Following his bestowment of the Outstanding Achievement Award at the 2021 Fashion Awards, Hypebeast published an exclusive interview with renowned fashion changemaker Tommy Hilfiger. It was an apt article discussing Hilfiger’s place as a foundational figure in fashion. However, amidst the conversation Hilfiger was quoted as saying, “I think I was the first designer to ever do streetwear.” Immediately, this statement sparked outrage amongst Hypebeast’s followers and other streetwear aficionados.
Filling the comment sections under its accompanying posts on social media and the piece itself, as well as flooding Hilfiger hashtags on Twitter, people have been trying to set the designer straight by bringing into the light the true origins of streetwear. Because, unfortunately this is yet again an example of a caucasian, white-collar man taking the credit for something that originated in Black communities, and contributing to the erasure of Black history.
ORIGINS OF STREETWEAR
A term coined by Vision, streetwear isn’t a new phenomenon – the genesis of this seismic shift in popular culture dates all the way back to the late 1970s. It was a subversive subcultural movement that originated out of Los Angeles from beneath the bubbling underbelly of surf and skateboard countercultures. In fact, Shawn Stussy, founder of Stüssy, is often credited with being the catalyst for the whole of the streetwear movement. At first an expert craftsman of surfboards, he branched out into printing simple designs on t-shirts, most notably, his now iconic, graffiti-like logo.
Simultaneously on the East Coast, hip-hop, brought into being by working-class Black communities, was becoming one of the world’s most fashionable musical genres. The graphic t-shirts and do-it-yourself (DIY) disposition of streetwear caught on in inner-city New York – specifically, the South Bronx – and hip-hop dress became the dominant aesthetic of streetwear. Suddenly, streetwear was Black kids with boom boxes and slumped, baggy jeans breakdancing on the streets.
At its advent, it was a largely male-dominated scene and as such, the styles that defined the movement adopted traditionally masculine garments and silhouettes. It was an antidote to the elaborate and sophisticated styles that prevailed at the time.
Sartorial aesthetics varied throughout city districts – from Harlem to Queens, from Brooklyn to the Bronx – but the mechanics remained the same. At first assembled from easily accessible, casual attire like denim, army surplus, workwear, and sportswear, the use of bricolage with these elements made for a new, DIY aesthetic. Borrowing heavily from punk fashion, the aim was to achieve a ‘fresh’ and clean look. As the style developed, crucial components began to include Kangol creases, Cazal glasses, mink coats, rope-chain necklaces, graffiti graphics, hooded puffer jackets, do-rags, oversized denim, and adidas everything, with the most important element falling feet first; ‘fresh’ sneakers – often with loose, DIY fat laces – could make or break an outfit.
At the time, luxury labels like Versace, Ralph Lauren, Gucci and of course Tommy Hilfiger were a dream to people of colour – somewhere you wanted to go, but couldn’t. Luxury labels and department stores didn’t cater to, or care about marginalised consumers – they were afraid of them. These were very suburban, traditional brands that targeted the white customer, and they didn’t want to be associated with anything else. They didn’t want people of colour in their stores and it was clear in the way they were treated because they would be shunned. Tommy didn’t sell in the ‘ghettos’ or in local, Black neighbourhoods. This kind of clothing was unattainable because it was made inaccessible. Wearing luxury as a Black person, before streetwear, was like living a fantasy.
However, in the 80s, there were people called ‘boosters’ who would go into high-end stores and shop-lift. They would then re-sell the stolen items at a largely reduced price point. At times, people would even rob each other; they would take the shoes off your feet or empty your house just for Polo or Hilfiger. Subsequently, garments from elite heritage brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton among others became mainstay for streetwear.
By incorporating these luxury labels into streetwear it challenged the establishment, and became a new expression of Black identity. The streets stole from Tommy and so his work became considered streetwear. And eventually he was virtually forced to realize the potential income and outcome of streetwear, because it was impossible to ignore.
The style came out of the projects, out of impoverished, marginalized places, so there was evidently an insecurity in not having anything amongst Black communities in America. As such, dressing ostentatiously became a defining force at the center of streetwear because it reinforced a sense of dignity amongst Black people that was perpetually being assaulted, and acted as instant cultural capital.
In Sacha Jenkins’ 2016 documentary, Fresh Dressed, Damon Dash, the former manager of Roc-A-Fella said, “What you have on your body is a reflection of how you’re economically doing.” You might not have the best car or apartment, but you would sure as hell be ‘fresh’ dressed because you wanted to be perceived as possessing more than you did in reality. People took pride, and found integrity in the way they dressed and carried themselves. Streetwear was a simple display of wealth and power during a time where not much else could be done or said to express Black rage and unhappiness. When you put on that mink coat and Tommy jeans or Armani suit, you became king.
