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Hilfiger Talks History and Conglomerates

Tommy Hilfiger, when asked about PVH rumors, said: "I wouldn’t want to be part of a large conglomerate with no control at all."

NEW YORK — The question looming over Tommy Hilfiger, who took the stage Wednesday at The French Institute Alliance Francaise’s series of fashion talks, was: Would he address the reports about his business being in play and Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. reportedly being interested?

Hilfiger told moderator Richard Bradley of Worth magazine that he didn’t comment on rumors. But when an audience member asked how the designer felt about other people being in control of his brainchild, Hilfiger replied, “In terms of having a financial partner, that’s just the way it is. I wouldn’t want to be part of a large conglomerate with no control at all, but I have great partners who allow my team to do what is necessary for our brand.”

Large conglomerate PVH is said to be the lead candidate to acquire Tommy Hilfiger Corp., which has been owned for nearly four years by private equity firm Apax Partners. Sources say Apax is looking at either an outright sale of the brand, perhaps in exchange for a stake in PVH, or an initial public offering.

Hilfiger did address other long-standing rumors. He brought up the old yarn about the racist comments he never made on “Oprah,” and he offered his version of the altercation he had with Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose in 2006.

“I didn’t recognize him. He pushed me out of the way, and I said, ‘Excuse me, that was really rude.’ And he said, you know, ‘F.Y.’ and started to hit me. I saw he had big rings on, and I thought, if I get hit with that ring, it’s going to be no teeth and no eye, so I hit him before he hit me,” he said, inciting a round of applause. “I was protecting myself. But now we’re friends.”

The interview portion launched from Hilfiger’s childhood in upstate New York. He spoke about struggling with dyslexia and a lack of athleticism. While his early attempts in business repeatedly failed — including the bankruptcy of his retail chain The People’s Place when he was 25 — his parents kept pressuring him to go to college and enter a profession.

When Mohan Murjani offered to back him, Hilfiger had already accepted a job with Calvin Klein and was to start the following Monday, he recalled. Obviously he changed his mind.

The famous fill-in-the-blanks billboard that raised his brand profile forever was a compromise, Hilfiger said. Ad man George Lois originally wanted to X out the faces of the established designers. Hilfiger said he wasn’t even comfortable with the eventual design — which asked ‘Who Are the Four Great American Designers for Men?” and answered it with, “Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.” Murjani and Joel Horowitz, the company’s co-founder, were in favor of the ad, though — and it’s been talked about ever since.

Next up in the FIAF fashion series is Marc Jacobs on March 22.