Launched in 1996, Tommy Jeans has become synonymous with free-spirited American youth and has given us some of the most memorable images in fashion advertising (Aaliyah deejaying on a rooftop comes to mind). Over two decades later, the designs continue to be relevant because the brand stays true to its heritage.
To take a deeper dive into the Tommy Jeans world and its Spring 2021 collection, we spoke to Becca Love, Tommy Hilfiger’s in-house archivist. We talked about her role, how the archives inspire the designers, and – yes – Aaliyah’s iconic ’96 ad campaign.
We also got our hands on the latest drop and shot some of our favorite pieces in midtown New York City.
Tell me a little bit about your role at Tommy Hilfiger.
I'm part of the PVH Archives, which was created to preserve and protect the history of our brands. As the Tommy Hilfiger archivist, I oversee all the components related to the brand’s archive, and that can be really different from day to day. I think the groundwork for the archivist is that I'm the brand historian. My task is to educate. And then also I'm a collections manager. So there's physical assets that are here, like clothing or marketing materials or collectibles, from all different eras of the brand.
I take care of the physical objects and make them available to people for education and for research. When people come in, I can show them a little bit of what the brand has done in the past and connect it to what they're doing now. It's a mix of things where there's the actual history where I have documents that have the dates on them, and then also the lore. It's important to have a really good handle on the attitude of the brand over the years and the stories that have been told that are equally important when it comes to the brand's cultural history.
How do you work with the designers on a new collection?
It's a pretty close relationship. The designers might say something like, “This is what season we're working on. These are sort of the themes for this season.” They then tell me what they're working on, and then I pull garments and reference material. I might be like, “OK, this was the last time we did something that was semi-related to the theme that you're talking about. Here are the pieces that came out of that collection.”
I can then say, for example, "OK, here are the last few times that we have done Western themes in the brand." I’m a fashion historian outside of just the Tommy brand, so then I can say, "Also, here's some history of the ways that fashion has used Western themes in general. And here's where I think you can fit the Tommy Jeans version of Western with this other version of it. Like with the way that, say, Claire McCardell was doing Western wear for women in the 20th century." So then the designers get all of these different things, and then they'll do what they want with it.
It's a really fun relationship. With Tommy Jeans, the DNA of the brand is so strong that there's a lot of self-referential design that happens. Because this is the style that we have done for the brand. It works. It's recognizable. People like it. It feels nostalgic. People know what works for them. But you also want to be making it feel fresh. The role of the archivist is to not just say, "Here it is, do it again." I'm not giving them a stencil. I'm giving them sort of the outline, but then also the pieces that they can unravel and then re-ravel in a new way.
Speaking of Tommy Jeans, can you share a brief history of the brand?
The Tommy Jeans history is so fun. I think for it to make sense, I'm going to jump back a few years before it launched. Tommy Jeans launched in 1996, and the overall brand launched in ’85. So the brand first launches, it's very much relaxed preppy. It's kind of preppy with a sense of humor. Very buttoned-up oxfords and pleated chinos and polo shirts and long-sleeve rugbys. They were modeled off of a kind of country club attire, but then very much marketed for this relaxed, sort of, you can wear it however you want. You don't have to button it all the way up. You don't need to iron the pants. Just wear them to the park. Wear them wherever you want and however you want. So there was very much an encouragement to the consumer to take these clothes that previously had a lot of rules and being like, “These are cute, but these rules are not. So just take it and make them your own.”
And then, I'm sure you know, a lot of hip-hop artists started wearing the clothing. You have people like Grand Puba wearing it in 1992 with Mary J. Blige in a video, “What's the 411,” and they actually name-dropped Hilfiger in the song. And then in 1994, Snoop Dogg wears the rugby on SNL. So this is a whole new consumer for the brand. These are creative people who are taking the clothes and being creative with them.” At that point he's like, "I think I'm going to create a whole division that's really emphasizing this new way of wearing the clothes." Because the clothes are being worn oversized. They were being worn with the most logo-heavy stuff.
