She’s got 22.6 million Instagram fans following her every move and desperate to buy whatever she eats, drinks and wears. Polly Vernon meets the 21-year-old social-media phenomenon
The funfair that twinkles for one night only – Friday, September 9 – on downtown Manhattan’s Pier 16 is an absurdly perfect one, a dream of what a funfair should be, but generally isn’t, on account of the lingering dodgy types and the nagging possibility of health and safety issues with the rides. But not this fair. This fair is lit by fairy lights, its wooden slatted lengths are studded by picture-perfect Wurlitzers. It has burger bars and juice bars and two types of tattoo parlour (one for real tattoos, one for fake), and it’s overrun not by bored teens looking for escape from school, but by a large crowd of very well-dressed women. They are fashion editors, fashion-related celebrities and style bloggers, and they are here not for the rides, and certainly not for the free burgers, but rather because Pier 16’s funfair is the setting for New York Fashion Week’s most anticipated catwalk show.
The Tommy x Gigi collection is a collaboration between the fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger and a 21-year-old model called Gigi Hadid. And it is anticipated for two reasons. One, because it represents an upheaval in the mechanics of the fashion industry. Traditionally, fashion shows work out of kilter with the current season, showing collections they’ll bring to consumers six months on. Under normal circs, then, this collection would be a showcase for Tommy Hilfiger’s spring/summer 2017 offerings.
But it isn’t: it’s current. Every item worn by every model at this evening’s event will be immediately available to buy online; shoppers streaming the show on tommy.com can click on models as they walk the length of the pier to buy their outfits. It’s a test drive for what the fashion industry refers to as the “buy now, wear now” catwalk concept, and while it may sound like a small tweak in the way things run, it is actually pretty fundamental. It does away with the idea of fashion seasons, for starters, and it does that in the name of responding to today’s consumers’ increasing inability to delay retail gratification for a few hours, let alone a few months. It is a big deal.
The second reason this show is a big fat deal is Gigi Hadid. You may not have heard of her, but trust me when I tell you, everyone you know under the age of 25 has. Hadid is catnip to the young, famous in all the ways this generation respects. She is one of the most successful models of the moment, the face and body that, you will soon realise, adorns every second billboard and bus towards which you cast a cursory glance … She’s the sister of another model (19-year-old Bella), daughter of a reality TV star (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Yolanda Hadid), best friend to pop star Taylor Swift and (yet another very successful model who is also a reality TV star) Kendall Jenner, girlfriend of former One Direction member Zayn Malik – and, perhaps most significantly of all, an Instagram sensation.
At the last count, Hadid had 22.6 million followers on the social media photo-sharing site. That’s 22.6 million young consumers, all desperate to know everything there is to know about her, desperate for an update on Hadid’s life, desperate to learn where she is right now, what she’s doing – “Just waiting for whatever she offers them,” Tommy Hilfiger tells me, his voice filling with absolute awe. “They would want to eat the same sandwich; they would want to drive the same kind of car. They want to go to the same restaurants she goes to. They want to know what music she likes, so they can put that on their playlist.” And they would certainly want to buy the clothes that Hadid not merely wears, but has had a hand in designing. Short skirts, cute stripy sweaters and platform sandals by their Instagram icon. Hadid’s Instagram feed is one of the most powerful marketing tools available to businesses – which is why Hilfiger conceived of the Tommy x Gigi collaboration in the first place, of course.
But forget all that for a moment: the buy now, wear now catwalk at the funfair is starting. The fairy lights are lowered; floodlights are raised. Hadid’s friend Taylor Swift has just arrived and we are urged by the PA system to take our seats. Two thousand members of the public who won tickets to the event via an online lottery (the public are not usually welcome at ready-to-wear shows, but Hilfiger wanted them here in the name of “democracy and disruption”) discover they don’t have seats at all, and must be content to watch the show from just behind the fashion editors and the celebrities, but that’s OK …
The crowd grows hushed, simultaneously raising smartphone cameras to capture the moment for digital posterity, and then Gigi Hadid appears: 5ft 10in, a golden tanned body that looks thin to me, though internet trolls once denounced it as too fat for the runway (Hadid struck back on Twitter with an impassioned plea against the culture of body shaming), clad in leather trousers and heeled ankle boots, a brocade jacket over a T-shirt with an anchor on the front. Her hair flows mermaid long and her legs strut. (Trolls also once attacked her for her “weird walk”. Hadid was upset, but then Naomi Campbell practised it with her in a hotel corridor, telling her, “Don’t apologise, don’t do it. You are perfect the way you are. Everyone said my walk was weird.”).
And goodness, she is lovely. Brooke Shields meets Brigitte Bardot, the epitome of all-American beauty, with something more exotic thrown in for good measure – the genetic legacy of her Dutch mother, Yolanda, and Palestinian real-estate developer father, Mohamed Hadid. The crowd goes as politely wild as a fashion show crowd ever goes, and Gigi walks on.
