The Politics of Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive
‘For all’ is a branding mechanism that obscures how elites co-opt life-hacks and sell them back to their under-resourced originators as well-meaning do-good.
I keep thinking about a recent Twitter thread by menswear writer, Derek Guy. He was describing collar gaps, which are tailoring faux pas that cause a “jacket’s collar [to] stand off your neck.”¹ I was amused, having had jackets altered to create a gap that alleviates migraine inducing pressure along the nape of my neck. So I shared a picture of a jacket I had customized with a black leather patch — call it a collar gap extender.²
After a few disabled acquaintances responded, I felt an urge to pull our conversation offline. I could see how this alteration would invariably make its way to some brand that would take it up, affixing their trademarked collar gap extender onto some unremarkable Oxford that I would never wear, announcing it as the first of its kind, marketing it for all, but coming from nowhere in particular. Migraine innovations would become the next big thing in adaptive fashion, and this hack that could be traced through me would be sold back to me as a benevolent corporate innovation.
Gaming this scenario helped me make sense of the months I’ve spent doing a deep dive into Tommy Hilfiger’s “Fashion for All” adaptive clothing line.³ The brand launched its inaugural 22-piece capsule in 2016, altering its iconic red, white, and business casual clothes to “make dressing easier” for disabled children.⁴ Pieces were modified with “innovative design twists,” such as seams that open, stretchy fabrics, and adjustable straps.⁵ A year later, Tommy Adaptive expanded to clothe adults in Fourth-of-July inspired khakis and polos for all.⁶
I, however, cannot safely wear over half of the current collection, because the magnetic closures that “make dressing easier and more comfortable” risk interfering with my heart implant.⁷ But that doesn’t mean the brand’s Fashion for All slogan misleads customers. In the world of corporate disability branding, “all” doesn’t mean “everybody.” “All” is a rhetorical device that blurs things people don’t want to explicitly state. In this case it speaks more to the brand’s motivations in capturing a market than it does about the accessibility of the product.
Increasingly used to euphemize disability, ‘all’ lies at the heart of Tommy Hilfiger’s all-American brand. As Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Treva Lindsey explains, all-American “is meant to signal whiteness without having to say ‘white people’ or name whiteness explicitly.”⁸ Similarly, “for all” is a branding mechanism that obscures how elites co-opt lifehacks and sell them back to their under-resourced originators as well-meaning do-good.
Tommy Hilfiger’s family moved from the poor east side to the more affluent west side of Elmira,⁹ New York just before his 9th birthday in 1960.¹⁰ He has said that he is “very grateful to have grown up in such a friendly, all-American community,”¹¹ often describing his upbringing as “Leave It to Beaver land.”¹²
This idyllic portrait fails to reveal the maximum-security prison that anchors this predominantly white, postindustrial town.¹³ Over the decades, Tommy Hilfiger’s narrative has shifted from acknowledging “growing up in a middle-class, white-bread neighborhood” to a rags-to-riches fairytale.¹⁴ A 1938 HOLC redlining map helps explain why his experience of Elmira was so white-bread.¹⁵ His childhood home was located in the only “A” graded area of Elmira, in which there were no black people, no immigrants, and no “infiltration of lower grade population.”¹⁶
The Hilfiger family’s relocation to the West Side some 20 years after Elmira’s HOLC assessment offered them status as early infiltrators. A family friend sold Tommy’s father, Richard, his old house at a price he could afford, so long as Richard rented their home on the east side for income.¹⁷ This is how whiteness grants working class Americans access to middle class security. It is an entirely different American experience from the black families who remained redlined out, but were now eligible to rent from Richard Hilfiger.
Tommy Hilfiger’s mythical tale about creating a billion-dollar empire with 150 dollars¹⁸ stems from the money he saved pumping gas at a Hess station in the evenings after school, which he used to open People’s Place, a clothing boutique with two of his friends, Larry Stemerman and Jon Allen. It is an overly simplistic story, befitting such lore, because “the landlord gave us a very good deal: $50 a month, with zero security” to set up shop in the basement of the shoe store that was owned by Stemerman’s father.¹⁹ Hilfiger had something that offset his need for money, he had access.
My disabled identity has instilled in me the belief that those of us who were born into white socioeconomic privilege may not be responsible for our upbringing, but we do need to be intentional about how we describe it and how we use it.
I believe my role as a designer is not to take, but to root my work in those who came before. This is how I came to debunk the OXO brand origin story that Sam Farber created an easier kitchen peeler for his wife, Betsey, to use. All it took was giving Betsey Farber a call to learn the idea had actually been hers.²⁰ What happened to Betsey is an all-too-common tale, in which a well intentioned savior fails to recognize their own uptake, as they capitalize on a disabled person’s insights.
