with a huge red beard and low-slung trousers to a ginormously tall, giraffe woman with bleached hair.
“HOW CAN YOU HAVE AN APARTMENT?” I want to shout. “YOU’RE 12!”
I am in New York for fashion week to interview Tommy Hilfiger, the master of preppy fashion and celebrity iconography, and to attend his Fall Line fashion show.
I have never said “fashion week” or “fall line” aloud before. The PR company may know this. They offer me a voucher for Tommy Hilfiger clothes and suggest I might want to wear them for my interview. Just as the queen believes everywhere smells of fresh paint, Tommy Hilfiger probably thinks that everyone wears his clothes. I do not get the free clothes, partly because I can’t justify getting free stuff and partly because I suspect that only M&S cater to my unusual body shape.
I walk along the High Line park, a refurbished old rail line, to 26th street, where Hilfiger’s PR company has offices overlooking the Hudson. It’s freezing. The PR people are astounded that I walked. “It’s only a 20-minute walk,” I chatter, picking ice from my beard.
We sit in a large, spacious kitchen area on the 13th floor listening to a soundtrack of classic rock – Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie – and we talk about the Hilfigers: Ricky, the rapper son, and Ally, the former reality TV star, who is battling Lyme disease.
A phone is produced and I’m shown photos of Tommy Hilfiger’s many homes – his psychedelically themed house in Miami with its Basquiats and “far too many Warhols” and his apartment overlooking Central Park, the turrets of which contain portraits of his children.
In a nearby room I am introduced to Tommy. The 64-year-old designer is wearing jeans, a zip-up vest, a navy cardigan and tortoiseshell spectacles.
He has a deep voice. He knows his own story. He doesn’t go off message. He likes to list things. He is the exact opposite of eccentric.
I sit on the couch beside him. “When I was a teen I was obsessed with music,” says Hilfiger. “The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin. I was living in this fashion music revolution. I wasn’t a good musician so I decided I should look like a rock star. I was dressing with bell-bottoms and fringe and all my school mates [asked] where’d you get those boots? Where did you get that jacket?’ So I opened a small shop and sold rock-style hippy clothing.”
It was counter culture? “It was.” How did he go from counter culture to global prepiness? “It started off as almost revolting against the establishment by having long hair and being very different but then, as I became more interested in the fashion business, I saw my future and I thought I should build a brand [to] live my dream of creating products.”
In the 1970s he fell in with the New York art world and became friendly with Andy Warhol. “[He] was a big inspiration to me. I loved the way he made pop culture so interesting.
“He took fashion, art, music entertainment and put it in a blender with a sense of humour. It was at a time when pop art and pop culture had not yet been developed.”
Was he a mentor? “I would say that he was influential and I was inspired by him. I don’t think he was a mentor to anyone. He was very quiet. He didn’t really voice his opinion in a profound way. He would walk around the studio and point to things and say ‘look. Look. Did you like that?’ He didn’t say, ‘I did this because of this.’ He was slightly introverted but what he was doing was very visual and you could see how his mind worked.
“One day I asked ‘Why do you do what you do?’ And his answer was very interesting. He said ‘Because I like it’.”
Hilfiger laughs. So was his decision to become a heavily celebrity-endorsed brand in the 1980s a Warholian thing? “It may have been subconsciously influenced by Andy but I was obsessed with music. I wanted to have musicians wearing my clothes. So in the early days . . . ” He recites a list again: “Britney Spears, Usher, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow. I had Beyoncé perform when she was 16 years old with Destiny’s Child.”
“Bush,” he adds as an afterthought. This is a reference to the forgotten Gavin Rossdale rock band, not the political dynasty.
Did he foresee the rise of celebrity culture? “I didn’t realise that everyone would be into it – every magazine, every fashion company, every automobile company, every soft-drink company – I just knew what I wanted to do with celebrity. It was mostly musicians.”
He pauses. “And later on . . . I was thinking of launching a new fragrance and thought ‘let’s use the offspring of the celebrities’ – the Jagger children, Keith Richard’s children, Sting’s children, Rod Stewart’s children, Kate Hudson, Mark Ronson and people like that.”
So he predicted the type of celebrity dynasties that now populate reality television? “I wasn’t thinking of these dynasties and that it was going to be the way of the future. I just thought this was what I wanted to do and this was going to be great for me and my brand.
“ We were on tour with The Stones for almost a year – dressing them. We shot David Bowie and Iman for our campaigns and they’d never been photographed together before. And we just did a lot of very interesting things.”
