Tommy Hilfiger, the recipient of WWD’s John B. Fairchild Honor for Lifetime Achievement, has successfully kept his brand evolving and moving forward for more than 37 years.
The designer has created a brand that is not only instantly recognizable around the globe, but is constantly innovating, from the way it designs, to the way it shows, ad campaigns and efforts in everything from sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion and the metaverse.
Supermodel Gigi Hadid, who had a collaboration with Hilfiger, presented the John B. Fairchild Honor to him award to Hilfiger, saying, “It goes without saying that Tommy Hilfiger is one of the most iconic and influential brands of our time. Tommy’s work has defined a classic cool American style for nearly four decades. Over the years, he has revolutionized the fashion industry by building a household name label that continues to break boundaries.”
She said not only did Hilfiger give her the opportunity of a lifetime and an amazing introduction into the world of design, but also gave her the experience and honor of watching a legend at work. She said from design meetings to red carpet events, 4 a.m. in the green room for the morning shows, followed by full 12-hour press days, “no matter what, I can attest to this in dozens of countries and time zones, he was always himself, kind, professional, assertive, respectful, joyful and may I say, a star,” Hadid said.
After accepting the John B. Fairchild Honor, Hilfiger sat for a conversation with James Fallon, WWD’s editorial director, beginning with where it all began: Elmira, New York.
Asked why, as an 18-year-old, Hilfiger took $150 to open a store of his own, the designer explained that he went through a very difficult time as a student because he was dyslexic. He didn’t know what that was until he was in his late 20s and 30s.
“So I just thought I was not very smart,” he said.
But he would sit in class and he would dream about what he wanted to be. He realized he was too short for the basketball team and not big enough for the football team.
“And all of a sudden, a light bulb went off when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and all of the rock groups started coming to America.”
It was 1969, and the summer of Woodstock, and he took the $150 he had saved from working nights in a gas station, and with a friend bought 20 pairs of bell-bottom jeans. They rented space for $50 a month in downtown Elmira and started selling the jeans.
“What we found was that there was a youthquake going on of young people who wanted cool clothes. No different than what it is today. The styles might be different and the price points might be different, but it’s the same thing,” he said.
Young people wanted to look like musicians and he and his partners wanted to look like musicians and cool people. They started buying jeans from manufacturers and he felt he could do a better job by moving a pocket or changing it around.
“So I started designing clothes for my own store. And those clothes became favorites of young people,” he said.
He then decided he wanted to be a designer and build his own brand, and his family and friends thought there was no way he could do that because he needed a fashion education, connections and lot of money. Hilfiger said he would hire people who knew how to do what he didn’t know how to do, since he couldn’t cut a pattern or work a sewing machine. But he knew if he hired people to do that, he could accomplish what he wanted to accomplish.
Unfortunately, his first venture, People’s Place, didn’t last and he had to file for bankruptcy.
Hilfiger was asked if he were to meet his 18-year-old self, what advice would he give him? He said he would advise people to take a job at one of the most important design houses in the world and learn.
When he was 28, Hilfiger went to work for Jordache because he wanted to learn how to make jeans. Unfortunately, they fired him after two months because they had one jean style that was selling well and didn’t need his designs.
“So I had a lot of ups and downs along the way, but I never gave up,” he said.
Asked if that was the main lesson he took from his early experiences, he replied. “I think obstacles create opportunity. And I would just never give up.”
“I’m very curious, and I want to know who’s hot and who’s not, and what music is on top and what music is upcoming,” he said. He said he’s relied on his brother, Andy, and their team, who are constantly scouting. “And I ask a lot of questions to a lot of people all the time. I want to know who’s next or who could possibly be next. And we also go by a gut instinct,” he said.
Acknowledging that there are a lot of “hot people” out there, he was asked how can he tell who will be right for the brand? Hilfiger said they choose to work with people whom they like. “Gigi is a perfect example. Gigi is an amazing human being. She has her feet on the ground and is maybe the most famous model in the world. She is down to earth. She’s hard-working. And she has a heart. So we have to be able to really like the people we’re working with. And that’s a big part of it. We’ve been lucky.”