It’s impossible to glean this from brand messaging, but everything in Tommy Hilfiger’s “groundbreaking new line of innovative clothing”²¹ came from somewhere else. This should matter, but Tommy Hilfiger has learned that “it is the re-creators, the ones who do it really well, who are the moneymakers.”²² The clothes he designs “are the classic American clothes we’ve always worn, but I’ve reinterpreted them so that they fit more easily into the lives we live today.”²³ He describes original brand reinterpretations, such as a green or contrast buttonhole on his shirts, as “classics with a twist.”²⁴
There’s a photograph from the late ’50s of Miles Davis wearing a blazer with a contrast button, as he was “adding the soundtrack to the film Lift to the Scaffold/Ascenseur.” That photograph appears in the book Black Ivy, by cultural commentator and style consultant Jason Jules, and designer Graham Marsh.²⁵ The book tells “an untold story about style. A revolt in style. It’s a story about a generation of people challenging the status quo, demanding racial equality and civil rights. It’s the story of one of the most volatile and incendiary periods in American history, but it’s also a story about dignity and the fight for self-determination.”
Tommy, on the other hand, “wanted to own America! I wanted to be the American designer, and I wanted my clothes to resonate with every American.”²⁶ But these days, Tommy claims his “dream was always to build a brand with an inclusive spirit and democratic philosophy — fashion that everyone can wear.”²⁷ This rhetorical sleight of hand shows how seamlessly capitalist desires can be twisted into inclusion and diversity talking points.
This seems to happen a lot. Recently, Tommy Hilfiger launched the People’s Place Program, a diversity initiative that was named after his first store, and described as having been “shaped by the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.”²⁸ But this conflicts with People’s Place co-founder Larry Stemerman’s earlier claim that “we weren’t rebelling against the Establishment — we were the Establishment.”²⁹
On September 13th, 1971 the Attica Prison Rebellion in upstate New York came to a horrific end when police stormed in, indiscriminately shooting and killing 29 prisoners and 10 of the guards they were holding as hostages as the prisoners negotiated for better conditions.³⁰ Four days later, the Black Student Union at Corning Community College, which neighbors Hilfiger’s hometown, organized a demonstration to protest the massacre and show solidarity with prisoners in the Elmira Correctional Facility who were also protesting “the intolerable conditions — (i.e. beatings and solitary confinement) that prisoners, especially Blacks and Puerto Ricans, are subjected to.”³¹
As Andrea Morrell describes in Prison Fix, “The normative whiteness of Elmira, as a small American city and an American prison town, casts African American students as outsiders.”³² The “increased access to community college for poor students and students of color through open enrollment and affirmative action programs” created “space for this organizing to occur.”³³ These black students used their academic affiliation “to mark Elmira as a place of injustice.”³⁴
Tommy likely would have been enrolled with many of these students before he dropped out of Corning, hiding the decision from his father who had insisted he go to college. Prior to that, he grew out his hair to appear more Rock and Roll, saying “I felt so rebellious. I wanted to disagree with anything my father believed in.”³⁵ Ultimately only one of these student rebellions was decried by the local paper while the other became a spirit that is integral to a global brand whose eponymous founder “had none of the sixties cynicism that affected so many.”³⁶
“In the small town of Elmira New York, a boy was born into an all-American family. The odds of him opening his own clothing store at the age of 18, one in 138,000. Excited to be a part of pop culture, he packed for the big city. The odds of finding someone to invest in his vision, one in 4.5 million. The odds of him achieving his dream in the fashion industry, one in 23 million. The odds of having a child diagnosed with Autism, one in 110. I am Tommy Hilfiger and my family is affected by Autism.”³⁷
Tommy and his wife Dee, both parents of autistic children, joined the board of Autism Speaks years before there had ever been an autistic board member.³⁸ During their tenure, they used his celebrity platform in service of Autism Speaks’ successful efforts to cast autism as a cultural threat in need of early intervention in the form of ABA.³⁹
ABA or Applied Behavioral Analysis was created by Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas, a clinical psychologist who forcefully coerced autistic children to mask their autistic behaviors through such punitive abuses as electric shocks, loud noises, and withholding food.⁴⁰ Having “initiated a booming autism recovery industry,” he went on to apply his methods to the Feminine Boy Project “where he catalogued and developed interventions into the gender and sexual non-conforming identities and behaviors of young people.”⁴¹ This was the birth of conversion therapy.
