American Boy

In 1985, a then-unknown designer named Tommy Hilfiger bought a billboard proclaiming he was on the iconic level of fashion's one-namers: Perry, Calvin, Ralph. Nearly 30 years later, history has proven him right.

Published May 30, 2012
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Red, white, and blue are Tommy Hilfiger's colors. One of the quintessential American designers, Hilfiger made his name and his company on a tweaked version of all-American preppy style—one that's he helped export globally. Now his company is headquartered in Amsterdam, his styling owes a debt to Japanese street fashion, and his clothes are worn differently in London, Milan, and Paris. But through it all, Hilfiger has remained true to his roots and weathered the fashion industry's ups and downs with a smile. Next week, he receives the CFDA's Lifetime Achievement Award. He spoke with about the long journey from his first shop, People's Place, to his own place in the fashion pantheon.

What went through your head when you heard you were being given this award?

TH: I was amazed. I wasn't really expecting to receive a lifetime achievement award. I thought maybe ten years down the road it may have been a thought. Diane von Furstenberg told me first. And my first reaction was, OK, is she kidding? And then it started to sink in and I was very happy and very proud. But then I was thinking, I have so much more to do in my life.

You've now been in business almost 30 years and seen the nature of the business change enormously. How do you feel that change?

When I started, there wasn't the amount of competition out there. And it has grown over the years—there is competition all over the world in every major city. So you really have to continue to be on your toes and build great products and great marketing. It's always a challenge. The work is really never done.

You've focused the past couple years on expanding and growing globally, correct?

We're actually all over the world. We went global about 16 years ago—it was one of the best things we ever did. Because we started planting stores in Europe, we found interest in the brand extremely well and it allowed it to grow in other parts of the world.

Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger

When you travel with the brand, do you see people in other countries responding to it in different ways?

In Japan, they wear pattern with pattern in brighter colors. In Italy, they wear it in a very sort of chic, sophisticated way. In England, it's a bit weathered and worn. In America, it's very eclectic. It's slightly different in every country.

And does seeing all of that inspire you to come back and try new things on native soil—not necessarily in the way you're dressing personally but in the way you're thinking about the styling and the design?

It's always changing, and there's always a new way to do it. Either with new color combinations, new shapes, new fabrics, new details—and that's what makes it exciting. Because the customer is always changing and the customer always wants something fresh and new. So you have to be on top of the trends in the world. You have to have a thought as to what is next, and maybe what he or she is thinking about before he or she knows what they're thinking about.

I think music has historically been quite important to the brand. Is that also an inspiration?

Music and musicians have been an inspiration since day one and they continue to be. I mean, whether or not we would do a meat dress [like Lady Gaga's] would be a serious question, but I love looking at artists and how they present themselves.

You mentioned competition, and how many more brands there are than there used to be. I'm curious what you think of the state of fashion today and especially American fashion today. Are there young designers who you have your eye on whose work you like and respect?

I'm always looking at young designers and what they're doing because I love their energy and creativity. Nothing really takes the place of experience, though. Because the experience has taught me so much, as a result of making mistakes along the way. You have to learn from mistakes. There have been some big ones, and I've always learned from them.

Well, no one's perfect. Is there one mistake in particular that sticks out to you?

I think fit is really, really important. And I think sometimes people love the way something looks but they're not so conscious of the fit. If you don't have the right fit and the right quality, you really have nothing at the end of the day. I believe that style is important but it has to fit and be of the right quality.

Photos: Courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger

When I think about your collections, I think of branding. Which is something a lot of people talk about now, but it seems to me you were kind of quite early to it. You weren't reinventing the wheel, but you were taking a style that was in the culture and bringing it first to all of America and then worldwide. And the early ads by George Lois were remarkable for how strongly they created an image around you. Do you think about the brand separate from the individual design or individual pieces that you're working on?

I think it's all the same. I think the brand is part of the design and the design is a part of the brand. Really, in the very beginning, I redesigned the classics. Nobody can call themselves an original designer because nothing is original. We're always talking about shirts with two sleeves or trousers with two legs or classic design as a starting point. It's what you do with it, and how you reissue it, or readapt it, or redesign it for today's use. I think I was at the forefront for reinterpreting what preppy meant to America in 1985. And in 1985 the only preppy clothes you could find were sort of stiff Brooks Brothers normal preppy wear, and Ralph Lauren, who was very English in his outlook. I made them irreverent, relaxed, I broke the rules, I washed them, I made them oversized, I created all sorts of interesting detail, and made them hip and cool and young.

Were these the clothes you had wanted when you were a young man?

I didn't know what I wanted until I started designing them. I said, OK, what would I want to wear and how would I want to wear it? I wanted them to be looser, I wanted them to be washed, because I didn't want to have the chemicals across my skin. I wanted them to be detailed, colorful, fun; I didn't want to look uptight or stiff or old or uncool.

And in 1985, when the options were much more limited, you might have had to go out and create that for yourself.

There were no options around, so I had to create it on my own.

That's a brave proposition. Do you ever look back and think, God, what made this kid think he could do it?

Absolutely—I look back and think, how lucky I was to have that opportunity.

Do you think that opportunity still exists in the same way for young designers starting out today?

I think opportunities always exist. I mean, what they are is a question mark, and maybe there's opportunity for someone to do it in the watch business, in the bicycle business. In the fashion business, it was sort of my time for the opportunity.

Would you say you have a mentor in this industry?

I would say I have more than one. I would say Leonard Lauder has been a mentor to me, from the Estée Lauder companies. And I'd say Silas Chou. Silas is a great business strategist, and Leonard Lauder is an incredible product marketing person. And then I've looked at Karl Lagerfeld as being a genius designer to look up to.

That's interesting—you seem to approach things quite differently.

Karl Lagerfeld told me one day that he reinvented today by looking at Coco Chanel's archives. And making all of her designs relevant for today. So I wasn't doing anything dissimilar by taking all the American classics and making them relevant for today.

Photos: Via the Worlds Best Ever; Tommy Ton
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