NEW YORK — As the early bird, Tommy Hilfiger is crowing.

Sure, every designer and their mother is targeting the better market for spring, but it’s home turf for Hilfiger, who confirmed last week that his formerly proprietary H collection will be sold in about 80 to 100 doors at Federated Department Stores beginning in February. Plus, Hilfiger’s already got his product together — the first of a wave of designers racing to a market that was formerly dominated by Lauren by Ralph Lauren.

“Number one: We have a jump on all of them,” Hilfiger said during a presentation of the line last week, ticking off a list of rivals that will include a better sportswear launch from Calvin Klein with Kellwood Co., Polo Ralph Lauren’s own take on the Lauren line, a Jones New York Signature lifestyle label from Jones Apparel Group and probably more to come.

“Number two: We are younger and a bit cooler than the rest of them,” Hilfiger boasted. “And three: We’ve tested the merchandise already.”

Hilfiger is treading loudly into the career side of better by scaling up H for department store distribution, as the exclusive launch with Federated enables the designer to land the top-tier doors throughout its many divisions, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.

Ironically, H was first developed two years ago as a means to differentiate the merchandise at Hilfiger’s own boutiques with more upscale and expensive designs than what was offered at every neighborhood mall. Now that he’s going mainstream, Hilfiger plans to back the launch with a separate advertising campaign for H, presenting the line as the top tier of the company’s overall offerings — the inspiration that will trickle down into the more casual Tommy Hilfiger collections (the ones with the flag on the label), into men’s jeans and women’s juniors’, and on down to children’s wear.

“This is more luxurious than anything we’ve ever offered before,” said Ginny Hilfiger, his sister and senior vice president of women’s design. “It’s really the female side of Tommy Hilfiger. It’s the counterpart for a woman of how Tommy dresses himself. It’s colorful and meticulous in detail.”Where other designers are introducing lower-price concepts that feed off their high-end collections, Hilfiger is skewing up for H, with prices about twice those of his core sportswear, which is at the opening end of the better segment. The average retail price point in Tommy Hilfiger is $50, while H ranges from $79 for cotton pants to $298 for jackets. It’s also more career-oriented than the signature line, another area where Hilfiger’s past efforts have failed. Remember Red Label?

The company ran into trouble with its own retail expansion last year, closing most of the 44 specialty stores around the country, leaving six where H was carried, and thus — combined with the meltdown of relations between Lauren and Jones —?Hilfiger felt the timing was right to offer the line to department stores. He’s not the only one. Ralph Lauren still expects the Lauren line to be stocked in 850 doors, while Jones projects Signature will debut in at least 700 doors.

Hilfiger would not discuss the volume of the H collection or its projections, but at six locations, it was estimated to be less than $20 million. Widescale distribution could turn H into a $200 million business at the start if customers respond to an influx of fashion in the usually dull better range, with improved margins and full-price sales as compared with the signature line, according to market projections.

Hilfiger points to a multistriped men’s shirt from H in the colors of a watermelon as a potential example. A more basic version from Tommy Hilfiger could sit in a department store for weeks at $48 and still barely move when marked down to $29, but at his own stores, the $95 H models sold out in a week, he said.

“Customers are getting bored out there,” he said. “There is a sameness-itus about every business in fashion right now, whether it’s fragrance or shoes. We were in the hospital for a couple of years with a very strong fever, which was the result of this sameness-itus disease everyone catches from time to time. We were the first to catch the disease, but we’re also the first to spring out.”

So, doctor’s orders called for a fresh, contemporary story for the better market, as told by a designer with a traditional point of view. Ginny Hilfiger oversees the women’s collection, while Michael Sondag returned to Hilfiger from Swiss Army to design its men’s lines. The women’s designs continue to play on the big Mod movement from fall, with multistriped blouses sobered up with a feminine interpretation on classic men’s suiting fabrics, lightweight navy pinstripe pants and jackets tweaked with a cargo pocket, batik print silk camisoles and halters, a turquoise shetland cropped jacket, white shrunken tuxedos, thick chinos and a fitted camel trench in stretch twill.“It’s sleek and fashionable,” Ginny Hilfiger said. “The fit, the design, the detail, the proportion — it boils down to taste level. We’re hoping we can educate the American consumer to dress cool.”

“Our customer does have good taste,” added Christa Michalaros, president of women’s. “We haven’t been giving them enough credit. When the trend to casual dressing became so big, the career part of the business became really small. Now that the pendulum is just starting to turn back, we’re going to be ready for it.”

Tommy Hilfiger also pointed out that the Federated launch of H builds on the momentum of the company’s turnaround, which includes last week’s naming of former Lands’ End chief David F. Dyer as president and chief executive officer.

“This takes us from being merely a better-priced department store brand into a multitiered better-to-designer brand,” Hilfiger said. “I don’t want to be a follower. A lot of people are waiting around to see what happens with this better business, but I believe we have a jump on everyone else.”

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