By  on September 10, 2010

In 1985, before he had a stitch of clothing to show for his infant label, Tommy Hilfiger had a backer with big ideas, Mohan Murjani. On Day One, Murjani asked Hilfiger what he had in mind for an ad campaign. “I wanted to try shooting great models on a beach,” recalled Hilfiger. “He said, ‘Let me introduce you to George Lois.’” What followed was one audacious line of advertising copy: “The 4 Great American Designers for Men Are R____ L_____, P____ E____, C_____ K____, T____ H_______.” Filling in the blanks immediately captivated the audience.

“When the billboard went up in Times Square, the phone was ringing off the hook,” said Hilfiger. “Journalists were calling up asking, ‘Who is this and who does he think he is?’ I was frightened.” He was also instantly on the map, the definition of an overnight sensation — now with a reputation to live up to.

Where do you go from there?

Fashionwise, Hilfiger wanted to work a preppy, American angle, but not classic preppy. Too boring. The branding had to show the difference. Lois’ subsequent campaigns compared Hilfiger to a Harley-Davidson and a Thunderbird — both American classics, but cool.

By the early Nineties, Tommy wasn’t just about neo-preppy clothes, but “lifestyle.” To illustrate that world, he hired Mike Toth, whose agency had worked with Polo. “Every company wanted a piece of Ralph’s magic,” said Toth. “Our fear was that Tommy’s less expensive clothes would forever be known as ‘Polo at a price.’ Or it could carve out its own space in the consumer’s mind that was more true to who Tommy was and irresistible to a broader consumer, not to mention the appeal of an identifiable American product around the world.”

The result was the “Real American” campaigns, populated by fresh-faced models with minimal makeup, messy hair and undone styling. Toth and photographer Dewey Nicks would take the cast of new faces, which included Kate Hudson, Rebecca Romijn, Jason Lewis and Kidada Jones to Maine, Nantucket, Texas and Hawaii. They would organize the Rockwellian shoots around camping trips or football games and photograph whatever action ensued. The public took to the rumpled, all-American look. Toth said, when he started at Hilfiger, it was an $80 million domestic men’s wear business, and by the time he left, it had boomed into a $1.4 billion global presence.

“The devil is in the details,” said Toth. “Those original campaigns were a lot of work. We wanted a spontaneous, relaxed look and feel, but every wrinkle was deliberate. Our untucked, slightly messy look was an antidote to the perfectly posed, beautifully crafted images that defined other brands. I remember one of our models once had to get stitches during a shoot from a rope swing mishap at a New Hampshire quarry. Instead of retouching out the bandage, we left it on the model and the image that resulted was the better for it.”

While all-American, prep school types were the freckled faces of the brand in the mid-Nineties, a big portion of its audience fell into the urban/hip-hop category.

“There was a street trend taking place and we were the leaders of it,” said Hilfiger of his mid-Nineties swing to the rap world. Well aware of the value of celebrity — specifically rock stars, whom he’d long idolized — Hilfiger moved to capitalize, since “a connection with celebrities would not only put the company in a pop-culture context, but also add something young, cool and relevant.” They shot Britney Spears before her “Baby One More Time” breakout. There were campaigns with Usher, Lenny Kravitz, Jewel and The Rolling Stones, whose tour Hilfiger sponsored. All the while Hilfiger was aggressively catering to the fabulous crowd — ghetto and otherwise — with big red, white and blue logos and luxury merch, a move that ultimately backfired, at least in the U.S. Around 1999 or 2000, his domestic business, now largely tied to an urban image, was shattered when that customer moved on. Meanwhile, Europe, which stuck to the traditional American formula all along, had prospered.

The lesson: “Staying with a trend too long is very dangerous,” said Hilfiger, who has spent the last eight years retooling his image back to its roots with the help of Avery Baker, executive vice president of global communications and marketing. Under her guidance, the sprawling, starkly sophisticated National Geographic campaigns, shot in majestic locales such as Utah’s Salt Flats, were born. If diminished, the celebrity-rock star angle didn’t disappear entirely but was refined. A 2004 story with David Bowie and Iman ranks as one of Hilfiger’s personal favorites for its fusion of rock and fashion royalty.

Along the way, Hilfiger has pushed the boundaries of traditional advertising. He’s published numerous coffee-table books, sponsored a concert series in Europe and dabbled in television. “Ironic Iconic America,” a road trip version of his book of the same title, aired on Bravo in 2008. And though it wasn’t directly associated with his brand, Hilfiger’s daughter, Ally, starred in the 2003 MTV reality series “Rich Girls,” a forebear of shows such as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

The 25th anniversary effort was handled by Trey Laird of Laird + Partners, who was tired of the gravitas with which the “American Classic” tradition is typically portrayed.

“I’m guilty of it, too,” admitted Laird, describing images that are “beautiful but serious. Like a couple standing by a thoroughbred or looking out into a sunset.” Nor did “hiring an actress and saying, ‘Lean over on your elbow in runway look number three’” interest Laird. He proposed bringing a sense of humor and storytelling to Hilfiger’s world, which is back in the black.

Titled “The Hilfigers,” the multiplatform campaign features a cheeky cast of characters that represent a range of ages and ethnicities but present what Laird calls a “stylishly dysfunctional” clan.“It’s not meant to be a literal family,” said Laird. “Anyone is welcome, someone might even get kicked out, because that’s the way families are.”

For fall, the Hilfigers are captured in their neo-preppy glory at a tailgate. On Hilfiger’s Web site, the family is broken down into a family tree, each character with his or her own witty bio. For example, “Chloe,” who looks to be about 10, is described as “Fluent in four languages — and now mastering Mandarin. Sushi connoisseur and aspiring blogger.” They also have individual Facebook pages and Pandora playlists. Hilfiger couldn’t be more pleased with the message his new relatives send: “It shows our ability not to take ourselves so seriously.”

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