People want to eat the same food as Gigi, drive the same car, go to the same restaurants
I’d met her – and her 65-year-old designer mentor, Tommy Hilfiger – earlier in the day. I’d travelled from London to New York on the promise of a 20-minute audience with her, and a further 20 minutes with Hilfiger. This isn’t very long. Generally, you expect an hour with an interview subject – and you’d probably allow extra time for a model. Models are tricky interviewees. Not because they’re stupid, but rather because they are almost always very young. They may be living extraordinary lives, bouncing from one bizarre experience to another, but they have nothing much to compare it with, no context or experience.
Hadid doesn’t even have the benefit of an ordinary background, so there’s no rags to riches story to tell. Jelena Noura “Gigi” Hadid was born in 1995 and raised in Los Angeles in gilded privilege by Yolanda and Mohamed, and then by her mother’s second husband, music producer David Foster. She started modelling at two for Guess, but packed it in at nine, because Yolanda wanted her to focus on school, volleyball and horse riding, at which she is incredibly good (though not as good as her sister, Bella, who’d hoped to win a place on the 2016 US Olympic equestrian team before illness intervened). Hadid has never known anything but the highly glamorous, high-profile world in which she now operates professionally.
Yet Hadid is interesting enough to get me on a plane. She represents something bigger than just another rich girl turned big-deal model. She represents a new, incredibly potent kind of celebrity, one born of social-media supremacy. The modelling career is just a nice sideline.
I watch Hadid and Hilfiger at the Tommy x Gigi press conference, held in advance of the Pier 16 funfair, at a midtown classical music venue. Gigi bounds on stage and giggles. She seems breathlessly excited by everything, in no sense jaded, in no way too cool to care. She is not cool. She does care. Her voice is surprisingly deep and a little warbling – she sounds like she might be about to burst into tears quite a lot. When she discusses the process of designing Tommy x Gigi, she talks about how, “I wanted to take it to a nautical place, because I love boats, but then it’s also hippy chic and sporty streetwear and Tommy is just the best to work with, and I had this idea at 5am to get my nails painted with the Tommy flags, and look!” She waggles her Hilfiger flag-embossed manicure at the assembled crowd of 60 or so members of the international press, and they all go, “Ahhhhhhh!”
The whole display should seem anodyne and vapid. Technically, of course, it is: anodyne and vapid with an intensely corporate impulse to Just Flog Clothes at its core. But there’s something about Hadid that somehow gives it charm. She absolutely believes all this, she believes it to be truly fun and exciting and worthwhile, and really, who am I to deny that?
I tip up at Tommy Hilfiger’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue a couple of hours later, armed with a lot of questions for Hadid – more than my allotted 20 minutes will allow. I want to know how she deals with rejection (she was turned down for the Victoria’s Secret catwalk show twice before she was finally cast).
I want to know if she recognises her power, her capacity to sell stuff. I want to know if she’s ever tempted to exploit it, if she ever has exploited it, or if she ever feels exploited by the blatant eagerness of others to tap into it – people like Tommy Hilfiger, for example.
I want to know if she considers herself a feminist. Hadid is part of a famous, powerful, definitively female set, one which includes Taylor Swift and Kendall Jenner and is celebrated repeatedly in group selfies on Instagram, and also in the video for Swift’s 2015 single Bad Blood, which starred a roster of famous girlfriends dressed as superheroes (Hadid was among them, inevitably). Hadid has said, of her all-female friendship group: “A lot of women in the entertainment industry are really supporting each other and showing that it’s less cool to be mean than it is to be nice. I think that that’s a unique thing to our generation.” Does she recognise this as feminism, though? As an incarnation of the idea of sisterhood? Or not?
She seems breathlessly excited by everything, in no sense jaded, in no way too cool to care
I want to know if she has a policy on only ever dating other famous people – before Hadid became involved with One Direction’s Zayn Malik a year ago, she had relationships with the pop star Joe Jonas and the pop star Cody Simpson. I want to know about the stalker she had, who tried to break into her New York apartment five times in 2015.
I want to know if she’ll return to the degree in criminal psychology she started three years ago at the New School university, New York, but abandoned when modelling stopped being the part-time gig she’d intended it to be. I want to know if – given the riches of her childhood – she feels the compulsion to earn more money.
As I say, that’s a lot for 20 minutes. But, oh dear, it’s far too much for the five minutes and seven seconds that I actually end up getting with Hadid and Hilfiger together.
Here’s how that goes:
Me (as I’m ushered into the shopfloor area in which Hilfiger and Hadid are seated, surrounded by the fruits of their joint designing endeavour): “Hello!”
Gigi Hadid: “Hi!”
Tommy Hilfiger: “Hi!”
Me (somewhat anxious, aware that it’s 2pm, that my subjects have been giving interviews for the past couple of hours solidly, and that an empty stomach can disrupt conversational flow/destabilise moods):
“Have you two eaten?”
TH: “No. It’s OK.”
GH: “We’re getting lunch and naps in car rides!”
Me: “So, stuff that can be eaten in transit only?”
GH: “Yeah! Like a Starbucks sausage [and] egg sandwich, which is what I had for breakfast.”
TH (incredulous): “Did you?”
