Hilfiger: An American Brand

UPDATED: September 13, 2010
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2010

Tommy Jacob Hilfiger stitched his initials into the American fabric with confident strokes and colored thread by following a determined mantra: Never give up.

That credo is especially important in fashion design—part of American pop culture’s roller-coaster ride, as Hilfiger calls it. The second of nine children born to working-class parents, Hilfiger jumped aboard the ride at a young age. In the interim, he has ridden from the bankruptcy of his nascent effort to the upper echelons of the industry, down a steep turn or two, and back to the top as his red, white and blue brand celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

As a high-school senior in his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., near Cornell University, Hilfiger first traded on the “style, charm and serious work ethic” instilled in him by his parents, a jewelry store watchmaker and a nurse. He started selling jeans out of the trunk of his car. In 1969, he and two friends pooled $150 and an inventory of 20 pairs of jeans to open a boutique called People’s Place in a basement rented for $50 month. They painted the walls black, burned incense, played music and stocked their shelves with bell-bottoms and tie-dyed tops that Hilfiger foraged during pilgrimages into New York City.

“I thought it was fun to buy and sell, and I loved finding unique items to sell to my customers,” the 59-year-old designer tells SUCCESS during the ride from a photo shoot back to his New York office. Hilfiger developed seven specialty stores for campus kids in upstate New York. Then, in his mid-20s, the roller coaster jumped the tracks; his hometown People’s Place failed after it couldn’t keep up with its rapid expansion, forcing him to seek bankruptcy protection. “I learned that I should really, really pay attention to the numbers and the business side of things instead of just the creative—because you can’t have one without the other,” Hilfiger says.

Believe in Yourself

After the People’s Place failure, Hilfiger’s mantra kicked in. Never give up. Believe in yourself. Always dream. Look ahead. In 1979, the self-taught designer moved to his beloved New York City to pursue a career in the industry. Although he would receive job overtures from both the Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis design shops, he believed he had a personal vision that would resonate with the American soul. “My biggest challenge at that point was money,” he explains. “I didn’t have any. I had to work hand to mouth until I acquired enough to roll the business along, and then I had to attract investors and partners. I never doubted my personal vision once.” At 34, he found the right backer. Mohan Murjani, the Indian textiles magnate behind Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, helped Hilfiger start his business in 1985 (Murjani later dropped out and was replaced by other backers). As was becoming his style, the unknown designer entered the city that never sleeps in a brash way. Hilfiger enlisted the services of art director George Lois, whose marketing campaign included a Times Square billboard that trumpeted Hilfiger as the next great men’s designer, putting his initials alongside those of Ralph Lauren, Ellis and Klein. Some competitors and critics “dissed” his work, asking why the industry needed a young Ralph Lauren, but Hilfiger’s brightly colored oxfords and buttonholes stitched in green hit a happy chord with the public. “It was a crazy thing for an unknown designer to do, but I believed in my vision and it was one of the most defining moments of my life and career,” he says. “The buzz and controversy surrounding the advertisement instantly put me on the map. If you believe in yourself, you can make things happen.”

Prep to Hip-Hop

Hilfiger says infusing his brand with the American culture is all about inspiration. “Andy Warhol inspires me, the way he brought music, fashion, art and entertainment together,” Hilfiger explains. “Musicians who write their own songs and carve their own way inspire me. I communicate through many different means. I visualize it in my mind and then verbalize it, sketch it or photograph it. I find inspiration in old movies, anything I can find.” He has long brought design partners into the fold for a season, and is quick to credit their roles in the design process. “I think you learn from the best,” he says. “I like to look up to people who are successful so that I can learn from them.” Hilfiger flew through successes, taking the company public in 1992, and adding accessories, fragrances, a home collection and jeans, as well as franchises in Europe and Asia. Initially the preppy guru, Hilfiger became the king of hip-hop after rapper Snoop Dogg wore an oversized Hilfiger rugby shirt on Saturday Night Live. In 1995, the Council of Fashion Designers of America named Hilfiger Menswear Designer of the Year. Then, in the late ’90s, the Hilfiger brand lost its luster. “We were oversupplying the demand,” he says today. Although he admits being confused about the cause during this time, the downturn didn’t dim his fire or poison his outlook. The stock tumbled at a time when new sales in Europe were making up for the loss of business in the United States. The international success brought the company a second chance. Apax Partners, a private equity firm, acquired the company for $1.6 billion with the goal of bringing the brand back in the United States. While Hilfiger relinquished his management role, he has remained a principal designer and the company’s public face. A major shareholder, he has a lifetime contract.

