Figuring Out Tommy Hilfiger

Apr 11, 2007 | Tommy Hilfiger

Figuring Out Tommy Hilfiger, 25th April 2007


Tommy Hilfiger is founder of one of the biggest fashion brands in the world. Shweta Taneja meets the man who successfully travelled from bankruptcy to owning a million dollar company.

After a lot of phone calls to and fro, we finally meet on a sunny New York morning at Hudson Studios, a workplace Tommy Hilfiger has hired to sketch out last-minute details of his Autumn Winter 2007-08 collection. The first thing you notice about Tommy is that he can get lost in a crowd. Casually dressed in an impeccable cable-knit navy blue sweater and a pair of faded jeans, he looks as normal as one can be. I had to remind myself that I was having coffee with THE Tommy Hilfiger, a legend in his ‘50s, a millionaire with five summerhouses strewn casually across the USA.


Figuring Out Tommy Hilfiger


Before I say ‘Hello’, Tommy exclaims enthusiastically, “Oh, you are from India! I know India. I know Karol Bagh, Nai Delli and Moti Mahal” He laughs at my surprise. I had assumed he would have the usual ‘Maharaja-elephants-Jaipur-ayurveda’ idea about India. “I have been to India many many times,” he grins.

When did you first come to India?
I had called a small shop in New York called People’s Place and I was designing all these clothes for it. I didn’t really have any place to make them. I met an Indian guy who had a factory and told me I could come to India, where he would make clothes for me. So I went and stayed at his home in Mumbai and made my first collection there. I have had a very, very close connection with India since then. I go back all the time; many of my fabrics come from India. I was really one of the first big importers from India. I was importing blouses from Delhi in 1980.

“If I’d known African-Americans, Hispancis Jews and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice…” Please comment.
It was such a bad rumour. It’s not true. I was never on Oprah’s show. And Oprah came on the show saying it wasn’t true.

A lot of people imply that they don’t wear Tommy Hilfiger garments for this reason. How do you combat this?
I think they don’t know the truth. All they have to do is visit our website, and they’ll know what the truth is. Many articles have been written to dispel the rumour. But then, as with any rumour, some people will believe it, some people won’t. And if you think about it, any businessperson with a brain would not say something like this.

So as a businessman with a vision, who do you have in mind when you are designing?
For men, I am thinking of wear. For women, I am thinking of the modern woman. Sometimes she is a personality, sometimes just a woman who’s traveling, with good wants something new in her wardrobe, but not something that’s too modern – that gets dated before you know it, the style is out.

Your menswear collection in 1985 became a million dollar success. How different is your inspiration now?
Oh, now we are jumping to 1985. I took a very classic look, one we call preppy, traditional, Ivy League maybe, a sort of a very American look, and made it new and fresh. It was oversized, relaxed, with lots of detail and lots of colour for a young guy. Today I like luxury. I like more refinement. I still like the traditional feel, but I am more sensitive to how the design is cut, the quality and the fabric. I am inspired by people, musicians, movies… For example, for the Autumn Winter collection, I love everything from the outdoors. I like hiking in the forest, snowfall in winter. I like nature’s colours and natural looking fabrics.

It is said that TH is more about the brand than about design. Do you feel that it’s the marketing that counts?
You don’t have one without the other. I have the ability to market in a big, strong way and I have the ability to run the business in a very, very sophisticated, refined way. And I have the ability to create in a way that makes my clothes wearable, affordable and fashionable. It’s all like baking a cake. You need the right ingredients, you need the right balance. If it’s all icing and no substance, that’s all you big brands will always have all the elements working in a balanced way.

What do the colours in your logo – red, white and blue mean to you?
Well, originally they were very nautical. They also represent the colours on our flag and a lot of people think it’s very patriotic, but it’s not necessary that. If you look at the British flag and the French flag and other flags, they are also red, white and blue. My flag, I think, means fashion, a quality brand. It means good style.