GH: “Yeah! In the car! With all my make-up done!”
Me: “OK. Look. I think we need to do the entire fashion world a favour, and come up with an alternative word for ‘supermodel’, because I feel like you are one, Gigi …”
GH (with gracious acquiescence): “Thank you.”
TH: “I think she’s a superstar. Yeah. She’s a superstar. She’s a star in many ways. Not only as a model, but as a person. As a creative person, she really did this collection, she really, really focused in on creating it, and guiding us in this direction, making it very cool …”
Me: “How does it feel to hear that, Gigi?”
GH: “It’s like, I have been teary-eyed all day! I’m a very emotional person, but when I hear that … It’s like, so crazy. I just, you know, really wanted to make sure I put everything I had into this, and I knew if I didn’t give it every second, like, as my eyes were closing, the eighth hour in the studio, if I didn’t give everything, then I would regret it later.
Me (to TH): “Is it everything you wanted?”
TH: “It was really way more. Because I’ve worked with a lot of people in the past. Beyoncé to many of the supermodels. Naomi. Kate. You’ve been in the business as long as I have, you’ve obviously experienced a lot of … Gigi is unique in that she is, obviously, as I say, a superstar, but her social-media following is beyond. So she has a fanbase out there, who are waiting for whatever she offers them … So. She is an influential pop cultural icon!”
Me (to GH): “You’re a powerful person, aren’t you?”
GH: “Ummmm …”
GH: “Ummmm …”
TH: “She won’t say it. But, think of that: she’s a pop cultural icon.”
GH: “I don’t even know what to say.”
TH: “On the list of what she does, you could also add: nice.”
I’d read the “nice” thing while researching her. She does seem to exude nice – it vibrated off her at the press conference – and I’m wondering if it’s perhaps the deciding factor in her social-media resonance. In theory, Hadid – with her looks and her background and her pop-star boyfriends – should be supremely unrelatable for girls and young women; threatening, the embodiment of everything they will never be. And yet, millions of them do relate to her, aspire to her. Perhaps this is the consequence of Hadid’s niceness?
The triumph of it? She makes a tiny gesture during our five minutes and seven seconds together that does strike me as nice. She sees me looking nervously at my tape recorder, watches me push it slightly forward towards Tommy Hilfiger, who speaks very quietly, so she picks the machine up and holds it closer to him, a move that manages simultaneously to convey deference to Hilfiger and a willingness just to make things easier for everyone.
GH: “Oh, that’s awesome!”
TH: “Think about it. A lot of people become superstars and it goes to their heads, and they forget their friends and they think they’re cooler than life. This isn’t Gigi. Gigi has her feet on the ground.”
Me: “Is she the nicest person you’ve ever worked with?”
TH: “By far.”
GH: “THANK YOU!”
TH: “There are some horror stories, about others, that I won’t even go into.”
Me: “Oh, please do!”
It is at this point that a Hilfiger employee winds up proceedings. Hilfiger and Hadid need to be somewhere else. Tommy Hilfiger apologises for the briefness of our interaction; Hadid returns my tape machine. I’m done.
Back at the Tommy Pier fairground-cum-catwalk show, other models, lesser models – 72 in total – wearing the Tommy x Gigi range, walk the slatted planks of the runway, trailing Gigi Hadid. I’d seen the clothes at the Fifth Avenue shop, and in an advertising campaign in which several Gigis in several outfits interact with each other on the deck of a ship, doffing their peaked caps at one another through portholes and so on (“So funny! All those mes!” Hadid said, during the press conference screening), but they get more life again at the show. They are actually rather nice, nothing revolutionary, nothing that’ll scare the horses. They are inevitably young-skewing. The tops are cropped, in the interest of showing off sculpted abdominals like Gigi’s, or hooded and velvet, or sporty and sateen. Skirts are very short, boots are thigh-high.
Everything has something on it: either nautical designs (the leather jackets are studded with anchors, the pea coat has faux honour stripes on its sleeve), or some iteration of Gigi’s name is scrawled somewhere, somehow. This collection screams its provenance, and I’d take this to be an indication of craven narcissism, if I hadn’t met Hadid, and realised it’s merely the move of someone who knows the power of her personal brand, and wouldn’t dream of not exercising it. It’s expensive: £410 for a pea coat, £125 for a sweatshirt with an anchor on the front, and given that it’s aimed at a young and typically broke audience, I wonder how that will pan out commercially. But yes. It is definitely rather nice.
The show ends, Hadid and Hilfiger walk their runway together, chins high, triumphant. I watch them, and finally understand what this show actually represents – what Hadid represents. She’s the future of fashion, isn’t she? Along with her contemporaries with big social-media followings (Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne, Candice Swanepoel, Karlie Kloss), Gigi is the future of commerce. Models with as much, if not more, clout than the designers for whom they work. Models without whom those same designers simply won’t sell clothes; certainly not in a few years, when those of us who haven’t lived our lives online, who still don’t really know what SnapChat is, start to die off. Models with more reach and impact than any advertising campaign has had, or will ever have; models who can access millions upon millions of consumers, just by firing up their iPhones.