NEW YORK — Mike Toth, founder, president and chief creative officer of Toth + Co., who created ad campaigns for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Coach, Keds, Nautica, Hickey Freeman, Timex and Wrangler, died Thursday at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 62.
The cause of death was tonsil and throat cancer, according to his son, Zachary. Eight years ago, Toth lost his ability to speak, but continued to work.
Toth understood the power of brands, authenticity and consistency and turned several American designers into household names by developing a brand DNA process.
He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and his first love was football. A high school quarterback, he went to Trinity University on a football scholarship, and later transferred to Holy Cross where he was named to the All East NCAA Division 1 Men’s Football Team as a linebacker. After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Holy Cross, he moved to Paris, where he pursued a career as an artist. In 1977, on a flight back to the U.S., he met a fellow passenger who offered him a job working in the ad department of Wembley Industries, a New Orleans tie manufacturer. He spent a year traveling the U.S. with the sales team, which Toth often described as a “Master’s degree in branding.”
After five years there, he decided to start his own firm, Toth Design, in 1982, which relocated to Concord, Mass., in 1984. His first client was a little-known mail order company, Popular Club Plan, which wanted to create a catalogue to compete with Lands’ End. Toth renamed it J. Crew and conceived the first “lifestyle” catalogue. A slew of clients followed, namely Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Alexander Julian, Hart, Schaffner & Marx and Chaps Ralph Lauren. In 1993, Toth won the Tommy Hilfiger account.
When he started working with Hilfiger, the company was doing $80 million in revenue. When he left eight years later, Hilfiger was generating $1.2 billion in revenue. In a WWD interview in 1996, Toth said that he related well to Hilfiger’s image partly because they both grew up in big families with small incomes. It was this small-town feel that they tried to convey to the rest of the world. “It’s a little bit like a 20th-century Huck Finn,” Toth said. “There’s some wonderful values that come out of that small town.” When the decision was made to do heavier advertising, they developed what they call “the brand DNA for Tommy” — it included the “youthfulness of the American spirit, the sparkle in the eye.”
“We portrayed Tommy as honestly as we could and created a brand that people would aspire to,” Toth said. “If Ralph is wealth and Calvin is hedonism, then Tommy is happiness. And everybody aspires to happiness.”
Reached for comment Tuesday, Hilfiger said, “Mike Toth was a gentle genius. He was not only creative but as strong and as smart as anyone I ever knew. I credit Mike with developing and giving birth to the image of the Tommy Hilfiger brand, Tommy The New American Fragrance and Tommy Girl. He took the raw idea of ‘preppy with a twist’ to an entirely new place by photographing cool American kids in reality settings before anyone understood what reality advertising was. He discovered amazing talent and when Dewey Nicks or Carter Smith couldn’t shoot because of other commitments, he would pick up a camera and shoot campaigns himself on ranches in rural Texas or in the wilderness in Maine. He also was a great family man. A true gentleman.”
Toth hired Bruce Weber to shoot Jason Priestley as the face of Pepe Jeans in 1993-94, and launched the Tommy signature men’s fragrance with Estée Lauder in 1995, followed by Tommy Girl in 1996. That year, Toth opened a New York office to service clients such as Hilfiger, Coach, John Varvatos, Swatch and Nautica. Over the years, his agency’s client roster included Wrangler, Keds, Chico’s, Soma, Façonnable, Johnson & Murphy, Riders by Lee, and NYDJ. His firm also developed brand identities for Harvard University and Boston University.
As a creative director, Toth worked alongside photographers such as Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Arthur Elgort. While he didn’t consider himself a photographer, he would frequently take pictures while on campaign sets. He would let the professionals do their jobs, but would quietly look for “backstage” moments to capture. For example, he shot a photo of a skinny little girl flexing her muscles in an oversize Wonder Woman costume. Toth had noticed the girl hanging around the margins of a Taylor Swift/Keds shoot and sent an assistant to get a costume.
Toth had an instinctive flair for Americana, which was evident in his photos, such as demolition derbies, rodeos, motorbikes, couples kissing and kids with freckles. These photographs were compiled into a book, “US: American Stories,” curated by his daughter, Kezia, which had an exhibit in Boston last winter. In addition, Toth wrote a book in 2003 called “Fashion Icon,” an analysis of the role of branding in the fashion industry. Toth supported the Fresh Air Fund by offering pro bono creative services. He also provided pro bono branding and marketing services to The Greater Boston Food Bank. An avid collector of modern art and photography, Toth lived in an antique farmhouse in Carlisle, Mass.
“My father believed that it is in the unseen acts of kindness and support that make us who we are. It’s easy to see the touch of a talented creative, but it’s the way that we answer the phone, talk to vendors, welcome people or say hi to Billy the parking guy…that all adds up to who we really are. That is how he lived his life and how he taught us to approach our work,” said Zachary Toth, director of business development at Toth + Co.
In addition to Kezia and Zachary, Toth is survived by his wife, Susan; two other children, Maximilian and Mikaela, and five grandchildren.
A funeral mass will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Irene Church, 181 East Street, Carlisle, Mass., followed by a burial at Green Cemetery on Bedford Road in Carlisle, Mass. A reception will follow the mass and burial at Punkatasset Farm at 775 Monument Street in Concord, Mass.