Tommy Hilfiger was nothing but true-blue Thursday night, as the latest designer to get into the hot seat opposite Fern Mallis at 92Y.

The designer did not appear to be put off by any topic, whether that be turning 60, getting his due respect or the false racial claims that dogged him for a decade. He also spoke animatedly about how, as a high school senior, he and a few buddies started a business by loading up his VW with jeans they bought in New York City, doing some DIYing and reselling them in stores they opened on college campuses. The designer recalled knocking on Perry Ellis’ showroom door one Sunday to borrow a spool of thread and how Andy Warhol once tried to convince him to invest in Stephen Sprouse’s business over lunch at Le Cirque. “I don’t think he understood the business of fashion. He understood the artistic viewpoint of fashion. I think it would have been very dangerous to only be one-sided,” Hilfiger said.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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Being business-minded has certainly served Hilfiger well. Now with “thousands” of products, six fragrances, nearly 1,200 stores internationally and worldwide retail sales of $5 billion, Hilfiger is gearing up for his new image-consultant gig on “American Idol.” Suiting up the talent in a variety of brands, not just his own, for the show’s estimated 20 million viewers is his main assignment. But the designer insisted that show judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez don’t need his help.

On Making It Happen
Tommy Hilfiger: When I told my family and friends I wanted to be a designer, they said, “There is no way you are ever going to be a designer. You have to have money, you have to have connections.” I said, “I know I can do this. I want to do this.” I started designing clothes for my stores and found that the public really was accepting what I was designing. I began freelancing for companies in New York, taught myself the business and always knew I didn’t want to do any technical work anyway. I didn’t want to end up having to sit at a sewing machine. I wanted to come up with the idea and have other people execute it for me.

Growing up in Elmira, N.Y.
T.H.: I have eight brothers and sisters. I am the oldest boy. My father was a jeweler-watchmaker in a local store, and my mother was a nurse. So we learned to work at an early age. I started working when I was nine years old, shoveling snow, raking leaves, earning money. I just always had a job. I lived in a neighborhood where there were families with 12 and 13 children. My brothers were musicians, so I felt I was not treated fairly by God because my brother could pick up a guitar and play, and I couldn’t play it to save my life.

Being Related to the Scottish Poet Robert Burns
T.H.: That’s what I am told by relatives. I have an aunt who is fanatical about tracing it. It was never discussed in my house, because it was said that Robert Burns was a womanizer and a boozer. They were embarrassed he was related, so we weren’t told until we were in our teens or maybe 20s.

Regarding his early years
T.H.: [As for “making a lot of money, not being able to spend it fast enough, being wild and having a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Jag and a Jeep”] I think that’s accurate. But everything changed when we went bankrupt. Studio 54 opened in New York, and we thought we should go to Studio 54 rather than watch the business. We basically let the business slide through our fingers. That was my master’s degree. We had to reboot, start over, and that was a tremendous learning experience. What it taught me was you have to really mind the business. You have to take care of the business. So when people ask me if I am a designer or a businessperson, I say both.

Dealing With the Urban Myth That He Made Racial Comments
T.H.: We had heard that I was supposedly on “Oprah,” and I had told her that if I had known black people were going to buy my clothes, I wouldn’t have been a designer. I had never been on “Oprah,” and I had never said that. And I would never believe that anyway, nor would I ever say that anyway. Then Joel Horowitz, who was still chief executive of the business, came to me and said, “Do you know in my Jewish community, people are saying that you also don’t want Jewish people wearing your clothes?” Then we read the Filipino tabloids, then we heard from Hispanics [that I didn’t want them wearing my clothes] and pretty soon dogs and cats. It was a rumor and a myth. Oprah invited me [to be on the show to deal with it]. Some people may still believe it. Some people may look at it logically and realize it was a myth. But it hurt for a long period of time, not from a business standpoint, because our business doubled in that time. It went from $1 billion to $2 billion in that time. But it hurt here [placing hand on his heart]. It really made me believe someone was out for me. We really never found the source but hope that at some point in time people will realize it was just a nasty rumor.

Getting his just due in 2004 when the brand had 5,400 employees and $1.8 billion in revenues
T.H.: Interestingly enough, in this business, if you’re affordable, you’re looked upon as not being as chic or as sophisticated or as cool as some of the smaller, higher-end luxury brands. I don’t think I was getting the same respect as other brands were. But it really didn’t matter, because I was doing what I wanted to do. I really wanted to become a global lifestyle brand. We were opening stores in Tokyo, Seoul. I don’t know how many different products I have my name on but [I would say] in the thousands. I would like to do a hotel. I believe dreams do come true.

Signing Beyonce
T.H.: I met Beyoncé when she was 16. My brother Andy was helping me with musicians, working with marketing, and he had set up a fashion show with Macy’s. He said there is this group called Destiny’s Child. They’re teenage girls, they sing really well and we can get them to do the music for the show, so we booked them. When I met Beyoncé, I said to Andy, “She is going to be a star.” Her voice was incredible; she had a great look and just total confidence. A couple years later, she became “The Beyoncé,” and we used her as the face of our fragrance. She was wonderful to work with.

Fallout from A billboard that placed HiM among the four greatest men’s wear designers
T.H.: That was the only time in my career when I was thinking of quitting, just hanging it up. After the billboard was up and the ads were running, the press surrounded me and said, “Who the hell do you think you are?” And the whole industry said, “Who does he think he is?” I said, “It was a joke — sort of.” At that time, I felt there was only one way out of this mess. That was to prove myself and to roll up my sleeves and work very hard to make great clothes. I had to deliver.

Whether the American flag still sells around the world
T.H.: I don’t know if the American flag sells, but our red, white and blue flag sells. Maybe it’s because it looks like the French flag or the British flag. The American relaxed, casual look resonates very well worldwide. It is almost a uniform in many countries.

How Polo and Ralph Lauren influences the Tommy Hilfiger brand
T.H.: I say wherever there is a Mercedes, there’s a BMW, where there’s a Coke, there’s a Pepsi, and he’s my biggest competition worldwide. I think he’s done an incredible job, and he sets a high standard in the world of design.

Acquiring the rights to the Karl Lagerfeld brand
T.H.: I was doing a photo shoot in Paris, and he was the photographer. The next day he invited me to his home for lunch. I told him we were thinking about maybe acquiring new brands. He said, “Why don’t you buy my brand?” I said, “OK.” We consummated the deal in less than 30 days…I think he wishes he had done with Karl Lagerfeld what we did with Tommy Hilfiger. I think he was not happy we didn’t invest as much in his brand as he thinks we should have. However, now it’s getting traction and taking hold. In China, he is a rock star. In Japan, he is, as he says, a rock star without the guitar.

The prospect of having consultants Peter Som and Simon Spurr take a postshow bow
T.H.: I’ve thought of it, but then I have 250 other designers I would have to bring out. The runway isn’t big enough to bring out all of the design team. We have 150 in New York and 200 in Europe. It really wouldn’t make it fair to them, because they’re really working 24-7 on the collections.

The influence of other designers
T.H.: Well, I look at the old guard, because the old guard had a certain way of doing things like a [Yves] Saint Laurent or a bit of [Christian] Dior. The way they did the collections way back was quite remarkable, so I look at them as inspiration. Or Giorgio Armani, or Ralph or Karl. As my hair gets whiter, I’m thinking, “Look, if I’m standing next to Karl, Giorgio or Ralph, I’ll be in the crowd. They’re much older, by the way, so I have a long way to go.