He said they’ve had some unlucky moments with some of them, but when you’re dealing in the celebrity world, you encounter that.
Hilfiger said one of his biggest influences was Andy Warhol, who invited him to his factory in the ’80s. He was intrigued by all the people in fashion, music, sports and Hollywood that Warhol would paint.
“But what it taught me was that pop culture moves the needle in society. And having a brand is an opportunity to join into the pop culture movement, at least as far as I was concerned. So I wanted to immerse my brand in pop culture: fashion, art, music, entertainment — F.A.M.E. We’ve done it for 38 years in February, and we’ll continue to do it. But we like to disrupt and break through boundaries.”
Discussing what keeps him moving forward, Hilfiger said, “Well, I think if there’s a will, there’s a way.” If he has difficulty with a delivery or bad press for a fashion show or something negative comes out, “You have to look forward. You have to say ‘OK, that’s today, what’s going on tomorrow?’ and we have this expression within the team, ‘What’s next?'”
Hilfiger said they’ve immersed themselves into the metaverse because they believe it’s the language young people speak. “And that’s where they’re living now in the metaverse,” he said. He said they love digital innovation and did three collaborations with Roblox. One of them aired during the brand’s September fashion show. “And we are selling digital skins, digital clothes and physical clothes at the same time, which we call phygital,” he said.
“But it is the future because if you look at the amount of people playing video games and engaging in the metaverse, you will clearly see that they’re shopping while they’re playing,” he said.
Asked about those who are skeptical about the technology, Hilfiger said, “I think it [the metaverse] will evolve. And I think it will change and evolve into something we don’t really understand today. But it will change and evolve. But we like to be a step ahead. And to always look into the future without abandoning our DNA and our roots, and as Stefan Larsson [chief executive officer of PVH Corp., Hilfiger’s parent company] said, without abandoning the hero product, but expanding upon the hero product.”
Hilfiger said you have to refresh the core product on a continual basis, and you always have to look at the competition. You have to look at what is going on around you. You can’t live in a bubble.
Facing some difficulties in the U.S. business, the brand has begun bringing the more elevated European product into the U.S., and people are embracing it. He explained that at the design center in Amsterdam, they have “incredibly talented teams working diligently on design and product development.” He said he believes the product coming out of “the European kitchen is phenomenal.”
“And the customer agrees with it,” he said, adding it’s a European take on American fashion and “it’s very, very premium.”
These days he described his role as more of an adviser to give the team something to think about. “Sometimes I have too many ideas for the teams and I get a sense they’ve had enough,” he said.
Turning to the fact that Hilfiger always seems so optimistic, he was asked if he’s ever felt defeated. He said when he was 23 years old and had to declare bankruptcy, he felt defeated. He felt if he could learn the business of the business, or at least understand it, “I felt I could be more successful than just being a creative,” the designer said.
During the question-and-answer period, Hilfiger was asked what he’s thinking about now and he replied, what’s next. He said he loves the digital world and the metaverse, as well as pop culture and what’s going on with all the influencers, from TikTok to video gamers in China and South Korea.
In response to an audience question regarding sustainability, Hilfiger said it is one of their main priorities, and they’ve been working on it probably longer than most of their competitors. He said they came to the conclusion that people are not going to buy brands that are not sustainable in the future. He said their denim is completely sustainable, and it’s a big business.
As for what he would advise a brand just starting out, Hilfiger said, “I would say pick a lane and stay in that lane until you perfect it and then evolve it. You have to figure out where you want to sit in the world of fashion or beauty or whatever it is.”
Finally, Hilfiger was asked about the transition from a private company to a major public corporation, and how it affects his thought process, his life and how he conducts his business, and how he feels today about being part of a major public company, PVH.
“I think we have a duty to be a profitable business. And we have to be proactive in operating the way a public company should operate. So it’s totally different. Obviously with a private company, you’re not being watched by the shareholders.
“And you have to be very transparent,” he said. He said Larsson is incredibly transparent and like an open book. “And I think that’s really important to the shareholders. But I also think it’s important for everyone on the teams in the company to realize that we are always being watched. So we always have to do the right thing, but not only because we’re being watched,” he said.