Opinion: All in the Family

“How can you not hate these people?” my 20-year-old son asked after surveying “Meet the Hilfigers,” the family stars of “The ultimate tailgate,” Tommy Hilfiger’s latest campaign.
The photo he saw consists of 15 blonde-ish model types wearing an assortment of rugby shirts, pleated skirts, signet rings, pinstriped suits, orange pants, duck boots, cable-knit sweaters and camel-hair everything, all arrayed around a Jeep Grand Wagoneer. The shot has a slightly off-kilter look — Mumsy might have had one too many Bloody’s and cousin Max seemingly couldn’t stop playing with his hair — so perhaps it’s meant to portray an old-money family on a messier, more recession-aware day. This group might have even trooped out to — horrors! — New Jersey.

It’s all pretty amusing. I don’t hate them. I even get an interesting, quasi-Royal Tenenbaums vibe, but without that family’s genius and extreme mental illness. (You can learn all about the family on Tommy.com.)

The multimedia, multi-generational fall campaign, directed by Trey Laird and beautifully photographed by Craig McDean, is not particularly original. In recent memory there was a similarly prepped-out fictional family featured in an ad campaign for Kate Spade. (I think they also rocked a Wagoneer, that essential totem of old-time Waspiness.)

As Americans, we tend to get excited, much like dogs, when we see a packed-up vehicle (the National Lampoon Vacation movies were based on this same idea). This one even includes some Astroturf and skis. And when it comes to classic Anglo worship and the concept of kinfolk on a journey, Ralph Lauren, of course, got there earlier. It’s been almost 30 years since he showed a gang of models glumly sitting around the porch of their (unheated) ancestral cabin in the Adirondacks, warming themselves with their red plaid blankets, ancient skis stacked to the side next to the huskies, toasty in the knowledge that their trust funds had not yet been tapped out.

Of course, Lauren hardly invented the classic prep style. Born in the Bronx, he was merely smart enough to translate his vision of British sartorial upper crustiness into timeless sportswear for monied Americans. His success came (mind-blowingly) full circle when Princes William and Harry — actual polo-playing royalty — started to wear Lauren’s polo-bedecked polo shirts.

With “The ultimate tailgate,” the more affordable Tommy Hilfiger brand (bought by Phillips-Van Heusen for $3 billion in May) comes full circle as well. While the designer himself told WWD that “this is the first campaign to truly capture the brand’s 25-year heritage of twisted, pretty American sportswear,” he’s been done with the oversized urban streetwear phase for a while.
The campaign, and the line itself, certainly suits the trend toward retro and nostalgia. In the same issue of Vanity Fair that includes a “The ultimate tailgate” gatefold, there’s a piece called “The Official Preppy Reboot,” an excerpt from True Prep, Lisa Birnbach’s follow-up to The Official Preppy Handbook, which came out 30 years ago.
Interestingly, in terms of the campaign, Birnbach writes in the article that lo these many decades later, “we are all interconnected, intermarried, inter-everythinged.” And perhaps that’s why the Obamas provide the most bona fide examples of preppies these days. And that’s also where the good craziness of the ads comes in.

While it’s weird to see this made-up family — though not as weird when considering that Hilfiger himself is in a new marriage and has a toddler son in addition to a handful of grown children, one of whom is a white rapper — if you’re going to make a family up, you might as well use as many great-looking models as possible and not worry about how they’re related.
The models go by their own, mostly high-falutin’ first names, like Issie and Heloise, which, in this case, works out great, except for possibly Max I and Max II. (They’re explained as the “von Hilfigers from across the pond.”)
On the hit show Brothers and Sisters, with Sally Field as the mom, the producers didn’t worry about anyone in that family looking alike, either. And chances are, in a crowd as large as the Hilfiger clan, there will be someone with whom to identify. For me, it was Luis with the Sideshow Bob hair. According to his little “bio” blurb on Tommy.com, he’s an exchange student from Portugal who never left, and Mumsy is quite taken with him and his Ibiza techno-trance house music.
The background — complete with school failures, and problems with drinking and the law — is worth reading. In the too-precious department, I could do without Eric’s headdress and orange feathers, explained by his interest in “decorating the family table for Thanksgiving.”

The clothing is as layered as the stories, and we get lots of great-looking pieces. And I love the design of the new logo, written in capital letters across a red, white and blue grosgrain ribbon belt. Yes, the logo is smaller (and not at all obvious on the clothes), which is a real improvement.

True preps, as Birnbach points out in her new primer, are really cheap. They fly coach and keep getting their worn-out Belgian shoes resoled. But fewer and fewer exist along the Wasp lines these days. The prep “ideal” has been replaced with both reality shows and fictional ones like Gossip Girl in which the blondes flaunt thousand-dollar handbags and shoes.

This campaign nicely bridges the old and new, and with humor, too. I was going to write that you’d never find someone like Snooki dead in any of this prep-wear, and then I saw the print ad in Harper’s Bazaar (the best, by far) showing the lower half of a couple in the back of the Wagoneer, he in orange pants and she in over-the-knee, tie-up duck boots — L.L. Bean meets S&M. The Snookster would indeed go for them. Maybe daddy Bernard, too.
And maybe there’s a whole new strain of von Hilfigers living in a castle in Germany for the next iteration — Das Boot. Truly, the possibilities are limitless.