Tommy Hilfiger at the 2019 FIT Graduation.

Tommy Hilfiger encouraged the graduates of Fashion Institute of Technology’s Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology to never give up and always chase their dreams.

Speaking at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday afternoon, Hilfiger was the recipient of the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“Today marks a momentous occasion for all of you. You will be taking the dream that you have nurtured these past few years and sharing it with the rest of the world,” said Hilfiger. “Like me, for some of you, that dream probably began at a very young age.

Hilfiger reminisced about his early days when he used to listen to bands and musicians like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix and said he wanted to be a rock star, just like them.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t sing nor could I play the guitar. So I decided to look the part instead,” said the designer. He grew his hair long, started wearing bell-bottom jeans, fringed vests, and wide belts. Before he knew it, he set up his first real venture in fashion at 18 years old. Starting with $150, he customized 20 pairs of jeans and sold them in his own store called People’s Place.

“Today, when I look back to that time, I’m still reminded of the moment I picked up a pencil and started sketching, and realized that designing was my true calling,” said Hilfiger. Although he had very little money and no connections, he knew deep down he could do it.

“That determined optimism is something I carry with me even today,” he said. Hilfiger told the graduates that he faced his biggest challenge at 23 years old when he had to declare bankruptcy. “But I call it my real-life MBA,” he said.

Not only did that teach him what it takes to run a business, but it drove him more than ever. “Failure is a part of success; it’s just another learning experience,” said Hilfiger.

He said since launching Tommy Hilfiger in 1985, he had to take many risks with his business. Some paid off, others didn’t. “But through it all, your instincts will never let you down. Always trust that feeling, that voice that tells you what is right,” said Hilfiger.

Part of his success is always looking for fresh, new ways to develop innovative products and experiences for his consumers around the world. “Whether it’s challenging the seasonal fashion cycle, tapping unconventional faces or doing unexpected collaborations, I have always believed in the power of innovation and disruption,” said Hilfiger.

Hilfiger told the graduates that they are entering the fashion world during one of the most exciting times in the industry. “We are in the new age where change is the only constant,” he said.

“I encourage you to embrace it, to be inspired to push the boundaries, innovate and find your own unique ways to set the norms,” he said. Hilfiger said that not a day goes by when he’s not excited about what he does.

“That is the real key to success — finding something that excites you, motivates you and challenges you. And once you know what that is, give it everything you have and never take no for an answer,” he said.

Finally, Hilfiger said the best part of success cannot be defined by fame or money. “It is the opportunity to give back to the world and do more for the causes that are dear to your heart that will matter the most,” he said.

Tommy Hilfiger at the 2019 FIT Graduation.

Tommy Hilfiger at the 2019 FIT Graduation.  George Chinsee/WWD

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