An Esquire Malaysia Exclusive Chat With Tommy Hilfiger

Insight into Hilfiger's fashion takeover in the '90s, and the trials that followed.

BY Sam Coleman | Apr 23, 2016 | Fashion

Tomo Brejc

It’s been a year of years for Tommy Hilfiger as he charges to the 30-year goal line of his brand. Esquire tracked the busiest man in fashion across three continents and finally pinned him down for some one-on-one time as he showed in London Collections: Men for the first time.

Tommy Hilfiger must have a sense of charmed bemusement as he looks out onto the massive space of The Armory in New York City, a contrary and challenging space. He’s been here before, knows it well and is a seasoned veteran of biting fashion critiques, of sycophantic praise, of the immediacies and transient nature of fashion. At this point in his career, he’s earned the right to be blasé, certainly relaxed. He’s built an empire, almost lost it and reorganised it to come out swinging. He has a three-billion-dollar deal under his belt, has millions in the bank and helms one of the most famous eponymous menswear brands in the world. Chillax could be his middle name.

But it’s not, far from it. He’s intensely involved and nervously scans each look as it rolls off the runway. He keeps the din of the backstage—one of the most kinetic places on earth—in one ear without distracting his attention. He looks like a coach eyeing the field, which is ironic, because—to everyone’s surprise—Hilfiger has turned The Armory into a massive football field replete with scoreboard, AstroTurf with yard markings and an end zone with “Hilfiger” in varsity typography (naturally). It’s a gamble, a showboat move that some might like and others detest. But as the faux stadium lights mark the end of the show, it’s clear that Hilfiger has hit the moment right, blending sport and luxury to capture a ripening fashion moment.

And as this year marks his third decade as a brand, this show, and the one in Beijing that will follow, is just a part of his year of years. “Oh my god, it really is,” Hilfiger accedes, when asked if he feels that this is a peaking year, one that encapsulates so much personal and brand history. “The Armory show was so well received,” he says, almost catching his breath remembering all that’s happened in the last six months. “Then we took the whole thing to Beijing. The thinking behind that was to show the China market and customers that we’re more than a women’s brand. Whereas in New York, it was women’s fashion week and a lot of the women’s editors don’t want to sit through menswear. Such snobs!” And—like the NYC show—Team TH killed it, spiked the ball in the end zone. The next stop was London where—for the first time—Tommy Hilfiger organised a presentation for London Collections: Men. There was no stopping the juggernaut of showmanship, a label that was on a breakneck expansion (“We have 35 stores now [in China] and we’ll be opening another 75 or 80 over the next few years [in China and India]”) and extending its reach into tailoring, using new media in innovative ways, remaining relevant in a shifting and challenging consumer market.

It was not always so. The beginnings of Tommy Hilfiger were simple; some would even say naïve. Straight out of high school, Hilfiger started his retail career at 18 by founding a store called People’s Place in his hometown of Elmira, New York with USD150, where he customised jeans and bell-bottoms. A flood that gutted the original store and his constant partying in Studio 54 led to bankruptcy by 25. It made Hilfiger realise that he’d need more education and skills to lead his next company to success. Undeterred, he moved to NYC and plotted his next move.

The early days in the city were bittersweet: the smell of fashion money on every street corner of the Garment District was intoxicating. Hilfiger knew, given the right break of investment and resources, he could get a foothold. But the mad scramble of hundreds of would-be Calvin Kleins was a scrum he had to navigate. Offered jobs by Perry Ellis and Klein himself, Hilfiger declined, waiting for the wind to fill his sails.

