It's a rainy Sunday afternoon in September, and the stage is set for Hugo Boss's most important runway show in decades: the 2019 spring/summer collection at New York Fashion Week. The "stage" is in fact a series of indoor basketball courts on the East River in downtown Manhattan, which have been turned into a vast, minimalist square runway for the event. Every surface is painted bright white, with rich white carpets laid on the courts, as hundreds of guests scurry around in the dark trying to find their seats.
It's my first time at an international fashion week, and the atmosphere is dialled up to 11. Everyone is dressed to the nines, with actors such as Jamie Dornan, Emma Roberts and Henry Golding taking prime position in the 'frow' (the front row) alongside influencers and Instagram stats. Democratically at least half the seats - stark benches marked with blinking digital name tags - are in the frow, including mine. The lights go down, the music blares, and 60 models march past in an ethereal procession of sharply tailored suits, chic athleisure-wear and spritely resort wear in an array of bright blues and blush pinks. After less than 20 minutes, it's all over: months of planning and design reduced to a hail of flashbulbs.
I think there is a new way of wearing the suitIngo Wilts
After the show, I rush through the increasingly steady rain to the nearby Beekman Hotel, where I have a meeting with Hugo Boss's chief brand officer Ingo Wilts, who is responsible for everything I've just seen. We sit under a vertiginous spiral staircase rising a dozen floors to the roof and sip sparkling water. Wilts is the personification of modern smart casual, dressed in a gorgeous suit teamed with a T-shirt and smart leather trainers. This is the ethos of his new collection, dubbed "California Breeze", which signals a relaxed new direction for the traditionally-sober German label.
Wilts admits that he can finally breathe a sigh of relief after the show. "I mean, it was really stressful because this was our first combined show ever," he says. "We have one global concept right now, which affects all men and women … it's one customer."
The 54-year-old began working at Hugo Boss in 1997, and cycled up the fashionable ladder until he left the company to work as creative director for menswear for Tommy Hilfiger in 2013. He was soon lured back to Boss, and now responsible for all creative brand management, public relations and advertising worldwide. After the departure of Boss's womenswear artistic director Jason Wu last year, all eyes were on Wilts to see how he would bring the men's and women's strands of Boss together. By all accounts, it was a breeze.
The inspiration for California Breeze came from a visit to Los Angeles. Wilts visited the iconic Eames House in the Pacific Palisades, where he was moved to create a series of light and airy garments radiating "happiness and positivity". "You look out from the Eames house over Santa Monica Beach and we saw all the surfers, and I had a lot of inspiration," says Wilts in his clipped German accent.
The designs that followed include knitted surf shorts, wide-brimmed hats, coloured sunglasses, nylon trenches, in a pared-back colour palette of pale blue and bright white, oxblood burgundy and traditional navy, with accents of bright orange and neon yellow. Versatile fabrics were also front of mind. "We did a lot of paper cotton, which looks kind of wet ... and a lot of crinkled suits for men and for women. Then there's also a lot of technical nylon in the show inspired by surfwear."
While surf and casual wear is key, Wilts insists the classic Boss suit is not dead, but simply ripe for a remix. "It's really against the trend, but I still believe in suits," says Wilts. "I think there is a new way of wearing the suit ... Boss was typically a shirt, tie, and suit, but I want to move a little bit away [from that]. How you can wear a suit right now is with a crew neck, with a tank top. You know, anything is possible."
When it comes to ties, it's best to think differently, explains Wilts. "If I wear a tie it's always a knitted tie. I think a tie is still relevant accessory, but you use it when you need it … it's probably not what a younger person would wear."
Wilts is leading a push for the brand to appeal to a new generation of consumers: younger and more fashion-forward. "[The Boss man] did not change so much over the years … but we were getting too old over the last few years," he admits. "So we said, 'you know what? We need a younger guy, we need to attract a younger person … Social media resonates more to younger people, so I don't want to look like my grandpa. So, visually we're a little bit younger, but [the key Hugo Boss] attributes - being masculine and strong - are still the same."
The rain continues to beat down outside, and my time with Wilts - and at Fashion Week - is coming to an end. I ask the style guru for one more piece of advice to take home. What's his favourite trend right now? "I really love double breasted at the moment," he says decisively. "All my suits are double breasted, but I combine it with a pair of shorts, it's more in fashion."
Wilts reveals the key items every man needs in his wardrobe:
- A grey flannel suit for winter
- A blue cotton suit for summer
- A perfect white shirt
- A knitted tie
- A great sneaker
- A black leather shoe
- A khaki chino
The writer travelled to New York with assistance from Hugo Boss.