The pair detailed their careers as designers, the changes underfoot in the fashion industry and highlighted what’s ahead in a Q&A with Fern Mallis Wednesday night at 92Y. Hilfiger opened up the program with a business-heavy discussion before his wife joined him on stage for the second half of the 90-minute “Fashion Icons” talk.
Rather than rehash history, Hilfiger, whose company is owned by PVH, played up the many changes that have been made in the business, due largely to technology, COVID-19 and international expansion.
“It’s a different ball game, but I’ve been through many iterations over the years,” he said. The self-taught Hilfiger continues to be the principle designer of the brand. Partial to innovation, he was the first designer to go off-calendar to show current collections and offer see now, buy now runway shopping virtually and in pop-ups. That tactic changed the business and sprang from his dream of opening fashion shows to the public. It also required changing the brand’s design calendar, its manufacturing and turning everything upside down to provide see now, buy now styles to consumers. That strategy has worked well thus far and will continue, Hilfiger said.
Earlier this year, the company started selling NFTs, ventured into gaming and participated in the first Metaverse Fashion Week on Decentraland. Always looking ahead and aiming to anticipate what will be next, Hilfiger’s aim is to “put something in front of consumers that they may not even know they want until they see it.”
During the pandemic, he immersed himself in the metaverse, studying hard, meeting with scores of digital-minded professionals, partnering with a company to build avatars, and he even invested and is building a video game with a Silicon Valley company. “Hundreds of millions” of consumers in China are gaming everyday, he said, dressing their avatars in branded digital skins and if their friends approve of those selections, they will buy the real thing. Gamers are also buying, selling, trading and getting rewarded for how they dress their avatars, he noted. “It is the future.”
Having been in business for 37 years, Hilfiger acknowledged how, in the beginning, Zara and H&M didn’t exist, Nike was a small sneaker brand and Gucci sold wallets, handbags and shoes. Always being innovative and placing product first is key, as is presenting an image that “cuts through the noise,” he said.
However, the designer nearly didn’t cut through the noise as Mallis noted, bringing up Hilfiger’s fondness for Studio 54 and almost losing his business over it.
“We were distracted. My partner and I spent many, many nights in Studio 54. That taught us a big lesson,” he said. “Fortunately, we got back on our feet and reignited.”
Hilfiger’s eye for spotting fresh talent and prowess in collaborations could be seen in his ’90s ads featuring future stars like a teenage Kate Hudson. Before magazines splashed celebrities on their covers, the company wanted to relay a cool vibe even though it couldn’t afford A-listers, Hilfiger said. One solution was giving musicians, and even Mick Jagger’s children, clothes to wear in MTV videos.
Now, the company has no shortage of access to A-listers, though it still tends to catch some of them on the early end of their rise.
In 2016, Hilfiger aligned with Gigi Hadid, who he said didn’t look like a lot of the other models. During the fittings and casting that a production team was handling, he said, “Gigi came in that day and I said she would be great on the runway.” He later suggested she design “with us and for us.”
Hadid had 300,000 followers at that time, and now she has 180 million followers, the designer said. At the end of the four-season run with Hilfiger, she had 50 million followers. Another celebrity collaboration — a two-season run with Zendaya — was “historical and amazing,” he said, adding that the actress now has 138 million followers.
Before the pandemic spurred on virtual runway shows, Hilfiger was an early adopter of livestreaming them — whether that be blockbuster runways in Shanghai or Harlem, N.Y. The designer credited “a lot of very smart people around me” for taking a seed of an idea and turning that into something that he didn’t even dream could happen. His personal favorite was the Paris show with Zendaya that, at her suggestion, featured all Black models, and Grace Jones closed the show.
Ocleppo joined Hilfiger on stage, recalling her start in modeling when asked to model in a Rhode Island School of Design fashion show. She was later discovered by photographer Jean Renard and started modeling, despite her father not being on board.
Fast forward to meeting Hilfiger in St. Tropez in 2005, Ocleppo said he and two friends had invited her and a friend to a party, but without a nanny she wasn’t planning to go. Hilfiger later phoned her suggesting she bring her children to the party and offered to make them chicken fingers. “‘Good idea?’” Hilfiger asked the audience dryly. “It works every time.” And he did, Ocleppo said.
In 2010, Ocleppo started designing, after suggesting to Hilfiger that he create a Bermuda handbag for his new collection. A meeting with Mindy Grossman led to the official start of the Dee Ocleppo brand, which got a boost when Beyoncé started wearing pieces from the brand. Having since taken the company direct-to-consumer, Ocleppo dreams of having a global lifestyle brand and has added shoes, silk scarves, pajamas and cashmere styles to her assortment of handbags to extend the brand.
In 2017, the couple invested in Judith Lieber with Ocleppo becoming creative director. The work-intensive bags require molding, hand-painting and each stone being hand-glued. The Judith Lieber handbags feature more evening accessories, whereas Ocleppo’s signature collection is geared more for daytime.
As for keeping their work life and home life, they agreed it is all woven to together, and laughed knowingly. In addition to being an autism advocate like his wife, as they both have children on the spectrum, Hilfiger developed adaptive clothing first for children and then for people of different ages. On May 20, there will be a benefit fashion show in Los Angeles featuring models who have special needs to benefit Race to Erase MS. Ocleppo said, “Of all of the things that Tommy has done in the fashion business over all the years, the thing that I am most proud of for my husband is the fact that he is doing that adaptive line.”
“We’re the only designer brand doing it,” Hilfiger said.
Ocleppo added, “I don’t know why no one has thought about these people who need clothes, too. It should be a whole separate business.”
Asked who gets his attention when it comes to the field of young designers, Hilfiger singled out Romeo Hunte, Brandon Maxwell and Prabal Gurung. And as far as advice he’d offer to those starting up: “Pick a lane. Decide what you want to stand for. And secure that first before expanding into other categories. Ralph Lauren started with neckties. Those who become specialists in a certain category become successful at that and then go onto another category and master that if they have talent and a vision,” he said.
Hilfiger, whose work was featured in the first installment of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” last fall, was also upfront when asked about The Metropolitan Museum of Art “finally dedicating an exhibit to American fashion.”
“I think it’s about time,” he said. “I’m happy they did it. I’m happy for the design community that it was finally done. The exhibits I’ve seen have been amazing. I couldn’t see the exhibit the other night because the traffic was so bad getting there…we have to go back and see what they did. We hear it’s great.”