That wind of change happened in 1985. Mohan Murjani, an Indian textile entrepreneur, became the angel investor that Hilfiger was looking for. Murjani announced that it was time to go big and unseat Ralph Lauren in the category of contemporary American fashion. “Well, the first five years were sort of like building block years—just establishing and planting the seeds of the brand. And then, in the early ’90s, things started taking off,” Hilfiger recollects fondly, shifting his smart Tom Ford specs and straightening the cuffs on his blazer. A massive billboard erected in Times Square announced that Hilfiger was one of the new princes of American menswear (“The Four Great American Designers” listed only the initials RL for Ralph Lauren, PE for Perry Ellis, CK for Calvin Klein and TH for Tommy Hilfiger). The move appalled the entrenched fashion hierarchy. (Calvin Klein was supposedly so irritated that he accosted the billboard designer at a cocktail party.)

But one man’s affront, however, is another man’s bravado: Tommy Hilfiger emerged as a sassy, underdog brand decked out in preppy attitude, a far cooler Ralph Lauren. The emerging hip-hop movement adopted the brand as their apparel of choice. By 1994, Snoop Dogg had appeared on Saturday Night Live in an oversized Tommy Hilfiger shirt, its bold red, white and blue reordering of Americana signification welcomed the heady Clinton presidential years. Britney Spears, Mick Jagger and a slew of other rock celebs would sport Tommy Hilfiger wares on stage, prompting Hilfiger to declare his philosophy of FAME as a marketing tool, where F=Fashion, A=Art, M=Music and E=Entertainment. It was a tool of brand persuasion that he’d use well, even to the point of becoming a judge on American Idol. Tommy Hilfiger grew faster than anybody in the industry thought a brand could grow; it was ubiquitous, hip, urbanely desired. Even Esquire’s legendary ad man, George Lois, created Tommy Hilfiger’s minimalist, facially led advertisements. It was one of the first ad approaches where an idea rather than clothes were sold. From 1985 to 1986, sales doubled to USD70 million. Within two years of operating at this level, 68 percent of New Yorkers surveyed named him as one of America’s top-selling designers. The pace was frenetic.

And—like the story of Icarus—the heat of success started melting the wings of ascension. Hilfiger almost sighs remembering the frustration of those years, of realising that Murjani was becoming corporately distracted with other activities like Coca-Cola clothing and Gloria Vanderbilt (Murjani would soon go bankrupt) and the entry of a new investor in the form of Hong Kong businessman Silas Chou whose Novel Enterprises pushed Tommy Hilfiger to even greater heights. The company hit USD500 million in 1996 and was considered the best-performing apparel brand on Wall Street. Meanwhile, Hilfiger bagged the prestigious CFDA designer of the year award in 1995 (after being snubbed in 1994). There was even a rumour that Hilfiger would take over Calvin Klein. Tag on the licences for fragrances, womenswear, scarves, a line for toddlers… and Hilfiger seemed invincible.

However, being chained to a public company structure that barrels ahead in search of growth rather than sustainability can be lethal. “We started to go global. We started opening our own stores. We started branding in a much more significant way. But it grew too large in the ’90s in the US.” Would he have slowed it down if he had the power? “Yes. But you know, we were a public company… It was a problem because we kept pushing and pushing and pushing and it hurt the brand,” he admits wanly.

By the early ’00s, the label started to feel the stress of those decisions, sales dropped 30 to 40 percent in 2001, influencers deserted it and its sale was nervously talked about. Nasty urban rumours started like the infamous one that Hilfiger spewed a racist comment in a hot mic moment with Oprah Winfrey (completely untrue—he hadn’t even been on the show at the time of the rumour—and Oprah and Hilfiger set the record straight as recently as 2013. “Big fat lie!” Oprah intoned). Sweatshop accusations, somewhat more factual, entered the news cycle in 1999 touching mostly on the Saipan manufacturing loophole that allowed many retailers, not just Tommy Hilfiger, to cite “Made in USA” as a moniker, even as conditions were sub-standard. (By 2012, after a fire in Bangladesh killed 29, Hilfiger became an industry advocate for garment safety reform, pledging millions of dollars for fire inspection and other safety measures.) In 2005, Tommy Hilfiger was acquired by Apax, a London-based investment firm, for USD1.6 billion, a large sum for sure, but by no means what the brand was worth (as we’ll soon see). Hilfiger lost control of the company, even though he retained creative control. “There was a bit of a backlash, so we restructured the brand [in 2006]. It was frustrating because it’s like a locomotive train and you can’t stop it. But hey, it’s a learning experience,” he says of those difficult times, an experience shared by other once hot, then not designers (Perry Ellis, Pierre Cardin) for whom it spelled the end. By all appearances, the heydays were over.

