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For Tommy Hilfiger, it’s been a long ride from upstate Elmira, N.Y., to the top of the world, a ride all the more exciting for its occasional bumps. That journey takes in far-flung global destinations — the Tommy Hilfiger brand has a presence in more than 90 countries — and, among his personal residences, one iconic address, The Plaza, where he and his wife Dee live in one of the tower apartments, an art-filled duplex with windows and a terrace providing other- worldly views of Central Park.
This story first appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hilfiger’s story is the stuff of legend: While still in high school, he funneled a rock ’n’ roll fixation into a fashion concept, started selling jeans out of his Volkswagen Beetle and soon thereafter opened a store, People’s Place. One store led to 10, which led to bankruptcy at 23 — one of the best lessons of his life, he’ll tell you — which made him determined to learn the business of fashion. Sensing a stylistic change in the air, Hilfiger next explored and tinkered with the kind of clothes he grew up wearing; he still uses the term “preppy with a twist.” Twenty-five-plus years and several remarkable partnerships later, the Tommy Hilfiger brand is a global phenomenon with sales of $5.6 billion. Though now removed from the day-to-day running of the company, Hilfiger remains its face and its driving force. Despite several other ventures, the brand is, he says, his “number-one priority.”
Tonight, Hilfiger will receive the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In anticipation, after a brief tour of The Plaza apartment’s artworks by Warhol, Basquiat, Richard Prince, Elliot Erwitt, Harry Benson and an “Eloise” mural, Hilfiger discussed that thrilling ride from Elmira, the highs, the lows, the pressures of success and why, if it all vanished tomorrow, he’d still be happy.
WWD: Lifetime Achievement — what does it mean to you?
Tommy Hilfiger: I thought Lifetime Achievements were for old people, and I don’t really consider myself to be old. But I’m 61. To most people, I’m probably old. I’ve been in this business for a very long time, but it seems like yesterday. It doesn’t seem like 25-plus years. On one hand it’s obviously an honor; on the other hand, I think, “I’ve got so much more to do.” It’s work in motion. Our business is seeing such a powerful growth spurt right now. It’s like, wow. It’s like starting new.
WWD: Do you feel you’ve gotten your due as a designer?
T.H.: I’ve thought about this many, many times over. I believe that the couture designers and the designers who design luxury collections get the most amount of credit. When you’re designing more affordable fashion, you don’t get the same amount of respect. In fact, it’s more difficult to design affordable fashion because you have to be even more thoughtful and creative as to what fabrics to use, how to source the fabrics. I thought that for a long time, I didn’t get the credit, but the credit comes in different ways. I enjoy the success we have and the people I work with so much, that gives me the satisfaction that maybe I once thought I was missing. Years ago, I was concerned with it. I don’t have those concerns anymore because I’m so comfortable in who I am and what we do.
WWD: Do you think perhaps you’re a little bit responsible? In reading up for this conversation, I found that you talk more about the marketing than the aesthetic.
T.H.: The aesthetic is the aesthetic. If the aesthetic were not correct, we’d be out of business. Many times people ask, “Are you more of a designer or a businessman?” I say I’m both. If I were 99 percent designer, 1 percent other, I would obsess over this burgundy or that burgundy and whether or not it would be draped in one way or another. I don’t do that.
WWD: Burgundy’s burgundy?
T.H.: No, I think we’ll always pick the right one, but I want to pick the right one for a broad audience. I don’t want to pick the right one for a narrow audience because it would go against my intuition and my motivation to have a substantial business.
WWD: Let’s talk about the Tommy Hilfiger aesthetic, what you call “preppy with a twist.” Will you break down the phrase?
T.H.: When I was a teenager in high school, I wanted to be an athlete. I was puny. There was no way I was going to be on the football team. No way I could play basketball. I had to find something else to be obsessed with and it just happened to be music; in 1964, when the Beatles came to the U.S., I fell in love with their music, their look, the whole phenomenon. Then right after, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, all of the rock groups came along. I was in awe and I wanted to be a musician. But I really wasn’t a good guitar player. Still, I wanted to look the part. So I started to style myself. I had long hair and cool clothes and my friends wanted to look like me. So I took my savings, $150, with a friend’s savings, we bought 20 pairs of jeans and we sold them in the parking lot of the school. Then we opened [the store] People’s Place. We sold Levi’s bell-bottoms and very cool clothes.
WWD: Were you already thinking about what the Tommy Hilfiger brand should be?
T.H.: It was my dream at that time to develop a very cool, rock-’n’-roll-inspired line. Then we started opening more stores on college campuses and developing more product for the stores. In 1975, when I was 23, we had overexpanded the stores, we had 10. We were spending a lot of time in New York, partying at Studio 54, and our accountant said, “Guys, you’re in trouble.” So we had a bankruptcy. After that, I decided I would teach myself to understand and maintain the business part of the business.