Conversion Therapy has been so widely condemned, that it is now banned in 25 states.⁴² This legislative response prompted autistic writer and activist Amy Sequenzia to propose “that every time we write or talk about ABA, that we also write or say: Autistic Conversion Therapy.”⁴³
ABA, in contradiction to Sequenzia’s proposal, has been designated medically as “necessary (and therefore, required to be funded by health insurance) for autism.” Autism Speaks played a central role in coordinated state-level lobbying for this legislation.⁴⁴ This designation has created problems beyond the outright abuse autistic children experience during ABA “treatment”, which can consume 40 hours of their week.⁴⁵ Working- and middle-class families are finding it more and more difficult to navigate limited in-network providers and networks that are increasingly caught in the tentacles of private equity.⁴⁶
Meanwhile, autistic children become autistic adults, who, for more than a decade, have been demanding Autism Speaks make meaningful changes, including banning ABA, shifting research priorities toward Disability Justice principles,⁴⁷ and apologizing for the stigmatizing ‘likelihood’ rhetoric used in materials, such as Tommy Hilfiger’s above quoted “Odds” PSA.⁴⁸ This autistic culture of resistance supplanted Autism Acceptance as a “corrective to the negative images of autism that have been prevalent in many autism “awareness” media pieces and events during April.”
But, as Elite Capture philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò writes, “the wealthy and powerful will take every opportunity to hijack activist energies for their own ends.”⁴⁹ Autism Acceptance has now been fully co-opted by proselytizers of Autism Awareness, including Tommy and Dee Hilfiger, who used their April 2022 Good Morning America appearance to promote ABA under the banner of Autism Acceptance.⁵⁰
Tommy Hilfiger partnered with “Runway of Dreams, a parent-led “nonprofit organization working with the fashion industry to adapt mainstream clothing for the differently-abled community” for their inaugural Tommy Adaptive children’s capsule.⁵¹
Its founder Mindy Scheier likens herself to Joan of Arc, believing she is the chosen one to “fill the industry in on this atrocity,” meaning the dearth of adaptive apparel.⁵² According to her, she “gave up everything” to help disabled people. During her Tommy Adaptive press tour, she said “it takes a big mouth to help the industry understand this is a community that has not been served.”⁵³ It was as though she lived in a vacuum where there were no disabled people vying for their chance to do the work of which she had become the spokesgirlboss.
Scheier has recounted the Tommy Hilfiger apocryphal tale of epiphany on multiple occasions, recalling how Tommy Hilfiger CEO Gary Sheinbaum, “slams his hands on the table” and declares, “Hold on. You mean no mainstream brands have ever done this before? Even thought of this population?” Scheier stated she replied with an emphatic “NO”” and then he (either again or her story has changed) “slammed his hands on the table and said ‘We’re in.’”⁵⁴
As Jaipreet Virdi, a historian of medicine, technology and disability and I have outlined, every brand that dabbles in disability has concocted such a story.⁵⁵ “For Zappos, it was a customer service call that “made a lasting impression on our employee.”⁵⁶ For Nike, it was a letter from teenager Matthew Walzer who has cerebral palsy, which stirred CEO Mark Parker.”⁵⁷ A primary function of any corporate apocryphal tale of epiphany is to position the company as being the first of its kind.
In a Tommy Hilfiger sponsored TED Talk, Scheier praised “the most amazing, forward-thinking brand on our planet, who took [her] vision to market and made fashion history by launching the first mainstream adaptive collection.”⁵⁸ But Tommy Hilfiger was not the first brand to launch a disability centric clothing line. We don’t know who, if anyone, was. During the 1960s, fashion designer Helen Cookman worked with high profile designers such as Vera Maxwell and Pauline Trigere, as well as over a dozen major brands, including Levi’s and Lacoste, to incorporate accessible features into their clothing lines.⁵⁹
The endeavor started soon after physician Howard Rusk opened the Institute for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (which would become the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine at NYU) in 1948. He decided his patients could not be considered fully rehabilitated until they could dress themselves, and was looking for a designer who could help. He approached New York Times style editor Virginia Pope, who knew exactly the person for the job. Her friend, Helen Cookman, was a widely respected women’s wear designer, who “had already become synonymous with workwear,” and had aged into disability when her hearing started to fade.
According to UW-Madison design history doctoral candidate Natalie Wright, Cookman presented a pilot Functional Fashions line, the outcome of her residency at the Institute, to a group of reporters in 1958. After a positive response from the public, Cookman and Pope teamed up to create the Clothing Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) to make Functional Fashions available on a national scale.
My journey into Functional Fashions began when Lawrence Carter Long (creator of #SayTheWord), gifted me a copy of Cookman’s “Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped” book that he happened across on ebay. I was so taken by its contents that I reached out to Helen’s nephews, hoping to learn more about her. This was how I learned of Natalie’s work, because she had done the same thing.