Then, in 2010, Hilfiger stepped up to the plate, found his place within the macro machinations of the investors and the markets he loved to operate in. Ajax sold on a high to Philip van Heusen (PvH), which owns Calvin Klein and IZOD, among others, and since then, the trajectory has been positive with the core message of great style at affordable prices. “I think affordable luxury is the sweet spot in the world,” Hilfiger declares with market evidence as his proof. And note that—unlike Calvin Klein and others that get bought in such deals and retire into their payoff—Hilfiger is as vigorous as ever, and still as involved both creatively and strategically. The global roadwork that had been carefully shaped and pruned started to pay off with Tommy Hilfiger, the brand and the man being one of the best-positioned players in Asia.

Even personally—after all the trials and tribulations with his family (he has four kids from his first marriage) that saw his two oldest kids go through rehab and son Ricky/Rich Hilfiger in a high-profile on-and-off relationship with Rita Ora (they recently broke up)—Hilfiger has found his bliss late in life. Re-married to stunner Dee Ocleppo in 2008, the couple had a child—Sebastian Thomas—in 2009. At nigh 60, the man who rode the dragon of fame and success became a new dad… and in many ways, it is his most satisfying iteration. “Yeah, it keeps me young,” he says of his new life and fatherhood, resting his head on a soft fist for support and breaking into a smile that speaks of satisfaction. “When my four children were growing up, I was so busy all the time I didn’t get enough time with them. Now I’m getting more time with my six-year-old than I did with my other kids. And the older children love him, so they’re always around,” he says sanguinely and affectionately. As he looks back at his life, the 30 years of his brand, Hilfiger can certainly grin and wonder at how crazy life is, how the fortunate are the ones who get to stay active and relevant, and prove their vision of what can be.


On luxury, fave designers and eating rodents in China

Esquire gets exclusive time with Tommy Hilfiger ahead of his London Collections: Men S/S16 presentation in London.

ESQUIRE: I notice you’ve been getting more into your tailored look while still retaining your casual range.

Tommy Hilfiger: You know, people think that I’ve just gotten into tailoring. We’ve been doing tailored clothing for 20 years. But now, it’s just becoming more important.

ESQ: I suppose that’s because it wasn’t a big part of your messaging. But on reflection, tailoring was the first part of your career.

TH: Yes, but that was more casual and denimwear. But 20 years ago, we started doing three-piece suits, blazers… all sorts of cool stuff. And now, I think we’ve perfected it. Because I think that the quality is amazing. If you look at the top menswear brands, they make their suits
in Europe and they use the same fabric resources. We’re buying Loro Piana cashmere and
linen from Ireland… we’re using a lot of the same materials. It’s what you do with it. And I think that what we’re doing with it now is the most interesting.

ESQ: Just hearing you say that you are going for the best fabrics, the best materials and all that, and therefore, you could be in a perceptually higher category. But people think of it as more of a high street brand, that that’s not what Tommy Hilfiger is known for.

TH: People want great quality and great style, but they don’t want to pay for it. Zara and H&M have shown the world that you don’t have to pay a lot of money for that.

ESQ: But their quality is terrible. It falls apart after a few seasons.

TH: That’s true, but for women especially, it’s like throwaway fashion. Men want something more quality oriented. I think we’re giving them incredible quality at an incredible price.

ESQ: The development of the men’s category has been great; the bulk of your revenue comes from womenswear typically, but the men’s segment is rising faster.

