Tommy Hilfiger has seen his first company go bankrupt, watched as his own brand became a hip-hop sensation and then just as rapidly shunned, built it back up again after it was sold and dealt with it being sold a second time. In his personal life, he’s been divorced, remarried and seen his children struggle with disease and special needs. He’s mingled with rock stars and celebrities, bought major artworks, traveled the world and lives in lavish homes in Greenwich, Conn., and Mustique.
Throughout it all, Hilfiger has remained an “American Dreamer.” And that’s the title of his surprisingly honest new memoir, which is subtitled “My Life in Fashion & Business.” In the book, the designer chronicles the highs and painful lows (both personally and professionally) of building a megabrand that combined his love of fashion, music and pop culture.
Hilfiger, 65, opens up about his childhood growing up as one of nine children in Elmira, N.Y., and being a big disappointment to his father. He describes being a newspaper boy, working in a sporting goods store, his learning issues in school, flunking sophomore year in high school, opening People’s Place stores in upstate New York at the age of 18 and then taking his eye off the ball and going bankrupt by 25 years old.
Moving to New York City to pursue his dream of designing his own collection, Hilfiger takes on a variety of design jobs and ends up turning down an offer from Calvin Klein to design jeans-casualwear because something better came along — an opportunity from Mohan Murjani to design his own Tommy Hilfiger men’s wear label. Later, Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll (who taught him to “think big”) entered the picture and the fortunes started rolling in. The company went public in 1992 and enjoyed a great run in such categories as women’s wear, Hilfiger Denim, kids’ wear, accessories, fragrance and home — frequently aligning with pop-culture icons, such as The Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie and Beyoncé.
In the book, Hilfiger discusses the competition at that time and where he saw himself fitting in. “In 1992 and 1993, Ralph [Lauren] probably wasn’t very happy with us. My intent was never to copy him. I wanted to be newer and fresher and younger, and hipper and cooler. But we all liked Ralph’s business model: the basics, classics and fashion delivered on a regular basis; the in-store shops; the stand-alone shops; the advertising; the lifestyle image. I particularly admired his company’s replenishment operation in department stores, which we adopted.”
He cites his models in the business, calling Lauren and Klein the “Rolls Royce and Mercedes-Benz” of the design world, and referred to himself as the Audi. “I thought, if I continue to expand the product line, get it in the right stores, improve the design, fit and quality, I’m going to move up to being a Porsche,” he writes.
While his signature was classics with a twist, Hilfiger ultimately became a sensation with the hip-hop community, which embraced his oversize jeans and logoed sweatshirts (Snoop Dogg wore Hilfiger’s red, white and blue rugby with “Tommy” huge on his chest when he was on “Saturday Night Live” and reorders went crazy). “That was the night that made Tommy Hilfiger supremely cool with the youth,” writes Hilfiger.
But the hip-hop world moved on, the line became ubiquitous, overdistributed and highly promotional and started spiraling downward by the early Aughts, and it needed to cut back substantially.
At one point, Hilfiger’s board considered selling the company to Iconix, which was negotiating an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. While Hilfiger couldn’t deny the fact that having a vast amount of money would open up new worlds, he writes, “I enjoyed my glamorous life and the culture, scenes and people I encountered because of it, and I wasn’t certain I would be enthralled with going to Bentonville, Ark., and servicing that client solely.”
The company eventually was sold to Apax Partners and taken private, and did an exclusive deal with Macy’s in the U.S., while retaining a separate affordable luxury line globally. Things started clicking again. The brand was later sold to PVH Corp. In 2015, Hilfiger generated $6.5 billion in global retail sales.
Hilfiger’s book contains plenty of personal revelations as well, such as a visit to a Palm Springs, Calif., psychic in 1983 who told Hilfiger he would be “very, very successful;” descriptions of his homes in Greenwich and Mustique; his friendships with Quincy Jones, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lenny Kravitz, Mick Jagger and Tommy Mottola, to name a few; the painful divorce from his first wife, Susie Hilfiger; his daughter Ally’s battle with Lyme disease; a brush-up with Axl Rose at a New York nightclub; having a child with special needs and eventually meeting and marrying Dee Ocleppo.