I remain impressed by the way Natalie pieced together a comprehensive account of Functional Fashions with limited archival material. We still don’t know where the clothes are. On my end, though, once I learned that Virginia Pope had recommended Helen Cookman for the job, I got stuck. I was utterly fixated on trying to figure out how the thing that was so obvious to Virginia Pope, that this was a job for a disabled designer, had not occurred to Tommy Hilfiger.
My expertise in disability has been so consistently diminished by my experience of disability that I initially resisted sharing anecdotes about my disability in this piece. I have been wondering if this is why Hilfiger claims his “passion for adaptive design stems from the issues his autistic children have faced getting dressed,”⁶⁰ rather than his own experiences of disability. Tommy has mentioned his Dyslexia on occasion, saying in one interview that “I thought when I was in school that I was just one of the dumb ones.”⁶¹
This framing of disability risks alienating the very people his adaptive line is intended to clothe, but Hilfiger isn’t alone in his failure to perceive other disabled people as an audience. As the brand says, “each piece is thoughtfully crafted to ease the everyday, so everyone can express their personal style without the fuss.”⁶² The word “their” tells us that the brand is talking about us, rather than communicating to us. In contrast, the brand speaks directly to the wearer with Tommy’s non-gendered Indya Moore collaboration, stating “We believe that whatever you put on your body should make you feel great.”⁶³
These paternalistic vestiges also fail to value disabled people as collaborators and consultants. Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive partnered with a handful of charities that were founded by family members of disabled children, including the Special Olympics and Champions Place.⁶⁴ Charity corporate partnerships often coalesce around research projects that yield large gifts for the organization and valuable data for the corporation, while disabled consultants who get relegated to the role of user or tester are rarely or barely compensated.
Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive relied on two primary modes of disabled knowledge extraction; focus groups and ideation workshops. We are told “people with disabilities were not just observers in this process; they were invited to be part of the process, helping to beta test products and joining innovation workshops to develop new product designs.” What this means is disabled people may not have seemed passive in the process, but they clearly had no agency. I mourn for my younger self, who would have shown up, brimming with ideas, only to be shown the door I was hoping to get my drop foot in once my mind had been satisfactorily mined.
Our ideas lead to products that are then marketed as ‘giving back,’ which is an emblem of being established that has been concocted to appeal to non-discerning audiences. For some on the receiving end, ‘giving back’ fails to acknowledge the kind of debt one actually owes. These are the politics of Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, an initiative that uses the emotional resonance of charity to solidify its broader hold on the market. It is because of him, and his business elite corpatriots that I have learned to ask myself who I am hoping to impress with my work. They need to start doing the same.
My sincerest gratitude to Dr. Aparna Nair, Dr. Rua Williams, and Aidan Bryant for gifting me the final touches on this piece. To Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm and Nicole Miller for helping me piece it together. And to everyone who contributed throughout the many months it took to research and write.
¹ Guy, Derek. 2023. “A Collar Gap Is When the Jacket’s Collar Stands off Your Neck. See the Gap on Jimmy Kimmell’s White Dinner Jacket. A Properly Tailored Jacket Will Have a Neck That Stays Seated on the Neck, Especially When You’re Standing with Your Arms down (See the Second Man, Mark Cho) Pic.twitter.com/8oir6qjqig,” Twitter <https://twitter.com/dieworkwear/status/1636097508928811008> [accessed 17 April 2023]
² Jackson, Liz. 2023. “You Know What’s Funny? I Have Taken Jackets to Be Altered to Create a Gap, Because When a Collar Sits on My Neck, It Gives Me Migraines. I Had No Idea This Was a Faux Pas. In This Case, I Had a Black Leather Patch Sewn into the Collar of My Military-Style Jacket. Https://T.Co/3nOxnkli1z Pic.twitter.com/xewmixzsbk,” Twitter <https://twitter.com/elizejackson/status/1636134283793379331> [accessed 17 April 2023]
³ Keenan, Elizabeth A., Sandra J Sucher, And Shalene Gupta. 2021. “Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive: Fashion for All,” Harvard Business School Case 522–053 <https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=61423>
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⁶¹ Tommy Hilfiger on “new American Classics” and Why Fashion Is Important. 2017. (PBS NewsHour) <https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/tommy-hilfiger-new-american-classics-fashion-important> [accessed 19 April 2023]
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⁶⁴ Keenan, Elizabeth A., Sandra J Sucher, And Shalene Gupta. 2021. “Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive: Fashion for All,” Harvard Business School Case 522–053 <https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=61423>