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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Race to the runway: the other side of Lewis Hamilton

Away from the track, the F1 world champion unwinds by pursuing his passion for fashion

It’s the eve of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and Lewis Hamilton is the man of the hour. He has already clinched his fifth Formula One Drivers’ Championship title and will go on to secure a record fourth victory in the UAE race. There are lap records to be set, victory parties to attend and trackside photo opps with Will Smith to be had.

But when he hunkers down for a chat in the Mercedes team villa at the Yas Marina Circuit, Hamilton is relaxed, engaged, humble, hesitant, even. I suspect this is because we are not here to talk about motorsports, but instead something that is still fresh and exciting for the seasoned ­champion – his fledgling career as a fashion designer.

An interest in fashion

Recent years have seen the British racing driver become as frequent a fixture on the front rows of fashion shows as he is on the F1 circuit, and as known for his head-turning sartorial choices as his driving prowess. Whether front row at a Missoni show in Milan, Alexander Wang in New York, Burberry in London, or John Galliano in Paris, Hamilton has displayed an increasingly experimental approach to fashion, favouring an audacious athleisure aesthetic that is mirrored in the street-inspired silhouettes now being offered by many of fashion’s biggest brands.

“When I moved to Mercedes, I had a bit more time on my hands to focus on other interests,” the 33-year-old tells me earnestly. “I’d been interested in fashion, but I’d not had the time to go to a fashion show, for example. I ended up going to my first Paris Fashion Week and caught the bug, instantly. I really loved the whole energy; we were moving from one show to another, and I was fascinated with what was going on in the background; what’s the build-up to that eight-­minute show?”

 Lewis Hamilton with Will Smith in Abu Dhabi. AFP 
 Lewis Hamilton with Will Smith in Abu Dhabi. AFP 

He acknowledges that his own ­personal style is bold – loud, even (when he shows up for his official championship party at The Abu Dhabi Edition on Sunday night, he is wearing gold-flecked shorts and a hoodie from Gucci with the words “Dapper Dan” emblazoned across the back in thick gold lettering). As a youngster heavily into basketball and hip-hop culture, he says he tended to play it safe, favouring the baggy styling of the rap stars of the time, and only really came into his own, fashion-wise, in his mid-twenties.

“I like louder things. My style has ­always been street, but once I started to earn some money, I started to look at the higher-end brands, and I’d always mix it up. I’ve always said that my style is urban chic. I like quite bold looks, always risk-taking. But it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I really started to understand how I wanted to dress, and the things that I do and don’t like.”

Collaborating with Tommy Hilfiger

Early on, Hamilton started attending Tommy Hilfiger shows, recognising that it was a brand that was tapping into popular culture in new ways. Recent years have seen Tommy Hilfiger enlist global ambassadors such as Winnie Harlow, Hailey Baldwin, Gigi Hadid and, most recently, Zendaya, to speak to a more youthful, diverse, fashion-forward, Gen Z audience. “I realised that this was a brand that’s really coming with a lot more new energy, really tapping into young culture again and really on the up … I generally always loved what Tommy did in the past. There was a period of time when they were super-cool, quite urban and street, and then they went through a preppier stage, and now they are coming back to a more urban culture, and I love that. Also they have lots of cool colours – and I love wearing colour.”

Hamilton was surprised to discover that the brand’s eponymous founder knew who he was. “I met Tommy, I guess in the early stages of going to the shows, and he was always so pleasant. I didn’t know that he would even know who I was, because the fashion circuits are all focused on the fashion world; they are not necessarily too focused on sports.”

And then Hilfiger approached ­Hamilton to become a global ­ambassador for the brand and ­collaborate on three capsule collections. Hamilton didn’t think he was serious. “I was like: ‘Thank you; that’s very nice of you’, not thinking he meant it.”

But mean it Hilfiger did, and in September, the Tommy Hilfiger x Lewis Hamilton collection was unveiled in Shanghai, in a star-studded runway show that Hamilton put together himself. The 70-odd piece collection is studded with 1990s references, racing motifs and more personal elements that nod to Hamilton’s body art or lucky number, 44. It’s an expansive, colourful offering, featuring everything from clothing to backpacks, caps, footwear and even underwear and socks – but Hamilton points to a parka coat as one of his favourite pieces.

“It’s a jacket that I wanted when I was really young but couldn’t afford, but some of my friends had it. I remember being at school and all the money was going on racing. These kids were showboating, and I couldn’t have that cool jacket – and now, I’ve designed my own one.”

A further two collections with ­Hilfiger are in the pipeline – the second has already been signed off, but Hamilton admits to being slightly nervous about the third. “I think because you get so involved in it and you just want people to enjoy it and like it.”

What's next?

While Hamilton had to juggle to time the launch of the collection with the end of the racing season, he says that it has always been important for him to have interests beyond the world of racing. Furthermore, this collaboration has given him some clarity in terms of what he would like to do in the future.

“It’s always been super-important for me to be able to do something outside of motorsports, because you can’t wake up thinking about racing every day. For me, I really find that tapping into my creative side is what makes me happy. It’s not a bad thing, but I know racing like the back of my hand. I could stay here for the rest of my life, not racing, but involved in the sport in some way. But that would be easy for me. I like being challenged.

“I’ve always loved music, so I thought music might be the direction. But then I started going to fashion shows. I didn’t think that I’d find something else that I’d love as much as music. But this is that next thing.”

There’s a universality to both fashion and music that resonates, Hamilton says, before referencing an unlikely role model. “I feel like music is the universal language. If you go to any country in the world, I love that everyone is able to relate to it. I really admire someone like Mr Bean, who is probably the most genius comedian of all time. And he didn’t say a single word, in any of his shows, and in every single country, everyone can understand what he’s doing. Which is amazing. I love that creativity.

“When you go to fashion shows, there are people from every culture, and all walks of life, speaking different languages, and everyone has a different style. That, for me, is really interesting,” he explains.

So, what would a Lewis Hamilton clothing label look like, and how would he set himself apart in an already crowded marketplace? “I ­haven’t figured that out yet. Hopefully, I’ll be on the pathway in the next couple of years, maybe? How do you make it stand out? That’s the million- dollar question.”

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