Hilfiger wrote his memoir (Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, $30) with Peter Knobler, who has collaborated on several bestsellers, including Sumner Redstone’s “A Passion to Win,” and Mary Matalin and James Carville’s “All’s Fair.”
Here, Hilfiger talks about the turning points and challenges in his career and the process of writing his life story.
WWD: Why did you decide now was the time to write your biography?
Tommy Hilfiger: I was hesitant to write it, but thought I better do it now because someday I may forget. We sat for hours on end. We really started with me as a child. I started telling him all my stories as far back as I remember it. Keeping it in chronological order helped me weave the story through many, many years. But at times, I would go back and say, “Oh, I forgot to tell you the time I visited Michael Jackson’s house in California,” or “I forget to tell you the story of Lenny Kravitz, or the time I first met Silas Chou.”
WWD: Did you get Peter Knobler full access to all your friends and family?
T.H.: Yes, he talked to Silas, he talked to Joel [Horowitz], he talked to a number of friends and family.
WWD: How long did the book take to write?
T.H.: It took over a year. I would meet with him for blocks of time, I would say twice a month, sometimes two, three days in a row. Sometimes a full day, or an afternoon. I would meet him in New York, sometimes in Connecticut, he met me in Miami. We spent a lot of time together. And a lot of meals together. We tried to keep very clear headed. I’ve been approached by different people over the years. I felt I didn’t want to do it until I got much older, when I’m in my late 70s, 80s. But then I thought, I might forget. I want my children to hear the whole life story. They’ve heard bits and pieces over the years, but they’ve never heard the entire story in chronological order.
WWD: Do you have an incredible memory? There are so many details in the book.
T.H.: I didn’t realize I had an incredible memory. Telling Peter the story, I remember what I was wearing and what other people were wearing. And I remember what we were eating and drinking. I remember smells, I remember going into this boutique in St. Marks in 1969, and I remember what it smelled like.
WWD: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
T.H.: The hardest part of writing the book really was talking about the struggles I had with my dad. Then, of course, every time I think about the bankruptcy I had in my 20s. Even though I viewed it as my M.B.A., it was a hard time. And then at the end of the Nineties, when Tommy Hilfiger started slowing, it was frightening. My situation with Susie when our marriage was in trouble was very difficult. There were some tough moments.
WWD: What parts didn’t you want to put into the book that you ended up putting in?
T.H.: A lot of the personal stuff. I didn’t really want to put a lot of personal things in the book. But I thought that if I didn’t become fully transparent, the book wouldn’t have authenticity. I just had to tell the story the way it is. One of the reasons I was so transparent in the book was, two years ago, Diane von Furstenberg sent me her book, I read it on Christmas vacation and it was so inspiring because it was real; she opened her heart. I never wanted to put the book down because it was so open and transparent.
WWD: What do you consider the best period in your life?
T.H.: The best period in my life is right now. Life keeps getting better. I’m very happy with my family life. I’m happy where my children are at this point in time. I’m happy with the business. I see great progress with what we’re doing with Gigi [Hadid’s] see-now-buy-now; the whole structure of the business is very solid and strong. I’ve got great business associates and partners and an amazing team. I have an amazing marriage with Dee and I’m really in a great place.
WWD: In the book, you talk about how you and your father never got along and he mistreated you. Did you ever make peace with your dad and did he live to see your tremendous success?
T.H.: Yes, I did make peace with my dad, and he did see my success. Unfortunately he is no longer living but he was very proud. He died in 1989. I wanted to prove to him that I could actually become successful. I think he saw I was really very focused and serious and productive. I think that put him at ease.
WWD: What would you consider the key turning points in your life?
