Q&A: Tommy Hilfiger on Zooey Deschanel, Peter Pan Collars, and ‘Mod-ical’ Style

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When news broke that Zooey Deschanel was designing a collection for Tommy Hilfiger — themed around a nautical-mod hybrid called "modical" — it sounded charming if not a little bit twee. Today marks the in-store launch of that collaboration, titled To Tommy, From Zooey. The collection includes 16 dresses, along with jewelry and bags, and retails between $98 and $199. The Cut caught up with the designer to talk about working with Zooey, '60s icons, and coining new fashion terms. 

How did you link up with Zooey to create this collection?
Well, I met her in Santa Monica a couple of years ago. I can tell she really understood what was going on in fashion because of what she was wearing. She had this vintage outfit on — sometimes you can tell right away. I could tell immediately she had a great sense of style.

Do you remember what the vintage outfit was specifically?
It was a short jumpsuit of some sort. Sometimes you look at people who are dressed in vintage and you think they might’ve made a mistake.

Like it looks costume-y or something.
Right, but then I just thought, Wow, she really gets it. And I also think her show is kind of funny and she’s sort of quirky and cool. So I thought it would be a great idea to do a collaboration. I think she’s got a great sense of style, and I think a lot of young women want to follow her and wear what she wears and they like her expressions and her attitude.

She has this very girly style and self-presentation that is also very vintage-influenced and she’s talked a lot about how dressing in a feminine way is empowering for her. I was wondering what you thought about that, in terms of doing this collection that’s very much inspired by the way she dresses.
It was just really a perfect collaboration because it’s so harmonious. She was very inspirational and influential and I would say very clear about what she wanted and what she didn’t want, so we were able to put it into our blender and mix it with what we are known for and get the red, white, and blue with a nautical influence. It was a perfect balance of her ideas and our ideas blended together.

You share a lot of interests in terms of music and movies. You’re both very inspired by the ’60s. What kind of common tastes did you find?
We were talking more about people. Jean Shrimpton, Mary Quant — I would say, stars of that era. And how they dressed and what it might’ve been like back in the '60s and '70s in London and the King’s Road, when this whole Mod revolution took place. That’s when I was just beginning my business and just starting, so I remember the fashion at that point in time and it doesn’t really exist now. It’s not really out there, but you see bits and pieces of it. We wanted to bring that into one collection. We also coined [the term] “modical,” which I thought was kind of funny.

Was that something Zooey  came up with — that portmanteau?
Yeah, she did. We thought that was pretty genius.

What was the process of creating the collection, in terms of her involvement; the inspirations that she brought and her input in terms of the design process? How did that work?
Well, we showed her sketches, buttons, fabrics, colors — all sorts of things. We also showed her some vintage samples, tearsheets, all sorts of different inspirational objects and pieces. She was very clear about what she wanted and what she didn’t: “I like this, but I don’t like this.” She said, “Can you do those round Peter Pan colors?” I said, “Sure, no problem.” So we put round Peter Pan colors on some of the items. She said, “Can you do six buttons instead of three?” She was really very clear on what she thought would be cool.

And she’s probably fairly knowledgeable about fashion history just from all her experience with vintage. That’s her genuine look — it’s not a stylist’s look.
She’s not just a Hollywood star endorsing a brand. This is a true collaboration where she was working with our design team and very, very specific on what the fit should be, what the pleat length should be, right down to the minute details. It wasn’t a situation where the brand hired a Hollywood star to be the face of the brand or endorse the product. It was really building the product around her inspiration.

With her being in L.A., how did that work in terms of coordinating it? 
We were back and forth. For 18 months, we were back and forth.

So that’s a while in the making.
We really wanted to perfect it.

And you said you’re a fan of her character on New Girl. I know she’s going to be wearing some of the dresses on the show. What do you like about that character’s style? I know there’s a lot of overlap with Zooey’s style.
It’s very similar. It’s not identical, but it’s very similar. And I don’t want to say it’s one and the same, but I would say it’s as close as you can get. We loved that sort of quirky, preppy girl who’s a little bit off. Not perfectly beautiful, flawless, and without personality. We wanted to put the personality of Zooey into the brand.

Who do you see as the customer?
The customer is a young woman who has a fashion sensibility, loves great style, anything that is retro or vintage or recycled from that era. Someone who doesn’t want to look like everyone else.

Is this going to be a continuing collaboration? Is this something you’d consider doing again, working with her?
Yeah. We’re thinking about what to do next, because it’s been very successful. I don’t know if you saw her on SNL. [Deschanel wore one of the dresses in the collection when she joined Seth Rogen for his monologue.]

Oh, yeah.
She looked great on SNL. We went online the day before and the dresses started selling like crazy. We’ve got requests from all over the world. And today is the big launch at Macy’s. So to be honest with you, it’s better than we expected.

Are there other people in that world,  actresses or musicians, that you’d like to collaborate with? Is this something you’re thinking about doing with another person in the future?
We have some things planned for the future I can’t talk about yet. We like the idea of collaborations when they’re right, when they really work in a balanced way. We don’t think that just hiring a famous person to represent the brand is our [goal]. Many people do that. It doesn’t work when it’s not authentic.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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