He starts to launch Tommy Jeans and as he's piecing that division together, he turns to his friend Quincy Jones. He says, "Hey, I’m starting this line and I want it to be for young, cool creatives, basically teenagers." He's like, "It seems like these hip-hop stars are loving the clothes. I think I need some guidance here on what this consumer is into." Quincy Jones is like, "Well, you should talk to my daughter Kidada." She was fully a teenager, and Tommy and Kidada worked together to basically style out what the kids are wearing. She's like, "This is cool. This is not cool. This is only cool because of the way you can wear it in this way.” She works with him to figure out how they’re going to make Tommy Jeans look very different from the eponymous line. He wanted it to definitely look different. And then the story goes that it was Kidada also that said, "You should really meet my friend Aaliyah."
So then that's how Aaliyah comes into the fold. Tommy wanted to work with the next generation of the youth of America. So he's like, "OK, I'm going to work with my friends.” He works with Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, and has this whole crew of the kids of American stars. Aaliyah is kind of the exception. She's not necessarily the daughter of famous people, but she very quickly becomes the face of Tommy Jeans. And it launches in spring ’96. There's that rooftop photo shoot with Aaliyah and they're all deejaying and she's wearing the pants. That's really what I consider to be the moment where Tommy Jeans blasts onto the consumer's radar.
Amazing. Are those Aaliyah pieces in the archives?
There are a lot of pieces from that photo shoot that we have at the archive. Not necessarily the ones that the models wore; I think a lot of the models got to keep the clothes from that shoot. There's the iconic bandeau that Aaliyah is wearing, and it was actually just a T-shirt that had been cut into a strip and then tied in the back. So it wasn't even a product at the time. It was something that was styled and probably she kept it. But at that point it was just a cut-up T-shirt.
But I feel like that's such a good example of Tommy being so not precious about his creation. He's like, "The point here is that I have taken these styles and I have made them for you to then keep designing them to fit your life." So for him to make an actual marketing campaign that includes mutilated product, to me, is really a testament to how much he was fully pushing the consumer to do whatever they want with these clothes.
There's another example from that shoot: there's Aaliyah in another photo, she's wearing what looks like a red sports bra that has the band at the bottom that says Tommy Jeans, and it's actually men's underwear. That was cut and then flipped upside down and then worn as a sports bra.
I was just mentioning about the Aaliyah bandeau and how we don't have the original in the archive. PVH has a division that is working on basically 3D design where they can take something, even just an image, and produce something, reproduce something, and then actually create it. So we have a recreated version of the Aaliyah bandeau. It's crazy because I've seen this in photos a thousand times, but I've never actually gotten to hold it. And even if it's a repro, it still is really, really cool to me.
How did the archives play a role in shaping the Spring 2021 Tommy Jeans collection?
There are parts both visually and silhouette-wise that feel really, really familiar, nostalgic, comfortable to the consumer. I think the archive with the Summer ’21 pieces, you see a lot of the logos that feel familiar. There's some colorways there that are newer, and that feel very current to where we are right now in terms of what the consumer is looking for. I would say about four years ago, consumers were not really that excited about lighter colors. It was very much like Crayola colors. It was very bold. It's kind of primary colors. And I feel there's a little bit of a shift in tonal colors in this collection.
I don't think the consumer necessarily recognizes when a design has shifted. We have adjusted pieces, even if it's slightly. It's kind of being able to follow where the consumer is going. Even when the consumer doesn't realize that they've moved on to a new color palette. And I think that's where it helps to look back at the previous collections.
Something that's really cool about Tommy Jeans is that you're in the sweet spot in terms of how long we've had a relationship with our consumer and how culture has changed over that time. Thinking about the last year, it's been a really intense year and you can see that in fashion. The effects of this past year on everyone's psyche and everyone's relationship to safety and nostalgia and recreation. That can very much be seen in what is being offered to the consumer now and what the consumer is being drawn to. So, without being overly serious about it, I do think that this collection really excels when it comes to nostalgia and freedom. I think nostalgic freedom is where the consumer is at right now. Even if they might not use that term. They're like, "I want something that feels familiar. I want something that also feels so new."
Nostalgia is a huge part of fashion, but there's almost nostalgia for a future we hope to experience. I think you look at this collection, it's like, "Oh, there's really cute shirts. There's really cute jeans," and I think there's this pining for a freedom that we feel is almost here. And these are the clothes that we want to wear in this future summer that we're all imagining right now.