Mans World, 10th April 2007
From a retail career that started in high school in 1969, in a small town in New York, to being one of the most recognized global lifestyle brands, Tommy Hilfiger, 55, has come a long way. Hilfiger launched his first signature menswear collection in 1985, with his updated take on button-down shirts. In less than two years, the line had netted $11 million. Two decades later, it has grown to encompass menswear, womenswear, children’s wear, accessories, footwear, fragrance etc, making him the best know American designer in the international arena. A visitor to India since the late 1970s, he spoke to Man’s World about incorporating Indian elements in his designs
To which year do you trace your Indian connection?
To when I had come here to design my first collection. It was made by a local manufacturer in the basement of his house in Juhu and I used to stay at the Sun & Sand Hotel. I took the collection back to the States, sold it and came back for more. In those days, I sold under the brand name of Tommy Hill.
You had a long association with Mike Murjani. How did you meet him?
I met him in New York when he was a manufacturing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. We became partners, started Tommy Hilfiger and launched Tommy. He sold out many years later. He came back here to launch many international brands in India including Tommy Hilfiger.
Is there anything that you have incorporated from Indian designs?
Above anything else, its the colours. People on the roads here wear bright orange with bright purple and other such great colour combinations. In addition to that I like all the handwork – the beading, embroideries and other things you can do here in India. I’m using embroideries. But also the fabrics – the yarn dyes, the stripes, the checks and the plats.
How active are you in the company in terms of design?
I oversee things and give my creative input. I say ‘okay next season we should be doing black, green, orange, purple. Next season we should be doing little more of this or more of that.’
What’s your daily routine?
It consists of working with the business people in the morning. I talk about what’s going on at our stores, what the budgets and things like that. All the boring stuffs. And then in the afternoon, I usually work on advertising, marketing, models, fashion shows and meet different people like designers and celebrities.
If you were to pass on three important lessons to new designers from what you’ve learnt, what would you tell them?
Know your customer. Design wearable clothes. Give the very best quality at a very best price.
Are there any mistakes that you think you made, which you regret and which you want to correct? You have a few days?
There are lots. I make mistakes all the time.
What’s your personal style?
My personal style is simple, simple. Classic, cool, comfortable. Nothing complicated.
Who do you think are the best dressed men in the world? The top three, for instance?
I think Giorgio Armani, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nelson Mandela.
And who do you think are the worst dressed?
George Bush, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair.
You once said that “the famous American style is sexy, simple and comfortable. It’s a good way to feel confident, truly be yourself and it helps all the rest to take place naturally.” Does this still hold true?
Comfortable clothes are always the key.
How do you hold on to your own design in the face of the onslaught from the French and the Italians?
We all have our own niches. Armani, Versace, Dior they all have their own places. But I have my very important niche too, which is really more casual. And that’s the way of the world today. We all have our little places.
Do you think American designers are different from the French and the Italian designers?
Yes. They are more commercial. They are really growing lifestyle brands.
And isn’t that what the Italians are doing as well?
Americans are close to the Italians in that idea. But the French are only really interested in Haute Couture and very, very high priced chic. They do some watches and maybe they do some handbags, but they are not looking at all things.
Has this whole anti-Americanism world-wide affected your business?
It has not. To some people, I’m sure it has. But my numbers have not come down because of it. Maybe it could be better if this didn’t exist.
Why are the American designer brands so slow in moving outside America?
I think it is out of insecurity. They think if they go to another market, they may not be successful. I’m more willing to dare. For example, if the Chinese don’t like my clothes, I’m going to fix my clothes so that they like them. A lot of designers always are just so myopic. They want to design and they don’t want to change it. I am very flexible.
How much do you source locally from these countries?
I don’t source locally. I source wherever I get the best price and best quality. A lot of it is from India – hell of a lot, in fact. A lot from China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia.
What’s the future of jeans? Where do you see jeans going, at least for Tommy Hilfiger?
Jeans have always been and will always be. Darker, lighter, longer, shorter, with more pockets, less pockets.
How do you determine that this is what people ought to wear next season?
It’s not hard to do that. If young girls for instance are wearing straight legs, you know it so you incorporate the idea. But then you think what is beyond straight legs?Maybe Capri length, just below the knee, so you do that. And if men are wearing straight legs, what is next? Maybe they want to wear flare legs.
Have you been surprised occasionally by the success of some of the designs that you put up?
Yep. Surprised and disappointed, both.
At one point this huge young blacks took to Tommy Hilfiger. Was that surprising?
I was surprised with as big as it got because I didn’t think people would wear my name so big.
So why did you sell out?
I’ve bought and sold three times. I bought my company back from Murjani, because he was the original owner.
Was he majority partner at any point?
He owned the license. So I bought the license back.
So now what is the status?
We’re a private company. I have a group of partners – mainly my European team who run Tommy Hilfiger Europe. And I’m still one of the owners.
Have you seen much of Indian modern designs?
I’ve been watching it in the publications and certainly there is a lot of talent over here. I don’t think they’re at the global stage yet, though they could be if the Indian government supports them.
Do you use local talent especially for designs and ideas?
Yes. We have a design team in Delhi working for us.
Which is the most successful country for you, apart from the US?
Germany. And on a smaller scale but growing faster – Ireland and Spain.
Where would you place India?
The fastest emerging country
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I see my company continuing to be a global lifestyle brand. And I see myself doing what I am doing now because it needs someone to look through 30 thousand things and to sort of guide and nurture.
Have you had any inspiration in life? Have you modelled yourself on someone?
I look at so many different people with so many different inspirations.
I think Giorgio Armani is a genius.
You’ve designed once for Ferrari? Why did you stop?
Because they bought Fila. And then Fila designed their uniforms.
So you don’t want to be part of F1, it’s so big worldwide..
I have to find the right team. When I find the right team, I will do it.
So what completes the circle? Music and sports?
I’d say it’s FAME. F for fashion, A is for Art, M is for music and E is for entertainment.