Tommy Hilfiger

“I really believe a brand is a living thing and you have to nurture it the way you nurture a child. You can not show it any neglect whatsoever. It’s like an amoeba, it’s continually moving and you have to move in the right direction,” said Tommy Hilfiger during a conversation with Michelle Peluso, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of IBM, at the NRF Tuesday.

Titled, “The Power of Disruption,” Hilfiger gave the packed house insight into how the 33-year-old brand has managed to stay young and spirited, relevant with pop culture and ahead of the pack with technological innovations such as artificial intelligence, a chatbot and the company’s Snap:Shop App. It has also built up a huge following with its TommyNow see-now-buy-now fashion shows in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and, up next, Milan.

“Retail was going through a very rocky time, but we were the reverse of that trend. We embraced new technology and were not afraid to take risks,” he said.

Hilfiger gave a short history of his climb from his early days starting People’s Place in upstate New York, which sold clothing, incense and music, to launching his own brand. Stressing authenticity and pop culture roots, he said that early on, the brand featured Britney Spears (when no one knew who she was), Beyoncé (as a 16-year-old), Usher, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and more recently, Gigi Hadid and The Chainsmokers. The reason was simple. “I felt that their friends would also come to my brand,” he said.

Describing how he decides which celebrities to align with his brand, he said, “It’s being in touch with pop culture today and understanding the need to connect with the youth, and the way to connect with the youth is through social media today. You have to embrace the right people who share the same values and the same spirit as our brand. We’re not afraid to have fun with fashion. We speak to Millennials today through inspiring campaigns. A combination of technology, influencers, our need to have fun and my fear of aging up have kept the brand young.”

Resilience appears to be a key theme at Hilfiger. “I really believe that whether you’re a retailer, manufacturer, a designer, a brand, you have to evolve without losing your base. My fear has always been we would age out. I wanted to keep the brand young. I surrounded myself with young people on the creative team, on the business side, the consumer. I wanted to continually evolve and look at what’s next, and always listening to the consumer. We’re always trying to find the right balance between tradition and innovation. But reinvention and disruption have served us very well,” he said.

Tommy Hilfiger and Michelle Peluso

Tommy Hilfiger and Michelle Peluso  Courtesy of National Retail Federation

Hilfiger also spoke about the importance of listening to the consumer, and what they’re asking for is immediate gratification. “When they see something, they want to buy it and wear it immediately. They also want great experiences and they want to come to the flagship store while it’s on the runway, in any city in the world at any given time. See-now-buy-now works for us as a brand. It’s true to our DNA. It allows us to keep in touch with the youthful consumer and is a new way of retailing. If you’re waiting for the consumer to come into stores, you could be waiting a long time,” he said. “I want them to be able to see something on the runway and click and buy it. I want them to see something on the TV screen and click and buy it. And I want to have the fastest delivery and most incredible experience they could possibly find,” he said.

He described the success the company’s had with its see-now-buy-now strategy. “We took a big risk by creating an open to the public see-now-buy-now fashion show, making all the inventory up front, changing the design calendar, changing the manufacturing and spending a substantial amount of marketing money on one show,” Hilfiger said. He said the risk paid off. They have more than 2.5 billion impressions on social media when they do a show; they had a 900 percent increase in consumers going to the web site, and they sold out of all of the items shown on the runway. He noted that when the company started its collaboration with Hadid as the face of the brand, she had three million followers. Today, she has 40 million followers. “It was a perfect storm,” he said.

Most recently, Hilfiger has aligned with IBM and The Fashion Institute of Technology Infor Design and Tech Lab on a project utilizing artificial intelligence to identify and facilitate fashion trends that will resonate with shoppers before they appear on the runways of New York, London, Milan and Paris. The collaboration is designed to help the next generation of retail leaders better meet the needs of customers, be quicker to capitalize on the latest trends, hasten the product development cycle, and provide students with an impactful learning experience.

“I loved the idea that we collaborated with IBM and FIT,” Hilfiger said. “What it proved to us is all the information that is out there can be reachable with a click. When FIT students took our archives — more than 200,000 photos — they were able to access everything we did in the past and apply it to today’s design concepts. It’s a tremendous breakthrough,” he said. He believes it was similar to the idea they had where they developed a digital showroom. They created a showroom without product, where buyers look at an enormous screen and do their selections — men’s, women’s, accessories, etc. — and put their selections into their different doors. “With a couple of clicks, have their entire season mapped out,” Hilfiger said.

Responding to an audience question about what would an 18-year-old Tommy Hilfiger think of Tommy Hilfiger in 2018, he said, “I would hope that an 18-year-old person would think that the Tommy Hilfiger brand in 2018 is a cool brand, and that the story behind it is authentic and real. And that would be a brand one would want to become a part of. There’s always a chance an 18-year-old would look at it and say, ‘that’s  not cool because too many people have it and too many people are wearing it.’ We want to avoid that by creating a lot of capsule collections.”