TH: Actually, our menswear is bigger than womenswear, and also growing faster.

ESQ: That must be satisfying as you’ve been in that space since the beginning and now, so many players are scrambling to get there, too.

TH: Exactly, and womenswear designers are trying to do men’s. You can’t really name one womenswear designer who does men’s fashion successfully.

ESQ: Where do you think all this is going?

TH: I think there are men’s brands coming up that are phenomenal.

ESQ: Like who?

TH: Like Thom Browne and many others. They’re doing really interesting and challenging things.

ESQ: China, New York, now London; what a year you’re having! This has to be one of your more exciting years.

TH: It’s an exciting year. It’s a little sad in one way though.

ESQ: Why?

TH: Those 30 years are gone. And those 30 years were so exciting. I would say the first 15 years were the most exciting in building the brand.

ESQ: I guess that’s always the trade off between getting the capital you need to grow and showing those returns. But it’s horrible to have to bet on failure to prove your point.

TH: Yeah, that’s exactly it and I don’t think they got it.

ESQ: But the good news came in 2010, with the new tranche and investors [PVH].

TH: It’s been amazing. Great company, and I would say we have more professional resources.

ESQ: The analysis and forecasting seems to be moving in your favour.

TH: Except the euro is a problem for us. Tourism to the US is down, too.

ESQ: All the more reason why your entry into China has been so aggressive.

TH: Yes, exactly. They have an enormous, growing middle-class and they’re the spenders because the wealthy travel. The elite like to buy in Paris, London and New York. But the growing middle-class—which is about 500 million people—is almost double the size of the US. You go to the second- and third-tier Chinese cities, places you’ve never heard of, and they’re 10 million. And the younger Chinese are very tuned into what’s going on: they can’t be fooled.

ESQ: Is that good in your eyes or something intimidating: you’ve got to fight a lot more for it?

TH: I think it’s good. Knowledge is power.

ESQ: What do you see when you go to China? Even though you’ve been going for a long time, each year must be different.

TH: I think the biggest change is the real estate. It’s bonkers. And you can’t find really great locations because all the big guys have taken them all. We’re well positioned in the second-tier cities, but it’s in Beijing and Shanghai that we’re fighting: it’s so difficult to get triple-A locations. And if you can get them, you can’t afford them because the big guys are willing to pay more than you. It’s crazy. We have 35 stores now and we’ll be opening another 75 or 80 over the next few years.

ESQ: You could spend your whole time visiting stores that are opening in China and India alone; that would be your full-time life!

TH: [Laughs] True, but it’s fun and interesting.

ESQ: Do you like Asia? Is this a second life after you’ve gone through the US and European markets?

TH: I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia over the years. Most of our sourcing is done in Asia. And as a young man, before I even started Tommy Hilfiger, I was travelling and sourcing in Asia. Going to factories and mills, going way, way out into No Man’s Land… people riding bicycles and wearing Mao Zedong jackets to the factories. Not speaking a word of English. No highways, no air-conditioned Mercedes… it was really pretty primitive.

ESQ: What was the most bizarre/surreal experience in those times?

TH: We went to visit a factory. The factory owner talked to our agent in Mandarin and it was decided that he was going to take us out for lunch. So we drove off this rickety road, onto a dirt road. Where were we going? We pulled up in front of this house, and on the porch, there were cages with rodents. And there was a little conversation with the restaurant owner about which rodent we were going to eat. He went into the kitchen, brought out a club, grabbed this racoon-type creature, clubbed it, carried it into the kitchen, all furry, and 45 minutes later, brought us back this mound of rice with chunks of meat in it. It’s the best lunch that I’ve ever had.

ESQ: Oh really?

TH: I had Chinese tea. [laughs] I wouldn’t touch it and they kept trying to encourage me to eat it. I’m like [puts hands out]… I was practically gagging. I’ll never forget that.

First published in The Fashion Issue, September 2015.