Boy grows up in Iowa. Boy moves to New York. Boy works for Ralph Lauren, Gap, and J.Crew. Boy finally launches his own line, and one season later is nominated for a CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear. Designer Tim Hamilton's story might be what American Dreams are made of, but he wasn't exactly dreaming about amber waves of grain when he conjured up his first solo collection.
The youngest of seven children growing up in Cedar Rapids, Hamilton developed a fashionable way to express himself from an early age. "Wearing stylish clothes, mostly vintage and hand-me-downs, was always sort of a release for me," he says. The now New York-based designer also admits to phoning photographers like Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel to ask them for advice on getting from Apple Pie to Big Apple. "Once our phone even got shut off from all the long-distance calls," recalls the designer, who finally made the move east in 1993, landing a position as a salesperson at Ralph Lauren's Polo Sport store. His look and flair for merchandising led to a design internship, a real job, and then seven years as a designer re-interpreting Lauren's cult classics. "I had the itch to do something on my own while working at Ralph, but it wasn't the right time," he says. Design stints at Gap and J.Crew quickly followed, "I learned so much from Mickey [Drexler], especially about not compromising on quality."
But something was missing, and not just for him. "My friends wanted more iconic menswear pieces." His debut spring collection filled that void by combining classic elements like polos, sweatshirts, and shorts with modern textures and soft-spoken details. A military-inspired thermal in cashmere cotton was reinvented in a bright Kelly green, a navy polo shirt is trimmed in red and accented with handmade bullion metal patches from India, and a reverse seersucker short (white stripes on gray) belongs on the city street more than the courts of a country club. "I wanted to elevate the iconic by making the ordinary more luxurious," he says. "But I also wanted my modern silhouette to be accessible to a wider audience."
His personal and professional background has the industry labeling him an all-American designer, but his aesthetic is not just made in the U.S.A. "The cut of some of my clothing is very European," he says. "I love all the Belgians, Comme des Garçons, and Junya Watanabe, they step out of the box but remain grounded." Hamilton follows that lead with his fall collection, a darker story told not only by the beats of Burroughs and Kerouac, but also through the swagger of a British dandy merged with Parisian street-smarts found by the Canal St. Martin. "That's my Little Rascals moment," he says, pointing to jeans paired with a striped cardi, suspenders and newsboy cap. Some of his moments come from pure utility, like a chunky turtleneck sweater with a removable collar ("turtlenecks always make me so hot"), while others are subtler like shirts that are torqued and pockets that are cut on the bias. "It's about taking those darker moments but finding the luxury in them as well," he says.
Odin, 199 Lafayette Street, 212-966-0026 and Jeffrey, 449 West 14th Street, 212-206-1272; and in L.A. at Douglas Fir, 8311 West 3rd Street, 323-651-5445 and Maxfield for fall.
Designer Tim Hamilton heads for the fringe of Americana.