T.H.: One was my early bankruptcy because it really forced me to learn about the fashion business, another turning point was when I met Mohan Murjani, another was when I met Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll, and another was our IPO in 1992. At the same time, we were Estée Lauder’s first licensee thanks to Leonard and Evelyn. Estée didn’t want any other brands but Leonard convinced her we would be a good one. Tommy and Tommy Girl broke all records of sales and became number one for five straight years, earning us multiple FiFi awards. In my personal life, it was when each one of my children was born; Susie and I had a lot of great times together, and my marriage to Dee is fantastic.
WWD: In the book you write that Sebastian, the son that you had with Dee, is on the spectrum of autism. How is he doing?
T.H.: He’s doing well. We caught it early. It’s still a struggle because you need therapy. I feel badly for families who don’t have the wherewithal to have the right therapy for their children who are on the spectrum.
WWD: Any regrets?
T.H.: I don’t have a lot of regrets. Many times I think if I had gone to college, I might have avoided my Chapter 11 and maybe I would have had a better handle on the business. But I wouldn’t have had a business if I’d gone to college. I started my business right out of high school.
WWD: As a child you had dyslexia. Do you still suffer from it?
T.H.: I just had to learn how to read in a different way. I think I cured myself. It’s not like I took medication or went to a specialist. I forced myself to read each word as it presented itself, rather than attempting to speed read or read like a normal person.
WWD: When you write in the book that your initial partners (Joel Horowitz, Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll) were leaving, Susie wanted a divorce and you were suffering from hepatitis C, did you think you had hit rock bottom? How did you manage to keep it together?
T.H.: I’m really a very positive-minded person. I just had to get through this period. I got my health better and had to be there for my children and remain friendly and on good terms with Susie, and I had to do whatever I could do to fix the business. Fortunately, Fred Gehring, our former chief executive officer, really had the magic formula, which was what he was doing in Europe with the business. The formula was right in front of us. So when Fred came to me and wanted me to be part of a group to take the company private, the roadmap was there. Although it took a few years, it was very inspiring.
WWD: What advice would you give a teenager looking to drop out of college like you did and pursue his or her passions to open a clothing store and a head shop?
T.H.: I think if a young person is passionate about something specific, he or she should follow their passion. You look at Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, all of these successes in Silicon Valley, these people have had passion in a specific area and have therefore succeeded. College isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have that passion or that specific focus in mind, I believe you should go to university and get an education.
WWD: You mentioned in the book that you had three options to sell the company. Iconix wanted to do a deal with Wal-Mart, Sun Capital wanted to take it to a store like J.C. Penney or Kohl’s, and Apax wanted to keep it as an affordable luxury brand like it was in Europe. Have you thought about what would have happened if you took it downmarket?
T.H.: Although it [the Iconix-Wal-Mart scenario] was a multibillion dollar idea, it was not interesting to me, because I really wanted to continue to realize the dream.
WWD: You don’t think that dream would have happened if it was at Wal-Mart?
T.H.: I don’t think it would have been able to morph into a global designer lifestyle brand and that was my dream.
WWD: Do you think that your first marriage to Susie didn’t survive because of all your fame and success and your desire to live a high-flying lifestyle? Did she want a simpler life?
T.H.: I think it had an effect on it. My life has really been full-on. From the day we launched Tommy Hilfiger, from traveling to factories and all different parts of the world, going on personal appearance tours, to opening stores all over the world, to going on photo shoots.
WWD: Did you consider the “Hangman” campaign where you compared yourself to three other “Great American Designers for Men” at the time — Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein — as a critical juncture to becoming well known?
T.H.: That was another critical turning point. As you know, I was hesitant and credit George Lois for being the genius that he is because he said, “This is how you’re going to be known overnight.” He was not wrong. Immediately after, the name became known. It was overnight. It was amazing.
WWD: How did you handle that some people didn’t think you deserved to be comparing yourself to Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, and that you hadn’t earned that respect yet. Did that motivate you? Did you feel unaccepted by the design community?