WWD: Soon after, you moved to New York where you did a lot in a short time, freelancing, starting several companies, before Mohan Murjani talked you out of going to work for Calvin Klein at CK.
T.H.: He offered to back me in business. It was the disco period of Jordache, skinny Gloria Vanderbilts and Calvin Klein flares. [I felt] that was over. I wanted to create something new, something that didn’t exist out there. What I knew best was what I grew up wearing: preppy clothes, khakis, button-downs. But I hated them because I thought they were so dorky and just so unimaginative. There’s nothing cool about them. So I said, “[I want] to redesign the classics.” I emptied my closet. I cut my hair short. I stopped wearing bell-bottoms. There was this whole relaxed attitude happening in California. I decided to take that attitude and put it into the prepwear. I redesigned the chinos and the button-downs. Then I came up with Tommy Hilfiger and it was successful right out of the box.
WWD: Talk about the partnership.
T.H.: Murjani introduced me to Joel Horowitz and said, “He will oversee Tommy and the business.” Joel and I became best friends and built Tommy together, until 1988 when Murjani started going bankrupt. I had to go to Hong Kong to tell the suppliers we didn’t have the money to buy the inventory, but we had orders from the store. I met Silas Chou. I told him we were trying to buy Murjani out so we could own Tommy Hilfiger ourselves and not have this financially weak partner and he said, “Let’s do it together.” So Silas became our partner and introduced us to Lawrence Stroll. We formed a partnership in 1989, and from 1989 until the year 2000, we went from being a $25 million company, to a billion-dollar company, and had tremendous success. But then, it started leveling. I tried to make [the clothes] more modern, really clean it up. No logos, sexier. You know, I really love rock ’n’ roll, [and had thought] “let’s do rock ’n’ roll.” But what I learned along the line is that we have this preppy heritage that I should bring back but make it cooler, younger and hipper. I found I can make it preppy rock ’n’ roll, I can make it preppy surf, I can make it preppy Scottish, I can make it preppy European, I could even do preppy Moroccan, preppy Bohemian. I can do preppy in many different ways, and that became very exciting.
WWD: You mentioned before your determination to learn the business side. Were you ahead of the curve on that?
T.H.: I think so, but I also think that was the genius of Joel, Silas and Lawrence. I have to include Fred Gehring in that also. [Their knowledge] rubbed off on me. These guys are, I would say, the true geniuses in this business. I mean look what they just did with Michael Kors.
WWD: They were all industry professionals when you met. Now so often it’s hedge fund types who want to back fashion houses. How important was it for you that your various partners knew the industry?
T.H.: I would say that was the determining factor. I was with a group of people who really understood the business. If I’d been with bankers, just with a checkbook, I never would have made it this far. There are twists and curves along the way that come up out of nowhere and you have to really know how to maneuver through.
WWD: Would that be your biggest advice to aspiring designers, know whom your dealing with, don’t just go for the money?
T.H.: I would say that, but I would say understand it yourself. Understand the importance of running the business properly. So many young designers are bankrupt, broke, running on empty, hanging by a thread. They have good ideas, but they have no business sense. They don’t understand that if they spend all of their money making samples and doing a fashion show, maybe they won’t have enough money to manufacture their first delivery. You have to really understand the business part of the business yourself. It would be tremendously beneficial to one’s future, whether you’re with a banker, or with people experienced in the business.
WWD: What if someone is just not geared that way?
T.H.: Get a partner who does what you don’t know how to do, and give up a substantial percentage of the business, to entice that person into working hard and putting his life into it. A lot of people don’t want to take in a partner because they don’t want to share. I believe giving up a big piece of my ownership, in my own name, in my own business with the right people was the right thing to do.
WWD: Another area where you were really in front of the curve, the whole fashion-music connection. Was that an organic development or were you acting on business instincts?
T.H.: In the very beginning, it was totally organic. As time went on it made sense to use celebrities in marketing because you would attract their fans as well. I think I was way ahead in that, I don’t think many others were there when I started.
WWD: Did it just seem to you that the explosion was going to happen?
T.H.: I just did it because it was a passion. I wanted to see David Bowie wearing my clothes and I wanted to see Mick Jagger wearing my clothes, and I wanted to see Britney Spears wearing my clothes, and Usher, and Lenny Kravitz. I wanted to see them wearing my clothes and appearing in advertising and being on concert tours. I thought that if their fans then joined on, it would give more respect to the brand.
WWD: You have amazing art in this apartment. When did you start collecting?
T.H.: In the late Eighties. When I came to New York, I visited Warhol. I met Andy and had the opportunity to go to the factory. It was probably one of the most exciting experiences of my life. He had all these different projects going on. You’d go to one floor and he’d have people editing a short film; you’d go to another and there’d be prints all over the floor.
WWD: Whom do you like now?