Then hip-hop artists started wearing his stuff. “I didn’t anticipate it. It was like ‘wow – that’s cool’ and I started dressing a lot of them. We did a fashion show. Quincy Jones’s daughter helped me stage it. There was this guy Puff Daddy, another guy Coolio and all of a sudden you have all these artists on the runway – Snoop Dog and all these hip-hop people – suddenly it exploded.”
He starts blowing kisses to someone at the door. “My daughter,” he explains. “Elizabeth.”
What is the significance of the preppy look? “Preppy is what people really wear in the world,” he says. “I thought preppy, as it was, was boring. So I wanted to do preppy in a totally different way. I wanted it to be the beginning of a casual revolution. It was the beginning of the 80s. I’d been spending a lot of time in LA just before I’d started Tommy Hilfiger and there was this very casual point of view from the fashion.
“I took that very casual point of view – the surf culture [which was] a little bit hippy and nonchalant and I blended it with this stiff rigid preppy and made it into what I think was . . . classic American cool.
“Then I took preppy and made it rock and roll. I took preppy and made it nautical. I took preppy and made it sporty. I took preppy and made it outdoorsy. I took preppy and I made it more sophisticated.”
Was he aware of that look when he was younger? “The good families in my neighbourhood growing up always wore preppy. And they wore it very nicely. I always wanted to be able to afford nice preppy clothes but I couldn’t at that time. So I worked very hard and I would save up my money to buy a shirt or to buy a jacket.”
I ask him about modern celebrities who are famous for more nebulous reasons than his original rock n’roll muses. He doesn’t buy my generalisations.
“There are certain social media stars like Gigi Hadid [the model and current Hilfiger collaborator] who is not only a beautiful model but has an incredible sense of herself. She is very smart and why not have her design with me? We set up a design study within Tommy Hilfiger. We brought Gigi in and said here’s some sketch books, design . . . and we worked in the kitchen together.”
But what about other celebrities like Kanye and Victoria Beckham showing their collections at Fashion Week, putting real designers out of a job? “I think it depends on the talent,” he says. “I think Kanye is very talented. I think Victoria Beckham is very talented. I think some people have tried and failed. I think people just want to put their name on a brand. But there are people with innate sense of style. A lot of Hollywood stars want to be fashion designers; a lot of fashion designers want to be Hollywood stars. A lot of musicians want to be fashion designers. It’s this round robin.”
So; all those Warhols and Basquiats? “I love art. I’m obsessed. It’s my hobby.I buy and sell, I have an evolving collection.”
Does it feed into his work? “I’m a colour enthusiast. I always look at colour as one of the most important aspects of what we do. I was looking at [Jean] Dubuffet’s work and he did, in his day, a whole study on nautical stripes.” He starts listing again. “Red, white and blue stripes, blue and white, white and red, blue and blue. It is so inspirational to me. I see fashion, art, music and entertainment and even sport all coming together. It’s all pop culture.”
The interview comes to an end. The brand has faced criticism in the past about its parent company PVH’s use of factory labour in Bangladesh (there was a fatal fire in a factory in 2011) and I don’t get to ask Tommy Hilfiger about the treatment of workers today. I ask the company by email and they point to PVH’s corporate responsibility webpage where they outline various safety agreements they’ve signed up to and say: “We aim to be a positive presence in the lives of all people who are influenced by our business.”
I leave the building. Nearby I enter a gallery of gloopy abstract paintings and hear a man wondering aloud whether he should buy “the $25,000 or the $75,000”. He calls them the “$25,000” and the “$75,000”.
On 18th Street the traffic has stopped so a striking young woman can strut along the middle of the road towards a mass of cameras and into the Hauser & Wirth gallery.
“Who was that?” I ask one of the eager photographers. “Some model,” shrugs the man with a French accent.
The next morning I arrive early at the Armory on Park Avenue for the Hilfiger show and walk around the block. At the backstage entrance three models in hooded anoraks are smoking furtive cigarettes. By the side of the building a woman in pyjamas is shouting swearwords into a phone.
I stand at the entrance watching the behaviour of the photographers. Orange jacketed security men loudly direct big cars into a reserved space at the front of the building and people get out to varying levels of interest from the cameras. There’s a hierarchy among the photographers. One of them is working for Hilfiger. “I’m the only one allowed on the steps!” he shouts.