T.H.: Yes, it was a moment of disbelief. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, do I even believe I can live up to that? The only way it will happen is to really roll up my sleeves, put my nose to the grindstone and make this happen.’ So Joel Horowitz, my partner at the time, said, “Don’t listen to what they’re writing or what they’re saying. Let’s come up with a great product and great image, and focus on the business.” He was a great partner because he had a very solid, objective point of view. When Silas came along it was a whole different story. Silas and Lawrence brought a whole different bag of magic. I’m grateful I had incredible partners all this time. I never would have been able to do it without superstar partners.
WWD: At one point in the book you write that, “No one is an inventor in the fashion business. Designers recreate fashion.” Do you really believe that?
T.H.: Yes, I don’t think generally speaking, there are a lot of innovators and inventors. Many of the designers take what exists already and update it or make it relevant for today. But true inventors have never been seen before. Bill Gates is a real inventor. I don’t think fashion designers invent anything new. They innovate new ways to make fashion.
WWD: If you had a chance to do it all again, would you have become so tight with the hip-hop community? Do you believe that ultimately you damaged your brand when they abandoned you? Or did that success propel it to heights that you never would have seen? [In one year, sales increased by $100 million.]
T.H.: I think that every chapter in my business career was meant to be. It was really a fun time. Within a very short amount of time, everyone was wearing Tommy, and that was just an exciting moment in my career. Now street fashion is on all the runways in Paris.
WWD: Did it lead to losing your core customer?
T.H.: I think we became much bigger than we should have become. Our distribution was too vast. We grew too fast. We put up too many logos, it was a period of overdistribution, and it needed to shrink. We took the pill.
WWD: You’re glad it happened that way?
T.H.: We sort of knew it was growing out of control. But as a public company, we needed to keep the stock growing and the shareholders happy. But we kept feeding the beast.
WWD: I guess you rode it up, but then Joel bore the brunt of having to explain to Wall Street why it came tumbling own?
T.H.: Yes [laughter]. It wasn’t funny at the time. We learned a lot.
WWD: Do you have any regrets that you helped Sean Combs build his business (Sean John), and then it took market share?
T.H.: I’ve always been a mentor to younger designers and people who have asked me for my advice. I also think what was meant to be was meant to be. I was happy to help young people who come to me for advice. Many people helped me along the way.
WWD: How would you describe the David Dyer era? (Dyer was president and ceo of Hilfiger from 2003 to 2006)
T.H.: I would describe it as a time period whereby we lacked direction and I just wasn’t happy with the direction we were mapping out for the future.
WWD: How did you feel when Joel stepped down and Silas and Lawrence sold?
T.H.: That wasn’t a happy period for me.
WWD: Whom do you credit for getting the business back on track?
T.H.: I really credit Fred [Gehring] and his leadership because he really figured out the formula for success in Europe. It was his thought process to bring it back to the States and plant new seeds. Then we did the exclusive with Macy’s, which has been a success and business is better than it’s ever been. I also credit Terry Lundgren for embracing us and giving us the support that was necessary to bring it back.
WWD: Have you enjoyed your role as ambassador of the brand and not having all the design responsibilities?
T.H.: I’m busier than I’ve ever been and happier than I’ve ever been. I don’t have the burden of the day-to-day business. Manny [Chirico, ceo] of PVH is doing an incredible job with not only our brand, but obviously Calvin. I feel that our leadership is better than ever and is as strong as any leadership in the entire industry. Daniel Grieder, who is global ceo, is leading the charge and believes very strongly in social media and being on the edge from a technology standpoint; that is one of the reasons we have continued global growth. It takes a very special person to have that vision. He’s very strong and confident in making decisions that keep us on the edge of technology.
WWD: How will you promote this book?
T.H.: I’m doing the talk shows, and book party here [in New York] Nov. 1 and one in Europe. We’ll do some appearances in Europe and we’ll promote it in a very strong way. I hope young people who are planning to build a brand read it and avoid some of the pitfalls and maybe take advantage of some of the thought process.
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