Fast forward to today and luxury fashion labels across the globe have adopted streetwear as not only a marketing tool but as inspiration and an identity across their collections.
Largely driven by Black culture, streetwear never rose in a vacuum, but instead created a massive cultural shift that gave power to popular music, art and style. It worked to subvert what the fashion industry defined as cool and reimagined what could be made profitable.
In an industry that traditionally operated through a trickle-down effect, where insiders act as the gatekeepers of the latest trend, streetwear subverted this formula within fashion creating an unmatched level of authenticity and a more accessible, democratic model that starts on the streets and works its way up into the higher echelons of fashion.
TOMMY HILFIGER’S ADOPTION OF STREETWEAR
Tommy Hilfiger has served the upscale fashion community with an unwavering dedication to sporty style for almost half a century. What started out as a US$150 investment into a 1970s store, People’s Place, quickly evolved into an eponymous empire. Spearheaded by its founder, an upstate New Yorker with no formal design training, the label has solidified a legacy for fostering and forwarding fashion that reflects the hip-hop music scene and wider cultural movements emanating across the United States through the 80s and 90s.
Tommy Hilfiger was at first a preppy, classic, all-American, brand. At times, and especially at its start, Hilfiger’s brand was viewed as a part of an archetypal conservative aesthetic, also perpetrated by other streetwear adopters like Ralph Lauren. However, Hilfiger’s preppy aesthetic stood out from the aristocratic garments coming out of other labels and instead opted for something more relaxed, with a lavish, oversized vibe dominating his collections.
Hilfiger’s 1985 men’s sportswear debut collection was an assortment featuring fine, preppy garments with his distinguishing logo combining red, white and blue nautical flags forming the letters ‘T’ and ‘H’.
Introduced to the musical universe of rap and hip-hop by his brother Andy in the 80s, there is no denying Hilfiger’s integral role as an expeditor of streetwear. Hilfiger did indeed play a pivotal part in elevating streetwear into luxury in a bid to become the hottest property in the industry. But, he did not instigate the streetwear movement. In many ways, he was forced to adapt to the mercurial landscape of both fashion and culture at the time.
To his surprise in the late 80s and early 90s, Tommy learned that Black communities had discovered his clothing and were wearing it out on the streets. Then, Tommy and his brother showed up and opened up a trunk of clothes to gift to Black neighbourhoods – the hip-hop crowd – like a drug dealer handing out a free hit. Musicians, hip-hop followers and streetwear enthusiasts acted as free promo for the luxury label. They didn’t offer official deals to the artists, but they did make a lot of money off of them. They knew exactly what they were doing.
In his own words, this is when they started doing big logos and sport-inspired, baggy designs. “In the late eighties, there was this thing called hip-hop, and a lot of the groups and rappers began wearing my clothes. When I found out, I then began doing big logos and baggier clothes, and the entire community began wearing them,” he told Hypebeast. Hilfiger riffed off of his own signature styles and those associated with streetwear to mimic the movement by designing even bigger, bolder and baggier pieces with an emphasis on the oversized. He adapted to the scene and the kids that had already created streetwear style.
First, Black kids dawned these garments in the club, then they would appear in music videos and soon the style spread like rapid fire around the globe. Streetwear was catapulted into the mainstream by MTV, television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and artists like Mary J. Blige, LL Cool Jay, and Run DMC who rapped about Hilfiger’s clothes, especially during freestyle riffs. Then, Snoop Dogg’s 1994 SNL appearance, where he donned a Tommy-branded shirt, cemented the brand’s affiliation with hip-hop. In fact, Hilfiger’s association with the genre actually turned away a lot of his typical, white customers, who turned instead to Abercrombie and Fitch or Polo. He eventually offset this loss of business by expanding into Europe. From Aaliyah to TLC and Destiny’s Child, these were the people who really put him on the map.
Hilfiger’s empire was built on his ability to connect the energy and excitement of streetwear with white-picket-fence traditionalism. Meanwhile, Black-run brands were hardly even let on the floor to even attempt to compete. Worth mentioning are streetwear labels like Karl Kani, Cross Colors, FUBU, Vision Streetwear, Walkerwear and Shirt kings – all who came before Tommy Hilfiger.
Hilfiger is indeed a retail force to be reckoned with and he was absolutely one of the men who dressed hip-hop. But when it comes down to the facts, he was not the first designer to do streetwear, but a phenomenal adopter of the movement coming out of Black America. It is inaccurate to credit him as the godfather of streetwear as he is often called.
It’s a sad commentary that the erasure of Black history continues to be such a prevalent issue in this day and age, but it’s time for credit to be given where it is due. In this case, that is to Black communities in America; to the inner-city kids obsessed with sneakers and sagging; to the rappers in New York and the skateboarders in L.A; to those trailblazing Black designers who made a movement so massive it just won’t die; we have streetwear, thanks to you.