The “godfather of streetwear” Tommy Hilfiger paid tribute to the fellow designer Virgil Abloh, describing his death as “a devastating blow to the industry”, as he was honoured with an outstanding achievement gong at the Fashion Awards.
Abloh was “not just a designer, but a true Renaissance man”, Hilfiger said as he prepared to accept his award at the Royal Albert Hall. “He was a student, not just of fashion, but of the whole culture. He loved music. He understood and appreciated architecture.”
Hilfiger described Abloh, who died at just 41, as “a real gentleman. He was kind, and he was also very driven. Not just for himself but driven to make real change in the industry.”
Abloh, the first black designer to lead a luxury fashion house, took the streetwear genre – which Hilfiger pioneered – to a new strata of high-fashion luxury during his tenure at Louis Vuitton.
Hilfiger changed the face of fashion in the 1980s when he took the preppy clothing of midcentury suburbia and, drawing inspiration from the sportswear being worn on the streets of New York, made it oversized and colourful.
“The last conversation I ever had with Virgil, he told me that when he was in high school, he only wore my clothes,” Hilfiger recalls. “That was a huge compliment, because he has great taste.”
The Tommy Hilfiger brand, with its graphic red, white and blue flag-shaped logo instantly suggestive of the stars and stripes, is synonymous with Americana. Hilfiger’s empire was built on his ability to connect the energy and excitement of streetwear with white-picket-fence traditionalism.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Hilfiger launched the People’s Place, an initiative to offer opportunities in fashion to people of colour. “Inclusivity and diversity – this is the subject in our industry today,” said Hilfiger.
“It’s not good enough for companies to put a diverse group of models on their catwalk, if they only hire white people to work for them. We need to purposefully unlock the door of opportunity across design and business to a diverse population.”
The scheme, which Hilfiger has described as an attempt “to do more and to better”, is backing a research study, The Unsung History of American Sportswear, which will spotlight the often overlooked influences from Black American culture on signature Tommy Hilfiger styles.
Hilfiger, dressed for his interview in an unstructured blazer with a top-pocket silk handkerchief layered over a half-zip sweater and striped shirt and teamed with chino trousers and suede loafers worn without socks, believes that comfort is at the core of post-pandemic dressing.
“Comfort is incredibly important now,” he said. “Now that we can get out of our homes and get out we want to wear something new and nice, but we still want it to be comfortable.” He predicted that the metaverse “will have a big role to play” in a sustainable future for fashion, with consumers buying new clothes that do not have to be physically produced, in a new era of “dressing up for a video game or for meeting friends online”.
Hilfiger’s career began in 1969, when he opened his first store in his home town of Elmira, New York, aged 18. His eponymous brand was launched in 1985. Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, said of his award that “his efforts to change the world for the better, combined with his tenacity, collaborations and instinct, is what truly sets him apart”.