As an assistant working during New York Fashion Week, I often found myself compiling an exhaustive mental list of all the runway shows I one day wanted to attend. Where some events stuck around my mental cavities for their beautiful clothing or their buzzy models, others, like Tommy Hilfiger, remained captivating because of their elaborate, wildly extravagant sets. When I finally found myself at my first Tommy Hilfiger show several years later, aboard an absolutely enormous makeshift ocean liner — an ocean liner! — at Park Avenue Armory, I was not disappointed.
Other editors at Fashionista share my fascination for show sets, and we all take great joy in reporting from some of the more over-the-top experiences. (Chanel's fully functional spacecraft at its Fall 2017 show immediately comes to mind, as does the empty Louvre, which Louis Vuitton very dramatically rented out that same season.) Set designers are posed a difficult task: Not only do they have to transform the space into something immersive and beautiful, but they also must ensure that it's functional for the purpose it serves. And now, of course, there are the ceaseless pressures of Instabait to consider.
Randall Peacock, the mastermind behind Tommy Hilfiger's aforemention ocean liners (and football fields, and swim-up bars, and boardwalk carnivals and music festivals...), enjoys this challenge and all its moving parts — and there are many. "Typically, the Tommy [Hilfiger] show is pretty all-encompassing," he tells me in a phone call. "Because it's so detailed, it's hard to have too many other things going on at the same time."
Peacock, whose background is in installation art, cut his teeth working alongside such iconic creatives like Marla Weinhoff and Fabien Baron before working on runway sets, amongst his myriad of other projects. Ahead of Tommy Hilfiger's forthcoming London Fashion Week show, I spoke to Peacock about all that goes into this process (and, while you're at it, how to create that picture-perfect Instagram moment).
How and when do you start preparing for fashion week?
We start fairly early, five months ahead of time, just because it's a vast undertaking — and seeing as it's quite a collaborative process, we throw around several different ideas. Right now, for me anyway, it's the calm before the storm. There's certainly lots of details that we're still working with, but the lion's share of the design work has to be complete at least a month out before the actual event just to make sure we're able to produce the scenery and all the decorative elements that compose the show.
What does fashion week prep look like for you?
Typically, Tommy [Hilfiger] has a creative brief and we start talking with [Chief Brand Officer] Avery [Baker] and [Senior Director, Global Corporate Communications & Events] Virginia [Ritchie] and the KCD team, which has produced all the shows I've worked on with Tommy. We start with a central notion of some sort. I do a lot of pre-visualizations, so we might [come up with] various ideas that answer to that basic premise and then we refine it collectively with [stylist] Karl Templer, Tommy and the creative team. As we get closer, it becomes more focused. But initially, it's big-picture stuff and then it starts to resolve itself.
For example, if you saw [Tommy Hilfiger's Spring 2016 show] that had the little island and the lagoon, that all started with Tommy having this reference of this particular bar that he had been going to for ages, probably 20 years. And he really, really loved Basil's Bar in the Caribbean where he has a house and wanted to reproduce that easiness, that feeling. It's a very, very charming bar in itself, and I think Tommy had a lot of nice associations with it and felt like it tied in well with the collection. So, we start with something like that and then we start to refine it, like what's actually doable. Because in that case, that was at Basketball City, so it was quite complicated to make that happen in that situation because if any water is to get on the basketball court it's a giant problem, for obvious reasons.
On top of designing an aesthetically beautiful space, the set also has to be functional for a large crowd. What goes into the latter?
There's so many considerations — how we move people into the space, how we move people out of the space; all that has to be considered as part of the creative process because it has to be functional, as well as beautiful and compelling.
Generally, it starts with a notion and then we start to figure out how we can do it in a safe and practical way because, of course, we also have a limited amount of time. But true to this process, there's always things that we discover; it's never as straightforward as you imagine. There's always a process of evolution that's collectively bound together, which is one thing I like about this particular project. It's very collaborative, but not in the manner that there's a million people involved; it's more like a few very thoughtful, intelligent people making great observations. We visualize; we make 3D models; we try and render the lighting as realistically as possible so everyone gets a sense of how the experience is really going to be.
With such large-scale shows, I'm always struck by how the set works together with the clothes and the music and the lighting to very vividly place showgoers in another time or place. How do you make that happen?
I think the fundamental element of it is to create a mise en scene, or an experience that transports people. As you move through the space, you have these micro-experiences and you feel like you've been taken away somewhere, just for a few minutes, and transported to this other world. There's a lot of thought about the process of people coming into the space, how [they] move through the space, where the drama happens…
My background is in installation art, so this kind of work fits really well with [my] background. The entire notion of installation art, for me, was to try and mediate an experience in art — [which is] not necessarily always a joyful experience — but nevertheless make people think and direct their eye. There's a lot of aspects to the process that almost fall into the category of a magic show, which I think is really cool.
As Instagram continues to change how people are consuming fashion week, designers are also thinking about how to best present their Instagram moment. How does that affect your job?
I always want to create this "wow" moment or a cinematic element when you walk into a situation. A lot of the stuff that I've learned, actually, [has been] from cinematographers, working on these old Calvin Klein commercials with these amazing [cinematographers] and the way they set up a frame and the way they light. This has all had a great impact on me. The Instagram thing follows that; you already need to be setting up these moments. Something that's inherent to my own process is that you need to have these moments that grab you. Those also tend to be the ones that work out really well as an Instagram picture.
But the funny thing is that there's certainly a lot of frames that aren't so interesting, but by and large, people do tend to gravitate [to the same imagery]. The last show in LA, we had a great sign out in front of the venue. That was one of the big moments; people loved taking pictures of themselves with that sign behind them. You would see them over and over again, and for me, that's success. I'm happy when I've set up a shot for them. It becomes almost self-evident.
People are quite savvy now. They don't just stand in front of a brick wall anymore. They want to make it interesting for the people that are viewing their images, but you need to give them the material to set up a great frame and the vista for that, as well. I don't want the best views to only be available to VIPs. You want to have it be accessible to everyone so everyone can participate in that experience and be able to put that out there.
How do your fashion week gigs differ from what you might work on normally during the year?
It differs a bit. I've moved more and more into design. But I would say that the way I still describe my work is as a production designer. I continue to do fashion campaigns and I definitely do some advertising — I did a commercial recently with Gigi [Hadid] for Maybelline. I love designing sets, so as long as the work is within that realm, that's where I'm really comfortable.
The Tommy shows are unique in that there's so many moving parts. There's theatrical elements, as well, and they can be quite technical, as well as creatively challenging. It's a more complicated clock, I suppose. We may want to do something really badly, but if we can't fit it into the space for a particular show, then [we] have to make adjustments to the design. And ultimately, we all find a successful solution, but that's also what makes it interesting. To me, we're confronted with different puzzles; trying to resolve them in the most dynamic ways is a lot of fun.
Homepage photo: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.