'Tommy Hilfiger doing a show at the Apollo to celebrate black culture? Isn't he an outed racist who said he didn't want black people wearing his clothes?' This way my reaction, and judging from Instagram comments on various fashion platforms, others' reaction to Tommy Hilfiger’s FW19 see-now buy-now show, the second season in design collaboration with Zendaya. Despite being a journalist, I didn't fact-check, I jumped on the bandwagon. The man is a racist, and that kind of rumor sticks. Except, he's not. This story began with an email that spread about him being on the Oprah Winfrey show at a time when he actually never had, but that later in 2007 been squashed, by Oprah herself when Tommy appeared on the show for the first time, as well as by the Anti-Defamation League.
According to High Snobiety, speaking on Fern Mallis’ 92Y Fashion Icons’ series in 2012, Tommy said: “It hurt for a long period of time, not from a business standpoint, because our business doubled in that time. It went from $1 billion to $2 billion in that time. But it hurt here [placing hand on his heart]. It really made me believe someone was out for me. We really never found the source but hope that at some point in time people will realize it was just a nasty rumor.”
After the pang of embarrassment from the realization that I had believed malicious gossip because it fit my scorned narrative about the world subsided (to be fair, French champagne brand Cristal had then been racist towards rappers) I transported myself back to the late Nineties, and further realized that the Tommy story doesn't make sense. It was middle school, and I was a bona fide hip-hop head who foregone food and saved my lunch money to buy Tommy Hilfiger’s nautical creations, so quite clearly remember that the brand used Aaliyah, whom I worshipped, in advertising. No, it could not possibly have been lost on Tommy that R&B and hip-hop artists wearing his clothes made the brand cool, and gave it its edge.
And yet, there was something about the Hilfiger’s show, made in collaboration with a Gen Z star from California, set among a row of a faux Harlem street of brownstones, that seemed off. Tommy Hilfiger doesn't have the coolness nor the edge it had then, and despite the theatrics, the romanticism and legend of the Apollo, the undoubtable celebrity and beauty of Zendaya, it felt too much like just that: theater.
I asked Jamé Jackson, fashion and beauty editor, and founder of TheBlondeMisfit.com whether she thought the show was authentic and whether any celebration of black culture is a good thing. She replied: "When it comes to culture on the runway, I think this idea of celebration is so layered because we as people of color naturally are wondering if it's coming from an authentic place or not. I don't personally believe that any celebration is good celebration if it comes at the expense of the erasure of the people who helped create that narrative. When it comes to Tommy Hilfiger's show though, I think a lot of hot takes circle around the idea that he became 'pro-black' because of Zendaya; really, Tommy was one of the few white designers back in the '90s who were actually working with Black artists and rappers, and creating space for us once he saw that we were interested in his clothing. He made his clothes, we liked them, he saw we liked them, he started working with us. And while I can't say indefinitely if it's ever been a completely selfless pursuit, I can commend and support a business decision that has an intention to be inclusive before inclusion is a 'cool' factor. For years, Black people have been wearing Tommy Hilfiger. He became a brand that was Americana by nature, but also was a designer we could afford at different socio-economic levels. I think his reception at the Apollo, and the models, and the clothes are heightened because of the work that Zendaya's ambassadorship is doing with the brand, but I don't think that it's off-brand, for him.”
Her judicious remarks alleviated most conflict, until I saw footage from Kerby Jean-Raymond's show for Pyer Moss. Held across the bridge at Kings Theater in Flatbush – Jean-Raymond continued the use of his platform to address the omission of African American narratives in popular culture, as he had done for the last two seasons. For Pyer Moss SS20, titled ‘Sister’, the designer paid homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the ‘30s and ’40s, Tharpe is widely considered to be the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, although her legacy has been significantly diminished in the pages of music history. Apart from the fact that the clothes were far more interesting than Hilfiger’s, the show had emotion, and it had choir, who sang everything from gospel to Missy Elliot’s The Rain. It was goosebump and tear-inducing. It was real.
Writing for The New York Times, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman highlights Moss’s authenticity: “Diversity and inclusion” have become buzzwords of the moment (they are included in the handout at practically every show), but this wasn’t about that. It was about ownership. It was about forcing a deeper reckoning at a time when race has become a dividing line in the country, and embracing a different understanding in order to move forward. That Mr. Jean-Raymond can do it so gracefully, without accusation, and with such multilayered meaning, is what makes him so effective.”
Ultimately, one celebratory take on black culture, does not need to be made wrong for the other to be right. Jackson sums it up: “Pyer Moss is different, and I mean that in as many ways as I can. I do think that both of these shows share some underlying sentiment of reclaiming this Black narrative in spaces that we have always found refuge — Tommy, the Apollo, Kerby, the church — and that Black women and all those identities and layers that come with it can be appreciated and supported. At the end of the day, if it inspires change to happen in the industry, then that's worth celebrating.”