Tommy Hilfiger (born 1952) has brought the fashion industry to its knees with his enormous success in the retail clothing market. His all-American designs appeal simultaneously to everyone from 60-year-old golfers to gangsta rappers, a near-impossible feat in the demographics-oriented rag trade. But the key to Hilfiger's professional triumph isn't the clothes; it's the label.
Tommy Hilfiger has been referred to as the Ralph Lauren of a new generation, but he has clearly come unto his own in the world of fashion. With successful lines of men's clothing, women's clothing, home furnishings, and a unisex fragrance, Hilfiger became the fashion guru of the 1990s and the biggest thing to hit the fashion industry in a decade. An enticement to a wide variety of consumers, his designs are casual while his prices remain moderate. Hilfiger's most praiseworthy achievement, however, is his precision of brand execution. Alan Millstein, editor of The Fashion Network Report trade magazine, described the method behind Hilfiger's success to USA Today: "It's a combination of great marketing, merchandising, and hype. He's packaged better than any designer since Ralph Lauren."
Small-Time Start in Retail
Tommy Hilfiger was born in 1952. The second of nine children, he grew up in Elmira, New York where he devoted hours to studying the music and styles that were popular in the glamour centers of culture like New York and London. He idolized rock stars, especially Mick Jagger. But Hilfiger didn't possess any extraordinary talents or an academic background that would propel him to success. However, he did have a certain charm and style that he supposedly inherited from his father, Richard "Hippo" Hilfiger, a watchmaker by trade. Although, Hilfiger has described himself as a scrawny, dyslexic kid who became the class clown to mask his embarrassment over less-than-average grades.
Hilfiger was still a high school senior when he set out to provide the young people of Elmira with bellbottom jeans. In 1969, he drove to New York City where he spent his life savings of $150 on 20 pairs of Landlubber jeans. He brought them back to Elmira and opened a hippie clothing shop called The People's Place. By the time he was 26, this shop had expanded into a chain of seven stores, scattered throughout upstate New York and catering to the college campus crowds. Hilfiger ran the stores for ten years, until the retail market went into an economic slump and he went bankrupt. Hilfiger discussed his business' failure with Lisa Armstrong of the London Times. "I was hard on myself," he said. "I vowed never to fall into sloppy work habits again. Money, after a certain point, is not what drives me." He admitted that fear of failure is his impetus to succeed.
Hilfiger never went to design school, but he began to experiment with fashion design in the early 1970s, while he was running The People's Place. By 1979, he had sold his business and moved to Manhattan with his wife Susan Cirona, who had been a creative director of his People's Place boutiques. He began to work as a freelancer and befriended a number of people in the business, including the late designer Perry Ellis. Within five years Hilfiger was working under contract with Asian textile mogul Mohan Murjani, the man behind the trendy Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. In 1986, Murjani and Hilfiger placed a billboard on Times Square that announced Hilfiger would soon dominate men's clothing, although at the time he was hardly known. Under Murjani's management, the Tommy Hilfiger mens-wear collection grossed $5 million in the first year and $10 million in the second. However, these were modest sales by fashion industry standards. In 1988, Hilfiger bought out Murjani and joined Silas Chou, a Hong Kong clothing manufacturer. By that time, the company was bringing in around $25 million a year. They began their new endeavor cautiously, hiring experienced executives from well-known companies like Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne. Three years later they took the company public. By 1999 the company was grossing more than half a billion dollars and was the highest-valued clothing stock on the exchange.
An All-American Look
Although he is not readily acknowledged as a true designer, Hilfiger is incessantly compared to fellow American designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. He has admitted to redesigning and updating clothes rather than creating brand new fashions, but that hardly matters to the throngs who adore the red, white, and blue rectangular Tommy label. Hilfiger threads inspire devotion from consumers who love his all-American chinos, chambray shirts, knit polo shirts, jeans, and other wardrobe essentials. Jodie L. Ahern summed up the allure in her Minneapolis Star Tribune report: "His clothes are classic, comfortable, high-quality garb that appeal to young and old and are priced in the upper-moderate range. It's really that simple." Hilfiger consciously eschews the virtuoso fashion-designer image, following the lead of mainstream retail stores like The Gap and Banana Republic, which provide stylish, well-made clothing at reasonable prices. Nonetheless, he was gratified to win Menswear Designer of the Year in 1995 after having been snubbed the year before when the Council of Fashion Designers of America left the category unawarded.
