A Conversation with Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger is an American fashion designer, businessman, and an existing proof that the American dream can be achieved. His clothes are classic, cool, and preppy. The extremely successful 60 year old designer sat down with Fern Mallis at 92Y for a conversation about his journey and experiences on his way to become the success story he is today. “I take American inspiration and incorporate that into clothes,” Hilfiger says simply. His clothes defined American fashion in the early nineties. The red, white, and blue casual wear appealed to the masses, and especially celebrities. “We were creating a brand new trend with big logos and looser clothes. We twisted the preppy look into a modern look.”

Aailyah, 1997                                    Snoop Dawg, 1992                            Michael Jackson, 1995

Celebrities played a big role in building the Tommy Hilfiger brand into a household name. Beyonce Knowles, Enrique Iglesias, Rebecca Romijn Stamos, and Aaliyah are just a few of the Tommy Hilfiger celebrities in ads in the nineties. “I use fame as a marketing vehicle. F is fashion, A is art, M is music, and E is entertainment. I wrap my brand around popculture. Hollywood, art, rock n’ roll, it’s all inspiration.”

But Hilfiger didn’t just wind up in the fashion business. He worked his way into it with years of hard work. He started his first business when he was a senior in highschool, living in Elmira in south central New York. The small town is home to his first fashion store, People’s Place. In 1968, nineteen year old Tommy ran People’s Place in a downtown basement, painted black, with incense always burning. He and his friends would drive into Manhattan in a beat up Volkswagon and go shopping in the Village, looking for excess merchandise. “We would buy $5 jeans and stonewash them, cut them up, decorate, and embellish them, and resell them for $12 dollars.” Eventually he opened up more stores in college campuses around New York, building up marketing by knocking on dorm room doors, putting up fliers, and holding fashion shows on the street. But at age 25, the business went bankrupt. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Initially, I should have paid attention to the business. The bankruptcy is something ill always regret. I don’t regret much. All of the obstacles, pitfalls were a great learning experience.” Bankruptcy was his excuse for Hilfiger to get up and move to New York City to start designing his own clothes. During this time of freelancing and fighting for survival in the dangerous fashion world, Hilfiger says he was thinking, “At some point, I will be able to start my own brand. Somehow, someway.” Eventually, after years of working for other people, Hilfiger caught a break and found someone willing to finance the start of his company. This was the start he needed to work his way into the closets of America. “I set out designing a collection of clothes for everybody. I didn’t go into couture, because I wanted to go into a business where the clothes are affordable, accessible, and inspirational. I want the clothes to last and for people to wear them.”

By 1990, sales of Tommy Hilfiger clothes had topped $25 million. There were two sides to his look at certain points of the nineties. There was the preppy, crisp polos and cable-knit sweaters and then there were the baggy, huge logo style worn by rappers.

Eventually rappers figured out that they could put their own name on clothes and make money, so Hilfiger’s impact on the styling of hip hop artists started to fade. But that hardly made a difference in his overall career, because he just more so embraced the American prep look that he’s good at producing year after year. And now the brand has almost 1,200 stores around the world with designs in womenswear, menswear, children, fragrances, and bedding and bath products. “The American relax, casual, spirited look resignates very well worldwide, especially the American preppy, classic look. It may not be very cutting edge look, but we leave that for the collection we do on the runway.

New York Fashion Week, Spring 2012 show

And now Tommy Hilfiger is onto new styling adventures. He was just named the first fashion consultant for the singing competition series, American Idol. “All the big stars are fashion icons. If you have that talent, you need the whole package and I will help them put their package together.” He is also going to be honored in June at the Council of Fashion Designer’s of America’s annual awards show with a lifetime achievement award.

So what else in the world can this fashion mogul do with the rest of his days? “I’d like to do a hotel,” he says grinning. Maybe one day we’ll be able to stay in rooms at “The Hilfiger”, but until then we can continue shopping at one of his many stores around the world.

[Credit: Joyce Culver for 92y]

Kayla  Muller
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