HARLEM, NEW YORK CITY: “We wanted to come home,” admits Tommy Hilfiger, straightening his monochrome, checked blazer and limp white collar. “We weren’t sure when but then Zendaya said ‘Let’s do our Fall show at The Apollo’ and I thought it was a fantastic idea.”
Since that deft, albeit controversial, decision in 2016 to uproot Hilfiger’s runway show from the traditional Fashion Week stable in New York City, the all-American travelling juggernaut has had dalliances with Los Angeles, London, Milan, Shanghai and Paris. But it was the label’s Spring19 co-designer Zendaya – sitting next to Hilfiger in a snake skin printed blazer and flare duo – who campaigned for the Fall19 show (the pair’s second design collaboration) to return to its place of origin. In her mind, the Tommy Hilfiger circus had been all over the world for years now – the neon skyscrapers along The Bund in China and the Ferris wheels on Venice Beach in California made for spectacular runway backdrops – but like any well-travelled wanderer will tell you, after experiencing different cultures and gaining new perspectives, you do return home a changed being.
And change Tommy Hilfiger certainly has. Following their unabashed celebration of black sisterhood in Paris in February, Zendaya and Hilfiger have kept the momentum going with a 70s uptown New York-inspired collection presented on September 8 by a diverse cast of models of all backgrounds, sizes, ages and ethnicities.
The Apollo Theatre, the landmark music hall in Harlem, has long been home to vaudeville performances, jazz, swing, gospel and hip hop and has hosted some of world’s most iconic entertainers including Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti LaBelle, and The Supremes. “That was it for me, it was the history of it,” says Zendaya as I re-cap the venue’s white-only policy during it’s early years of operation in the 20s. “I’ve always wanted to visit The Apollo. A dream for me as a performer is to be ‘Live at The Apollo’. There’s so much history here and so much to learn. That’s why we have this experience of understanding and paying respect to the people who in many ways have paved the way for me to be able to do a show here. It’s a beautiful experience and I’m very lucky and honoured. It’s a bit of a dream, actually.”
Everybody working here tonight is part of the Harlem community, I’m told, right down to the man supplying the bottled water (situated next to the bowls of pesto pasta at the catering table.) The show itself isn’t inside the theatre, (but rather on a brownstone-lined driveway out the back complete with classic cars and singers littering the surrounding fire escapes). Every year, Hilfiger allows approved media and influencers to go backstage and absorb – and post – the glamorous happenings before the show. Used coffee cups, bottles upon bottles of Essie nail polishes in ‘sole mate’ and ‘amethyst noir’, brushes, bronzes; there is not an inch of space on any makeup table at any of the 50 stations. Tommy favourite Sara Sampaio is seated next to new recruit and fellow Victoria’s Secret angel Candice Swanepoel (who will not pose for any photos prior to her makeup being completely done). A pregnant Ashley Graham is purposefully hurrying from station to station and Winnie Harlow is one of the first ready, her sociable self laughing and posing for any photographer requesting a shot.
Gigi and Bella Hadid were also roaming about as guests, the former keeping her distance from her rumoured new boyfriend The Bachelorette alum Tyler Cameron.
Somehow though, while the madness is playing out, it is so rather quietly. Any person in that room only has to glance up at the red curtain to be reminded of the special place they are in. Nichelle Gainer, cultural historian and author of Vintage Black Glamour, spearheaded video footage which was projected onto the stage curtain and celebrated Harlem’s iconic music scene from the 30s through to the 80s.
During a final walk-through of the show’s set, Hilfiger is all smiles. Zendaya though, as polite as she is to meet, is stern-faced. Under the nurturing eye of longtime stylist Law Roach (who was a silent partner in this collection and who also has his head in his hands at this point for reasons unbeknown), the 23-year-old model, actor, musician and now designer is all business as she advises show producers three times her age of what’s what. “Zendaya is more experienced this time round,” says Hilfiger of his second collection with the young star. “But at the same time, this is a little bit more of a sophisticated line because it’s a Fall collection and we’re dealing with more layers and the construction and styling is different when putting the outfits together.”
Growing up in the 70s, if Hilfiger knew the shapes of the era, then Zendaya knew how to sell it to Gen Z by way of a suit. Last night’s Fall19 collection saw a bold and modern take on 70s and 80s power dressing – with 30 looks of the 59 consisting of high-waisted pants. The continuance of burgundy – in lieu of a traditional Tommy red – was given a refresh this season with a velvet canvas, a point of differentiation since it’s introduction to the Tommy palette in Shanghai last year. These warmer hues were mixed with metallics and monochromes in both thigh-high split skirts, glitter-strewn jumpsuits and polka dot scarves.
All in all, while former Tommy collaborators nodded to Southern Californian style (Hello, Gigi Hadid) or sportswear (we’re looking at you Hailey Beiber), Zendaya is by far the most chic – and the one to make an obvious cultural statement and an obvious change when it came to casting the models. “They’re beautiful,” Zendaya says about the women. “I wanted that to be reflected, I wanted the world to be reflected in the show. I wanted the runway to look like the world looks. These models are so talented and make the clothes look so good.”
Before Hilfiger started employing millennial designers, he was known in New York for taking his Fashion Week spectacles to daring, never-before heights. Every show audaciously seemed to one-up the last. We saw the designer ship truckloads of artificial snow into Park Avenue Armory (Hello his après-ski-themed Fall14 collection). He kicked multiple goals (although some critics claim no touchdown) when a football field was transformed into a runway to showcase his Fall15 show. Perhaps though the most spectacular of them all was the dramatic staging of his Fall16 collection; an orchestrated carnival – complete with a giant Ferris wheel – along the South Street Seaport pier in Lower Manhattan in New York City. “The fusion of fashion and entertainment is very us, but now we’re not just dating that idea, so to speak – we’re married to it,” said Hilfiger at the time. (A point of interest: In 2000, the Tommy Hilfiger brand dropped 75% in revenue in a single quarter. Today, it’s a $6.6 billion-dollar empire.)
If home is where the heart is, then New York City in a rich burgundy velvet suit is where you’ll find Tommy Hilfiger. But this visit home, he stands for more – more diversity, more equality. Travel will do that.
Welcome home, Tommy.