T.H.: I’m fanatical about contemporary art and artists; many of them are no longer alive, but Keith Haring, Basquiat, Warhol, others like Jasper Johns, Rothko, there are amazing artists out there who have such influence over the world of pop culture.
WWD: We haven’t spoken specifically about the Macy’s business.
T.H.: We are the number-one brand in Macy’s. It’s in men’s and women’s and children’s and everything. The idea was that we were fragmented in many department stores, in some doors and not others; we had men’s in some, women’s in some, children’s in this one and not that one. We decided to pull it all back and put it into our biggest home. With Terry [Lundgren]’s backing, his passion to do it, and with our history with Macy’s, we did it really, really, really well.
WWD: You now play a very different role at Tommy Hilfiger, less day-to-day involvement. What are your other interests?
T.H.: Tommy Hilfiger always was and always will be the number-one priority, bar none.
WWD: What are the most pressing issues for the Tommy Hilfiger company right now?
T.H.: Gearing up for the growth in China, setting up the infrastructure. The economy in Japan is not really where we would like it to be. We have a large investment there and we’re hoping the economy will turn. We would like to find store locations in the right spots because most great locations are taken, all over the world. We waited 10 years to find Fifth Avenue. We waited five years to find the location in Tokyo. We waited many years to find Brompton Road in London. We find that when we find the right locations, it impacts the business tremendously. In Paris, when we opened on the Champs-Elysées, we did 10 times the business.
WWD: What else?
T.H.: Finding the right team. Assembling an all-star team in every single country is always a challenge because there’s a lot of competition. A lot of people plucking people from us, a lot of other job offers.
WWD: Talk about your philanthropy.
T.H.: Twenty years ago, I started the Tommy Hilfiger Foundation because it was my dream to eventually be successful enough to give back. I first built a community center in my hometown of Elmira, N.Y., for after school programs. After that we built a summer camp for the Fresh Air Fund. Then we were involved in the Race to Erase MS; my sister has [multiple sclerosis]. We were involved early on in the Evelyn Lauder Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which we’re still involved in. We have been involved in Autism Speaks.
WWD: The other day I heard this familiar voice on television speaking about autism. I looked up, and there you were. Why did you decide now to go public with your personal connection to autism?
T.H.: When we first diagnosed my daughter, years ago, she was diagnosed as being developmentally delayed. We didn’t really understand what that was. This is after going to Yale and doctors all over.
WWD: How old was she when she got that diagnosis?
T.H.: Five. She kept getting tested, and we found that she’s on the spectrum of autism. We found out that one out of every 88 children is autistic, and six years ago it was one out of every 150 children. The government is not involved in it. People aren’t donating enough money. There’s not enough research. There’s no cure. There’s no method to it. Nobody knows whether it’s genetic, they’ve talked about vaccines, there’s no reason why children get it. This is a field that is sort of the wild blue yonder, and it needs focus. It needs people to invest. It needs research. It needs help, so we’ve become involved. Dee has a son my daughter’s age who had the same issue, and that really brought us together.
WWD: How is your daughter?
T.H.: Kathleen, she’s 16, she’s in a special school. She’s really smart. She’ll come in and wake me up in the middle of the night and ask, “Am I intelligent?” Or, “Someone in school told me I was a retard, is that true?” It’s just heart-wrenching. So that’s become a passion of ours. We also, at the Tommy Hilfiger Foundation, helped with the Martin Luther King Memorial, Millennium Promise, which is a big effort on our part.
WWD: What makes you happy?
T.H.: Being with my family, that makes me very happy.
WWD: In bullet points, list the highlights of your career so far, in your partial life?
T.H.: Starting out as a teen. Going bankrupt at 23 years old — a tremendous learning experience; I’ll never be embarrassed to talk about it. Meeting Murjani. Meeting Lawrence, Silas and Joel. Going public. Partnering with Fred Gehring. The fragrance license with Estée Lauder opened a whole new world for us; Leonard was a mentor of mine. Taking the company private again. Selling to PVH.
WWD: I asked for bullet points with no other parameters. You ran off a mini-litany of shared credit.
T.H.: I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve met people who credit themselves with all of the success, but that’s not the way it works. It’s all about the team.
WWD: Looking around this apartment at The Plaza — the dome, the tower, the art, the view — do you ever think, “Wow, I’ve done damn well, I’m really proud of myself?”
T.H.: I never want to be complacent and think, “OK, I’ve really made it.” I think this is a gift — to live [like this] right now. I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I know that if I had to go back, I would always be happy. Before I had all of this, I was a happy person. I think happiness comes from within. I don’t think it’s what you have or how much you have.
WWD: OK, but wouldn’t you be a little less happy without the dome?
T.H.: Sometimes I look at this and think this is too grown up, and when I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in the East Village — it was so hippie and boho and punk — it was a lot of fun.