The real American Dream of fashion
BY SANDY STRASSER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2015)
Whoever wants to create fashion has to understand it – and above all has to understand life. As a teenager, designer Tommy Hilfiger already knew where his professional journey was going to take him. Even back then, a creative spirit was waiting inside him – a spirit whose absolute desire it was to design cool clothing. In 1969, he opened his first shop with two school friends in his home town Elmira near New York. There, he also sold flared trousers and fringed jackets of the sort he himself had purchased on his many shopping trips in the past. From then on, his success story ran its course. In 1992, Tommy Hilfiger finally became the first fashion company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The 64-year-old tells us how everything began, what role cultural differences play in his daily work, and how he is guiding his brand successfully through the digital age.
Mr Hilfiger, where did your early desire to have a career based on fashion and lifestyle come from?
When I founded my namesake company 30 years ago, I dreamed of having a globally-recognized lifestyle brand but I never could have expected that our company would grow on such an incredible scale. We are very proud that today we have over 1,400 stores in more than 90 countries worldwide.
What fascination did music exert on you at that time? What influence did this have on your business later?
When I was a teenager I fell in love with the phenomenon of rock-and-roll music and bands like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones. I loved music and wanted to be a rock star, except I couldn’t play an instrument. But I decided that I could still look like a rock star, which inspired me to start designing clothes.
Your first business had the name ‘People’s Place’. What business concept was behind this?
I launched a small chain of stores called People’s Place in high school with a couple of friends – we each put in $150. Our goal was to bring “cool big-city styles” like those worn by the musicians we admired to our tiny hometown of Elmira, New York.
How did you come up with this exceptional name and what message was this to convey?
Our store was a fun place where all of the cool people came in and hung out. We painted the walls black, burned incense, played loud music, and sold candles and bell-bottoms. I wanted it to be inclusive and for everyone, something that still holds true for my brand today.
Looking back, how did you find the beginning in New York?
I moved to New York City in 1979 and was drawn to the amazing energy of Manhattan – the punk shows at CBGB and the street scene on St. Mark’s Place. I met Andy Warhol at Studio 54 and the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City. I was surround by an incredibly creative, talented, diverse group of people, and that inspired me to follow my own passions.
What was the initial spark for the creation and production of your own label?
I spent some time living in California, and I loved their more relaxed approach to fashion. When I moved back to New York, I started my brand to bring a new twist to America style by combining the classic, “preppy” East Coast lifestyle with the laid-back and youthful spirit of the West Coast.
How did you teach yourself with regards to design? Where did you gain all the technical skills?
I started designing when I was young by inventing different ways to alter the bell-bottom jeans I was buying in New York City to sell at my first store, People’s Place. The experimentation continued from there as I started designing my own collections for the store and I always focused on bringing my own twist to classic Americana looks.
How did you learn to be a business man?
I started my first business when I was just 17 years old, and I consider that my “real world degree” – it was the greatest learning experience of my career. When I later founded the Tommy Hilfiger brand, I was lucky to have great business partners and mentors who have helped me along the way.
Why do you think fashion designers have to understand the commercial side of the business?
To succeed in fashion, you need to have a balanced understanding of both the creative and business sides of this industry – you can’t just rely on one or the other. Fortunately, I learned this lesson early on in my career.
In your opinion, what aspects are just as important, in addition to specialist topics, if you want to start your own business?
You should never underestimate the power of strong business partners and mentors. It’s also important to foster a great work environment.
For your first collection, you travelled to Mumbai at the beginning of the 1980s. Why was that a particular eye opener for you?
I visited India early on in my career and I’ve been back many times since. I am continuously inspired by the country’s energetic culture and heritage; I have loved visiting the busy marketplaces to see all the incredible colors, textures and fabrics.
What target group did you have at the beginning of your career and what type of clientele do you have today?
I introduced my first menswear collection in 1985 by modernizing button-down shirts, chinos, and other time-honored classics with updated fits and details. Since then, our business has grown from a single menswear collection into a global lifestyle brand offering tailored, womenswear, childrenswear, denim, underwear, footwear and accessories.
How would you define the DNA of your brand?
After 30 years, my original vision remains at the core of our approachable and inclusive brand DNA as we continue play with iconic inspirations and pop culture references to bring a fresh perspective to classic, American, cool style.
What philosophy do you practice within your company?
We believe in building a creative, collaborative culture and encourage our employees to bring their own unique twist to everything they do.
What role do cultural differences play in the international distribution of products?
As the brand has grown internationally, our signature prep style has gone global with different markets interpreting prep in different ways. The Tommy Hilfiger lifestyle is rooted in certain classics, but it differs across borders. In New York it’s eclectic with a focus on the details to make a statement, and in London there is a strong old world influence. In Paris it’s understated, elegant and very sophisticated. In Santiago it’s brightly colored chinos dressed up with crisp button downs and blazers while in Tokyo consumers love plaid and argyle classics, but redone in saturated colors that make it feel fresh.
How do you resolve the constantly growing challenges of digitalization?
Technology brings new energy, speed and creativity to the world of fashion. When I started out, fashion shows were held behind closed doors and took six months to reach consumers. Today, technology and social media creates immediate access to information for our global audiences. I love that at Tommy Hilfiger, we have the ability to engage with over 1.2 million fans around the world on Instagram through curated photos and videos that express our brand’s unique heritage and preppy twist.
How important are faithful and loyal partners who have the same vision of a particular aspect as you?
I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors early on in my career who believed in me and encouraged me to stay focused on this vision. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their guidance.
How has your role in the business changed from the beginning, when you were the inexperienced entrepreneur, to the position you are in today?
I’ve never lost my entrepreneurial spirit. It’s what keeps me passionate and excited about my new collections each season, and it’s kept us on a pioneering path when it comes to embracing innovation and digital technology in the business. In my current role with the company, my days are filled with everything from design reviews to press interviews. I love that my days are never the same.
What does moving forward mean to you?
Looking ahead, it’s all about finding the right balance between tradition and innovation. You never know what the future will hold – but I always say the best is yet to come.
For over 30 years, Tommy Hilfiger has been designing classic American cool apparel. People all over the world love his design style. Under his vision and leadership as Principal Designer, the Tommy Hilfiger Group has become one of the few globally recognised brands and offers a wide range of American-inspired clothes and accessories. In 1985 he presented his first signature collection, in which he lent a modern touch to button-down shirts, chinos and other classics. The relaxed, youthful attitude of his first designs has remained a distinctive hallmark throughout all of his subsequent collections. The business has gone from being a purely male collection and has grown to become a global lifestyle brand.
Picture credit © Tommy Hilfiger