I don’t see any celebrities I recognise. I see a handsome young man in a fur coat dawdling at a corner before eventually swaggering into the photographers’ field of vision. There’s a woman in a red dress who clicks her fingers as she walks. A casually dressed man in his 50s zooms up on a huge skateboard.
There’s a young woman standing at the entrance with a sheaf of papers. Over her shoulder I see that she has a sheet of paper with headshots on it. I drive her crazy asking who everyone is. “That’s Gigi Hadid’s mother,” she says wearily, as an elegant woman steps out of a car.
I suspect the photographers are guessing a lot of the time. Whenever an attractive young woman appears they throng around her. These women seem accustomed to this and their demeanour subtly but definitively changes. Their walk becomes an assertive strut and they select their most photogenic facial expression. They walk along the footpath past the photographers to the first few steps of the building. There they hold a demure pose, their eyes cast downward, their handbags clutched loosely in their hands. Does someone teach them how to do this?
Inside the building I take my ticket from its envelope and see that it’s an ocean-liner themed boarding card. There are signs for “passengers embarking” alongside piles of old-fashioned luggage. Many of my fellow passengers are very stylish. There are black clad beatniks and multi-coloured clown-people, but there are also guests who are contentedly frumpy in jeans and jumpers. I speak to one of them. She’s a French clothes buyer for a big chain. These are the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. They know fashion but don’t care how they look.
The stage is modelled on a sea-faring steam ship, with two funnels with actual steam pouring from the top. Many people take selfies with the ship. Many do the arms stretched Titanic pose. There’s a lot of chatter. Vloggers speak into their phones and cameras. Two models in casual Tommy Hilfiger jeans and T-shirts mimic ordinary girls having a lark while a man photographs them. This makes me feel sad.
A human pyramid of photographers forms. People take their seats and Michael Jackson’s Rock with You pumps from the speakers. A procession of young women in nautically themed clothes begins to circle the steam ship aggressively. Cameras and phones start flashing. The young women wear ponchos and hot pants and frocks and pea-coats of the kind Captain Haddock wears in Tintin.
One woman wears pyjamas and heels (it’s not the pyjama-clad woman I saw earlier). A tiara-wearing Gigi Hadid appears sporadically. Most of the models have bored expressions. They don’t look happy to be on this boat. And I am not confident they know how to crew a ship. Maybe they were press-ganged?
After 10 minutes a happy looking Hilfiger appears in a sailor jacket and jeans and waves. He jumps on the front chimney points to the Hudson river and shouts “Onward!” “Toot toot!” goes the ship and, captained by Hilfiger and crewed by these sullen young women, it unmoors and heads for open water. I live at sea now.
I wish. Those last three sentences are fiction.
The show is over. People seem pleased by this expression of naval power from Hilfiger. “It was better for me than last year,” says a silver-jacketed Spanish fashion buyer sitting beside me. Her friend starts talking about the width of the stripes and I’m lost.
Inquisitors pounce on departing fashionistas. “Tell me about your style?” they ask.
Outside it’s snowing. Some young people from a start-up company are distributing copies of a new fashion magazine. Photographers throng around a tall androgynous looking woman with short bleached hair.
I ask a young man who she is. “I have no idea,” he says. He’s an amateur photographer who’s here at the suggestion of his friend, a nurse-turned-fashion blogger.
I finally see someone I recognise: Bill Cunningham, the renowned octogenarian street photographer. He rushes by me in his blue anorak, dodging traffic to chase a lady in a canary yellow coat.
Models from the show appear on the street in casual Hilfiger gear. They begin walking in the middle of Park Avenue, ignoring traffic-lights as a mass of photographers take pictures. This traffic-stopping behaviour seems to be a fashion week ritual. Drivers stop dutifully. During fashion week, fashion models have the same legal status as vehicles.
Later, outside my hotel I see a blonde woman in leopard-print fur awkwardly manoeuvring a child in a brown fur into a large black people-carrier. The child makes a bolt for the road. “Not the street!” calls the blonde woman and stumbles after her. She can’t quite get to her in her heels. I make a dart towards the road, but a large minder in a black bomber jacket is already hoisting the laughing child up into his arms and into the car. It’s only after I spot a gleeful photographer that I realise this is Kim Kardashian and North West. They have been ice-skating at the hotel’s tiny rink. I wonder to myself if I can shape this into an anecdote about how I saved Kim Kardashian’s child. I cannot. I have failed again.
n The Tommy Hilfiger collections are available in the flagship Dublin stories on Grafton Street, Dundrum Town centre, at retailers nationwide and on tommy.com