Tommy Hilfiger: King of Fashion Forward Style

What’s it take to create, and sustain, a global brand, associated with class, style, and enduring quality?

Tommy Hilfiger could tell you. His household-name label developed through risk taking, staying on top of trends, and savvy social awareness campaigns.

Before the tens of billion dollars in sales, before the celebrity endorsements, and before two thousand worldwide outlet stores, there was one humble decision that started it all, fifty years ago.

Raised in Elmira, in upstate New York, Tommy Hilfiger in the late 1960s noticed little was available in terms of the hip clothes the musicians of the day were sporting.

At age 18, he drove his Volkswagen Bug five hours to Manhattan, picking up clothing from street vendors, wore them, and impressed his friends enough to go into business. At first, he sold the garments out of his trunk. Soon enough, he opened a clothing store, People’s Place, with a $150 investment, and merchandise brought back from his New York City jaunt.

Tommy Hilfiger attends the 3rd Annual Audi Innovation Series in Toronto on April 30, 2019 in Toronto. (Photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images for Audi Canada)

He sold bell bottoms, and styles of the day, that never saw the inside of a clothing store at that time, in that town. He refers to that endeavour as the “foundation of my career” that set the stage for his career passion.

“I heard about these guys, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and I said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ My family and friends said, ‘You can’t do it. You need design school, money, connections.’ I said, ‘No, I think I can do it,’” he said recently at the third annual Audi innovation series, in Toronto.

Unfortunately, he filed for bankruptcy by age 23, but Hilfiger soldiered on, and considered these hard-knocks the equivalent of earning his MBA.

“My dream was to really build a brand. I knew if I understood the business part of it, the creative was already there.”

In 1985, Hilfiger launched his namesake label – unusual for someone who had never taken a design course.

To announce his brand, he bucked convention when he decided against the archetypal (near-generic) fun-on-the-beach clothing advertisement. Instead, he greenlit his marketer’s idea to place a billboard in New York City, listing other famous designers’ names with blanks for some letters – hangman style   – and his own name at the bottom.

The simple, suggestive message was that there was a new player in town, someone who belonged in the same category as the great household designers of the day. The brazen gamble worked: sales went through the roof.

“I thought that if I could build a better mousetrap, so to speak, – do something different than what is out there – that I could be successful. I became a student of the competition, looking at what the competition was doing. I would think, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to look like that. I want to do something different,” he said of his secret sauce.

“I think it’s about being innovative in everything you do from fabrics, to marketing, to how you show it on models. Every aspect has to be innovative.”

True to this mission, in the 1990s, he was also one of the first designers to blend fashion and celebrity. “We didn’t really have enough money for advertising, so I thought, ‘If I can dress some cool musicians, fans will come to my brand,’ Because we have these influences, people started wearing them.”

He collaborated commercially with rock icons as Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé, in what are now considered to be legendary advertising campaigns.

In recent years, P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg have publicly worn Hilfiger apparel, boosting the image even more.

It goes a long way in explaining Hilfiger’s formula for commercial success, in his acronym of FAME – fashion, art, music and entertainment.

“The wow factor: I would say, it is modern. Modern, not just in design – because we always try to evolve the brand – more modern, but also the way we do things is much more disruptive, and more modern, than our competition,” Hilfiger told Pursuit. “If we have an idea, we don’t sit on the idea. We act – in most cases.”

Today, the brand enjoys seven billion dollars in global sales, with various divisions as Tommy Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger, Men’s, Children’s, Footwear, Sport, Fragrance, Tailored Clothing, Home Furnishings, everything for the lifestyle, and still building.

His latest line – a first for any designer – is geared towards those with special needs and elderly. It comes at a time when there is a tremendous need in the market, too: Statistics say that almost 60 million Americans live with a disability, and about 50 million are over age 65.

“I have children with autism. And I’ve watched them struggle getting ready for school or work because they can’t button buttons or zip zippers,” he told Pursuit. The new line of garments has Velcro, magnets and various openings in trousers for people with leg braces.

Tommy Hilfiger continues to be the paradigm for innovation in the fashion, raising the bar for the industry.

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