08.23.11

The MLK Memorial’s Fashion Moment

The new MLK memorial celebrates the leader’s legacy of equality, humanity—and stylish dignity. Robin Givhan on the intersection of fashion and the civil-rights movement.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, which will be formally dedicated Aug. 28—on the 48th anniversary of the civil-rights leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech—opens to the public this week.

Of all the individuals and corporations that have given money and lent their influence toward building the memorial, one of the most surprising—yet appropriate—may well be the Tommy Hilfiger Co.

Style, after all, plays the role of silent orator in most every form of protest. And as civil-rights advocates fought for their humanity, self-definition was a fundamental goal. Fashion was essential.

In the 1950s and '60s, when protesters sat for freedom at segregated lunch counters, boycotted buses and marched through the South, they dressed for thoughtful negotiation rather than mayhem. Theirs was a secular cause driven by morality and righteousness. It wasn’t church, but through the protesters' attire, the cause was shown the same reverence and devotion.

The men favored tailored coats and neat ties, perhaps even a fedora for added polish. The women donned dresses and skirts with sensible heels and more often than not looked as though they’d just emerged from the beauty salon.

Over the years, as the faces history made famous have passed away, it’s impossible to fully describe their legacy without giving some attention to their clothes. When Dorothy Height, the longstanding leader of the National Council of Negro Women, died in 2010, her formal hats and suits required a eulogy almost as much as the woman herself. With her words, she called for equal rights. With her clothes, she declared herself worthy of them.

And even now, as a legal battle rages in Detroit over the estate of civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, one of the saddest revelations may very well be that the coat she was wearing that day in 1956, when she held her ground on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, has gone missing. In her mug shot, she looks so prim in her shawl-collared coat, with its horizontal weave, buttoned up high and proper.

Fashion has continued to be an expression of identity, a way of getting others to take notice—whether it is the anarchists with their black T shirts and face-shielding bandannas or disenfranchised urban youth wearing oversize T shirts emblazoned with patriotic hues. Fashion, politics, race, and identity have an insistent relationship.

Few fashion brands have been so closely linked to a modern cultural and social revolution as the Tommy Hilfiger Co. Rappers took its preppy polo shirts, dungarees, and boldly printed rugby shirts and made them their own by wearing them three and four sizes too large. They took the sportswear most closely associated with the Mayflower privileged and reappropriated it, creating a rallying cry for the urban, the poor, the feared.

“In a well-thought-out way, hip-hop kids were wearing their version of a flag,” says Tommy Hilfiger, the company’s founder and namesake. “It’s also very similar to the hippie movement in the '60s, when the flag became a symbol of freedom and revolt against the Vietnam War.”

The King Memorial has been created through the largesse of a host of corporate donors—from Disney and Boeing to the NBA and BP. The biggest sponsorship commitment comes from General Motors. But while retailers such as Walmart and Macy’s have offered support, Hilfiger is the project’s only major fashion sponsor.

“I thought we should be involved as an American company,” he says. “Our image has always been rooted in freedom and America. This memorial is an iconic expression of that.”

Hilfiger got into the fashion business when he opened a shop called The People’s Place in his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., from which he sold hippie gear. “It was 1969, the year of Woodstock, the Vietnam War was raging,” he says. “It was sort of a place for young people to congregate and buy fashion.”

He launched his eponymous fashion house in 1985 with a brazen Times Square billboard that declared him in the same category as industry legends Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Perry Ellis. As it turns out, the advertisement wasn’t an overstatement. The company recently sold for $3 billion.

Hilfiger, whose personal style is more tailored than casual, has a performer’s toothy smile and a politician’s knack for both starched informality and swagger. His official title at the company today is “principal designer and visionary.”

The designer, who is white, has had a close but complicated relationship with African-Americans. Early in the company’s history, Hilfiger was the rare businessman to enthusiastically embrace the predominantly black crowd of nascent rappers, entrepreneurs, and rabble-rousers who loved his clothes. While other brands eyed these black artists and provocateurs with suspicion, Hilfiger put performers such as P. Diddy, Coolio and Naughty by Nature’s Treach on his runway before the pop world had any idea who they were. Hilfiger offered rappers mainstream validation; they sent his sales skyrocketing.

In his advertising, Hilfiger evoked the possibility of multicultural crowds thriving in worlds that were overwhelmingly white. If other designers, such as Giorgio Armani, gave men a way to express savvy and power, Hilfiger gave them a way into the American mythology of sailboats and country cottages. His clothes were not as rarified as Lauren’s nor as suburban as Nautica. His style was both welcoming and brash; it was easily appropriated by an urban market that was looking to see itself reflected in the American Dream.

Despite this symbiotic relationship, however, Hilfiger has been dogged by rumors—wholly untrue—that he once insulted black customers during an appearance on Oprah. The rumors proved so stubborn, the TV mogul invited Hilfiger on the show in order to shut down the gossip. Even now, the Hilfiger company website has a section devoted to diversity, which includes a letter from the Anti-Defamation League in his support.

When I mentioned Hilfiger’s involvement with the memorial to several savvy black consumers—a publicist, a writer, and the like—they responded with a reference to those false rumors, a sarcastic sniff, and the pronouncement that this was an apologetic, make-good endeavor.

Not true.

Hilfiger’s support of the King Memorial began more than 10 years ago. He’d read about the proposed monument in a New York Times story and was awed that it would be the only homage to a non-president on the National Mall. When his business partner, Joel Horowitz, told him that his parents had marched for civil rights, Hilfiger was reminded of his own family. “My father told me there are two important men in the world: MLK and JFK. That always stuck,” Hilfiger says. The memorial, he says, “is meaningful and emotional.”

The company, through its charitable foundation, pledged $5 million to the memorial. When PVH Corp. bought the brand last year, the new corporate parents added another $1 million. Guy Vickers, president of the Hilfiger foundation, also serves as board vice chairman on the memorial foundation.

Securing support for the memorial has not been easy. “It was a struggle raising money," says Hilfiger. "People didn’t just open their wallet. We decided we needed to be more public about it." So in 2007, Hilfiger co-chaired the fundraising Dream Concert at Radio City Music Hall, featuring performances by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. “It was a real turning point, because it brought more notoriety to what we were doing.” Athletes, celebrities, and rank-and-file folks began to climb on board.

Hilfiger will be in Washington for the $120 million memorial’s formal unveiling and to accept an award thanking the company for its largesse. The Aug. 28 ceremony, during which President Obama will deliver remarks, is expected to draw some 250,000 people. They will be situated along the edges of Washington’s Tidal Basin, where the cherry blossoms dazzle tourists each spring. For months, amid the waves of rush-hour commuters and luxury tour buses clogging the capital’s streets, from the far side of a fence and through breaks in a scrim, one could catch a glimpse of the contemplative face of King as it emerges from the “Stone of Hope.”

The statue, which is the memorial’s centerpiece, rises more than 30 feet high and was hewn from granite by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. It depicts King—standing with his arms folded and holding a scroll—looking out across the landscape.

In his imposing dignity and grace, he is, of course, wearing a suit.