Though some disdain Hilfiger's designs, challenging his status as a true "designer," it is difficult to criticize the businessman behind the brand name. "Tommy will never be on the designer rack," Millstein admitted to USA Today. "But he's powerful enough to have become a brand name. That's what every designer really wants to be." Hilfiger understands the difference between designers and "brands." He admitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I treat my company the way the French designers treat their Saint-Laurent or House of Chanel. We do fashion shows, we use the best photographers, the best models, we hire the best people, we believe the show is very important. But beyond that facade we make sure that we're very tedious in building our brand. It's a designer brand. Calvin and Ralph and Donna (Karan) and Armani are designer brands, but some of the other designers are not designer brands. Once you become a recognized brand the licensing becomes incredibly profitable." Most designers take the traditional route to fashion fame, beginning with an expensive couture line, which few ordinary women buy. They generally cash in on their fame later by lending their name to mass market clothes. Hilfiger used music videos like a catwalk to reach the young, fashionable crowd. The aggressive construction of his empire and the advertising onslaught, which costs up to $20 million a year, are what has made Hilfiger a household name.
People are attracted the sense of fashion they get from the everyday clothes. The distinctive Tommy label gives them the recognition and acceptance they crave. Hilfiger, who built his company on a brand, is very particular about what the Tommy logo represents. "It is important that my logo communicates who I am to the consumer," he tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It has to say, 'I am about movement, energy, fun, color, quality, detail, American spirit, status, style, and value.' The brand must relate to the consumers' sensibilities. Whether they are based upon sports, music, entertainment, politics, or pop culture-it must have the cool factor."
One of a designer's best marketing tools is dressing celebrities. Hilfiger established himself first with young rappers whose influence was glorified through music videos and television. In 1992, he dressed Snoop Doggy Dogg for a Saturday Night Live appearance. Other artists soon adopted his clothes, and the relationship between clothes and music became so tight that Hilfiger wound up in rap lyrics. Since then, Hilfiger's trendy status has attracted many more big names to his designs. He has dressed music stars like the Fugees, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, David Bowie, and TLC. Michael Jackson wore a Hilfiger sweater in promotions for his album HIStory. Some of his fans include celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Sidney Poitier, and Quincy Jones. He's also used names to sell his merchandise in print ads. Errol Flynn's grandson, Luke, and Jackson Browne's son, Ethan, were used to sell Hilfiger's fragrance. Hilfiger originally set out to dress celebrities and has specifically targeted the young, up-and-coming, cool crowd. This has been an enormously successful strategy for the designer whose company experiences a surge in sales whenever a name like DiCaprio appears in Hilfiger clothes.
Celebrities lend their assets to Hilfiger's merchandise, but his real customer base is with real people, especially kids. Hilfiger may appeal to all ages, but what sets him apart from other designers is his lock on the youth market. Hilfiger is known to be a kid at heart, a favorable prerequisite to selling to kids. His love of all things fun is manifested in his office decor: a red leather jacket signed by Bruce Spring-steen, photos of Mick Jagger and John Lennon, electric Gibson guitars, a Superbowl football signed by Floyd Little, and books on trains, vintage convertibles, and sports.
Hilfiger has also been anointed as fashion's nice guy by the national press. The image is supported by his philanthropic deeds. He has been involved in the raising of money for multiple sclerosis research (one of his sisters suffers from the disease), sponsoring T-shirt sales during one of Sheryl Crow's concert tours and then donating the money for breast cancer research, and raising money for a youth center serving lower-income families.
Hilfiger says he would like to be known as an important American designer. With a $600 million a year business, some would consider him pretty important. He owns a quarter of the company and is personally valued at around $100 million. However, Hilfiger's popularity with the masses may be a signal that his decline as an innovator for young style-setters is imminent. The Hilfiger name has saturated the market and is already becoming passe in the urban environments that often define what is up-and-coming. Nevertheless, Wall Street continues to show enthusiasm for Hilfiger stock. The company is hoping to stay on top of its brand development, which will include a broad expansion of the product line and more overseas sales. Hilfiger maintains to the Albany Times Union, "the key is to keep coming back, but coming back in different ways."
Hilfiger and his wife have four children and live in a 22-room estate on a converted farm in Greenwich, Connecticut. He also owns homes on Nantucket and the Caribbean island of Mustique.
Further Reading on Tommy Hilfiger
Albany Times Union, January 25, 1998.
Daily News Record, November 2, 1998.
London Daily Telegraph, August 22, 1998.
London Independent, August 4, 1996.
London Times, February 24, 1999.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 22, 1996.
Portland Oregonian, December 13, 1998.
USA Today, June 14, 1995.