Going for It

“I’m very disciplined about what I do,” Hilfiger says. “If I want to do something, I find a way to do it, whether it’s a design or something in my life. I won my wife the same way.” He refers to wife Dee, with whom he has a son in addition to the four children he has from his first marriage. Hilfiger is equally disciplined in the pursuit of inspiration and other passions such as pop culture and philanthropy. In 1999, he bought a pair of Marilyn Monroe’s blue jeans at a Christie’s auction. “I’ve always been crazy about her,” he says. “And she looked amazing in those jeans.” Today, they hang framed on his office wall with other iconic images. That was also the year the company sponsored his longtime favorite band, the Rolling Stones, on their “No Security” tour. “I never thought I’d see my name up there with the logo of the band I used to listen to as a kid,” he says. Along the way, he has embraced other musicians, entertainment and sports stars, and artists—including Warhol, the Lotus and Ferrari racing teams, Lenny Kravitz, Britney Spears, David and Iman Bowie, Beyonce, soccer player Thierry Henry and drummer Marky Ramone—with his products, sponsorships and in his ad campaigns. Hilfiger also has his hand in the publishing business, in 2006 with Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures, “an homage to one of my all-time favorite individuals and style icons,” he says. “No one will ever come close to capturing her singular blend of elegance, compassion, confidence, grace and vitality.” Among his other projects, in 2007 he collaborated once again with art director George Lois on Iconic America: A Roller-Coaster Ride Through the Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture. “We’re both crazy connoisseurs of pop culture, and I really loved the opportunity to explore the essence of America with George,” he says. The book inspired the 2008 one-hour special Tommy Hilfiger Presents Ironic Iconic America on the Bravo network. Hilfiger also is a devoted philanthropist, giving millions of dollars of support to various causes. “I have a sensitivity for people who are born into a situation they can’t control,” he says. “Health causes—MS, AIDS, breast cancer—have been very important to me.”

‘I Love Dreamers’

A self-proclaimed yoga addict, Hilfiger is usually spotted in his trademark dark denim, white oxfords, a dark navy blazer, and perhaps some Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers. If there is a touch of Peter Pan in that, so be it. He calls Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation of Don Quixote one of his favorite books because “I love dreamers who don’t give up.” Hilfiger admits the most surprising thing about the past 25 years is how fast time went by. Last September, the company opened a 22,000-square-foot flagship store on Fifth Avenue that carries Hilfiger’s runway styles as well as the denim and sportswear collections designed in Europe. Today, the company has 1,000 stores in 65 countries. “My heart will always beat fastest in New York,” Hilfiger says. “There’s a dynamism on the streets here that is right in synch with my spirit.” Earlier this year, the Tommy Hilfiger firm sold for $3 billion to the clothing conglomerate Phillips-Van Heusen. The New York Times noted the sale was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it suggests the fashion elite may have underestimated Hilfiger. The purchase price was nearly seven times what Phillips-Van Heusen paid for Calvin Klein in 2003 and nearly five times what LVMH paid for Donna Karan in 2001, according to The Times. At New York’s Fashion Week in February, Hilfiger’s fall line (for which he enlisted assistance from young designer Peter Som) received enthusiastic reviews. Afterward, Hilfiger told The New York Times he views the TH nameplate as a “global, classic lifestyle brand that is youthful, colorful and fun.”

Celebrating a Quarter Century

Vogue editor Anna Wintour told The Times during the spring shows that “Tommy has been able to come back and reinvent himself, and you have to give him a lot of credit for that.” Hilfiger’s 25th anniversary global campaign features lustrous images of icons the designer has celebrated over the years. “Every so often someone bursts onto the scene by force of sheer charisma—James Dean, Clark Gable, Farrah Fawcett, Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop, for instance,” Hilfiger says. “One person can have a tremendous influence on culture by just being exactly who they are. It is inspiring to me as a designer.” He is clearly pleased with the ride he’s on now. “We’ve always evolved,” he says. “I’ve dreamed of a comeback since the business started settling in the 1990s. And we did come back. There’s no formula to reinventing a classic. That’s the fun of it. All I can tell you is that it’s possible to put a fresh spin on a timeless piece, give it the energy of the here and now, to make it feel really unique.” The contemplative pause is fleeting, however. You never give up, even while you’re enjoying a great ride. “Keeping the brand fresh is about refocusing and reinventing each season without losing your connection to the heritage,” he explains. “That’s an ongoing process that never changes. I immediately think, How can I do better next season? I’ve learned not to rest on my laurels. When you become overconfident with your last success, you are in trouble. You should be looking ahead at your next challenge instead of patting yourself on the back. It can disappear quickly.”