THE HUSTLE OF TOMMY HILFIGER
COLUMNIST DAN ROOKWOOD SITS DOWN WITH ONE OF FASHION’S MOST LIKEABLE, AND SUCCESSFUL, AMERICAN DESIGNERS.
Before being allowed to interview Tommy Hilfiger comes a quiz. He literally looks me up and down and asks where each item of clothing I’m wearing is from. I’d decided to go suitably ‘American preppy’ – it’s Hilfiger’s signature, after all. he floppy-haired, bespectacled designer is himself ed formally in black suit and tie, with a purple check way collar shirt and black leather double-monkstrap worn – somewhat incongruously for a man of 66 – ut socks. es he exclusively wear his own label? “For the most but I sometimes try other brands,” offers Hilfiger. nk [Brunello] Cucinelli, I think Loro Piana from ury standpoint. And there’s nothing like a five-pocket f authentic Levi’s.” ’re sitting on a sofa in the large executive office ent to Hilfiger’s impressive corner suite with imposing, egree views down the Hudson River. A TV crew is g up for an interview he’s about to do for reality series, Mom, with longtime friend Yolanda Hadid. She’s er to supermodels Bella and Gigi, the latter the current f Tommy Hilfiger womenswear with her own Tommy i capsule collection. e designer’s long been obsessed with fame – “or what FAME: fashion, art, music, entertainment” – and d alliances with luminaries decades before other s started harnessing the power of paid ‘influencers’. hile the camera crew sets up lighting, Hilfiger offers a tour of his office. Behind a large mahogany desk is a wall of fame – framed pictures of the great and good, from Michael Jackson to the Rolling Stones to Kate Moss to David Bowie to Q-tip to Mark Ronson to Britney Spears to Beyoncé, all wearing his designs while on billboards and magazine covers, while performing, or standing next to their pal, Tommy. Down the length of the room, a display cabinet serves as a time capsule of the designer’s career – an impressive collection of various industry trophies, his
first collection of fragrance bottles, a brick salvaged from his first store. In the centre of the room sit two Chesterfields reupholstered in a patchwork of vintage blue denim jeans. They serve as a neat visual metaphor for his ‘American classics with a twist’ shtick. “I like the mix of high-low,” he says. Hilfiger’s life has been a mix of high and low – professional and personal – but throughout it all, he’s remained as upbeat and positive as his brand’s idealistically wholesome all-american ad campaigns. Growing up as one of nine children in upstate New York, he struggled at school with undiagnosed dyslexia and had a poor relationship with his short-tempered father. He flunked out of college but, at 18, started a successful clothing store/hangout, which soon led to a wild lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in his early twenties. During their peak cool of the ’70s, Hilfiger was a regular at legendary clubs Studio 54, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. “It was beyond,” he smiles, wistfully. “Even when I talk about it, I get excited to this day because it was an experience one would never forget.” Thanks to his hip look and shameless self-confidence, Hilfiger also became part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle. “Andy invited me to his Factory numerous times, and in one part he had paintings all over the floor. He’d say, ‘Would you like to buy one of these?’ I could have bought something at a $1000, $2000, $5000 that’s now worth millions. But I didn’t have money then.” He’s since made up for it with one of the world’s greatest private collections of contemporary art, featuring works by Warhol, Jean-michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Damien Hirst, among others. Hilfiger’s always been more creative than business-minded and, at 25, he filed for bankruptcy. “I didn’t know how to run the business, and that was a big problem because I stumbled across a degree in business and economics as a result of it. Not a real degree, but I say that it was my MBA as a result of having a bankruptcy at a young age – it taught me how to really focus on, and understand, the business part of the business.” Further false starts followed before he launched his eponymous brand in 1985. It landed with an immediate, and audacious, bang – the ‘Hangman Billboard’ in Times Square covered in an ad claiming the then-unknown upstart as the successor to the American menswear throne, occupied by Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. “There was backlash, immediately,” recalls Hilfiger. “So I thought the only way I’m going to get out of this corner I’m being painted into is to come up with great product.” The boastful ad proved to be a selffulfilling prophecy, with Hilfiger filling in the blanks to become a multi-billion-dollar megabrand, even if the road since has proved a bumpy ride. His brand has been a hip-hop sensation before plummeting through over-distributed market saturation and twice being sold out from underneath him. Personally, he’s also dealt with a tough and public divorce and suffered the pain of seeing two of his children struggle with serious illness and autism. And yet, today, he claims to be at his happiest. “The best period in my life is right now. Life keeps getting better. I’m in a really great place.” Hilfiger splits his time between lavish homes in New York; Greenwich, Connecticut; Miami; and Mustique (where he lives next door to good mate Mick Jagger). And he enjoys a largely ambassadorial role at the company that still sports his name – a position where he can leverage his celebrity and channel his philanthropy. He seems slightly put out that I’m not rocking any Hilfiger and so, before finishing up, makes sure to state that the current Edition Collection for men, “has to be the best we’ve done in men’s in 25 years”. That’s the American hustle right there. And Tommy’s still got it.
FROM LEFT Cotton shirt, $130, by Tommy Hilfiger. Cotton polo, $110, and cotton cap, $80, both by Tommy Hilfiger. Cotton jumper, $250, cotton polo, $120, cotton jeans, $180, and canvas shoes $129, all by Tommy Hilfiger. Styling Olivia Harding