The moment the superfamous began filing onto Pier 16 at New York's South Street Seaport on Friday, it was obvious Tommy Hilfiger's fall fashion show was about so much more than the clothes—if it were even about the clothes at all.
Bulbs flashed early as Taylor Swift and her supermodel squad member Martha Hunt glided to their seats, perching next to Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton. Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner followed. The producers cranked up the lights and music, and Gigi Hadid came out blazing in a navy-and-white jacket and leather pants. Spectators jostled, craning for a good Instagram angle.
If the idea was to attract attention, it worked.
The extravaganza was part of a hype train meant to woo younger shoppers and imbue the Hilfiger name with the coolness it once enjoyed. Much of the brand's luster from the 1990s has faded, pushed aside by indie brands, internet upstarts, and fast-fashion stores as shoppers demanded individuality over mass-market normality. Tommy Hilfiger has done well abroad in recent years by exporting classic American style to Europe and Asia, where its retail shops are thriving. Not so at home. Its North American business hasn't posted positive comparative store sales for eight straight quarters. At one point, Hilfiger even considered selling its clothes at Wal-Mart.
For Friday's show, the label, owned by Calvin Klein and Izod parent PVH Corp., had built a carnival on the pier. The Tommy Pier, as the brand dubbed it, marked a new era of fashion show, a commercial event staged for both industry insiders and the public. Fashion VIPs packed half the catwalk; general-admission attendees filed into the other after waiting in line to score a spot. Food stands churned out lobster rolls, hot dogs, and fries. Guests got their nails done, pasted on temporary tattoos, played carnival games, or hopped on rides.
And, of course, there were the the new designs—a capsule collection in collaboration with the 21-year-old Hadid. Red, white, blue, and nautical styles ruled the runway as the models walked the lengthy wooden aisle, with Rihanna and Skrillex songs belted into the night sky. The clothes, though mostly casual, managed to bridge levels of formality, from cherry red tracksuits to long, sheer cocktail dresses. They were safe, wearable, and available to buy immediately—not six months later, as the traditional fashion calendar demands.
Still, amid the overwhelming spectacle, it was hard to concentrate on the clothes, as the women strode past the Ferris wheel under dangling lights.
This was no mere launch party for a new line. Hadid is signed as Tommy Hilfiger's global ambassador, and PVH plans to build its women's business around her. That business now accounts for just 25 percent of Hilfiger's sales; executives want to pull that ratio closer to 50 percent. "It's also a part of an overall marketing strategy to build up our women's business globally," Emanuel Chirico, chief executive officer of PVH, said of the Hadid event at a conference last month. "We think it's a huge opportunity."
Fashion shows were once insider affairs, a place for magazine editors to critique clothes for future issues and for retail buyers to decide which designs they'd put on store shelves. All these things still happen, but at shows like Tommy Hilfiger's, everything—including the clothes—seems secondary to celebrity. In a social media era marked by instant access and shareability, labels are now finding ways to include the public, whether by letting people attend shows in person or by streaming them online.
Hadid is the centerpiece of this U.S. revival effort, using the Tommy x Gigi collection to get young people aboard in a hurry. Compare the Hilfiger fashion show with her usual appearances: A day before, Tom Ford snuck her into the middle of his presentation. And when Victoria's Secret last year picked her to show off its casual Pink line geared at young women, it slotted her like any other model.
But the Hilfiger show was a full-on collaboration, with ballyhoo from both parties for more than nine months. It was about her as much as Hilfiger—perhaps because the label needs her more than she needs it. Hadid gives it instant credibility and exposure among her legions of young fans. "She has an amazing sense of style, but at the same time as being a supermodel, she's probably the most important social media star in the world," Hilfiger, the designer, said on ABC's Good Morning America the morning before the show.
On Friday night, once the last models were off the pier and the congregation had been herded to the exits, gawkers and paparazzi awaited the celebrities outside. A mob of teens—and adults, for that matter—squealed and rushed to get a glimpse of Swift as she squeezed into a black SUV.
As she was whisked away, they turned their gaze to Hadid, now scrambling across the street as a logjam of drivers honked at the holdup. Two frantic parents yelled for their child, who'd scurried off for a closer look in the chaos. And the crowd, weaving through cars, chased Hadid onto the seaport cobblestones until she ducked into a building. They all wanted a piece of Gigi Hadid. Hilfiger hopes they'll want a piece of Tommy, too.