It’s been almost 21 years since you started your company. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt till date?
The biggest lesson is that people make a business tick. IF you have the right people around you and you treat them the way they want to be treated, you really have an advantage; an opportunity to have a strong team. You have ups and downs in live, no matter what. You just have to let them roll off your back and you have to take the good with the bad. If you get caught up in negativity, it affects you. My solution is that when there are issues with difficulties look at everything very clearly, very logically and then make a decision.

The TH corporate foundation came into being in 1995. Tell us about it?
It’s a big focus. Right now, we are spearheading a project called the MLK (Martin Luther King) Memorial. We are raising money to build a monument in Washington DC. I have put in money personally and am assembling a good team to share a fundraiser. We are also involved in raising money to fund research on multiple sclerosis. We have built a summer camp called Camp Tommy, where we attend to thousands of young, underprivileged children every year to educate them. We are concerned with pediatric AIDS too. I personally take time out for it. I think every corporate, every person has a social responsibility. You should to whatever you can to help others.

From bankruptcy to success. The journey has been pretty incredible?
I was bankrupt when I was 24 years old. It was big learning experience. When you have a financial problem, you are frozen unless you have rich relatives or until someone comes along with money. In reality, when you are in business and you run into financial problems, the world is different. And I say the world differently from then on. In future business endeavours, I made sure that the financial aspect was intact; in a strong position. You may have the greatest products in the world, the greatest advertising, beautiful colours and beautiful stores, but if you don’t have the right machine, the right financial ability, you are in deep trouble.

Where do you see TH 21 years from now?
I would like TH to be a global lifestyle brand with integrity, with refined, upscale products made with great quality and great imagery around it. Yes, some people think we’re already there, but if I were to think so, I would give up and relax. I would much rather say that I have too far to go because it keeps me working hard. It keeps me on my toes; keeps me driven and motivated. I believe that once I think I have made it, I will psychologically slow my machine down.

Any unfulfilled ambitions?
There are many more. I would like to sail around the world. I would like to be a photographer. I would like to be a painter. I would like to be an actor in a Hollywood movie. I mean there’s so much I would like to do. I would like to go to Africa and help poor children.


Rapid fire round…

Your brand is ubiquitous. It’s all over the world. And fun. It’s bright, energetic and positive.

A designer you appreciate?
Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz is very good; also Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. In America I think Ralph Lauren does a great job.

Actors you would love to design for?
Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Amitabh Bachchan

The most influential name in fashion?
Karl Lagerfeld.

If not a designer you would be?
Directing a movie or if I had a lot of money, I would be helping poor children.

That we went to war in Iraq.

What about India gets you reminiscent?
I love spicy food. Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Chicken. I even love having paan after dinner.

Indian inspiration?
The colours of Jaipur, Rajasthani women and villages.

Favourite markets in India?
Chandani Chowk and Janpath in Delhi

Leisure Times?
I love sports. I love music. I travel all the time. I have friends who travel along. I like boating, yachting, scuba diving, skiing, going to movies.

Chilling with your kids?
I take the skiing, or scuba diving. They are into music and movies. They like concerts or traveling with me. My daughter’s an actress. My other daughter is in school.

A day in your life?
I do yoga in the morning. Then it’s all work. I work with my design team. I review my marketing, my advertising and my business. At night I have dinner with friends or family.

What brands do you wear yourself?
I grew up wearing Levi’s, so I have always worn them. Now I wear most of my own clothes.



The Tommy Tale
Tommy Hilfiger was the second of nine children and grew up in Elmira, a small town in upstate New York. In 1969, while still in high school, he began his retail career with $150 and 20 pairs of bell bottom jeans. Soon after, he opened his own small chain of stores called People’s Place. After seven years, the brand went bankrupt. In 1979 Hilfiger moved to New York City to become a fashion designer.

He introduced his first signature collection in 1985, which was a huge success, and has since expanded to include menswear, women’s wear, jeans wear, children’s wear, related licensed products, fragrances and home collections. Tommy has four children. His daughter Ally was featured in the MTV reality show ‘Rich Girls’. He has a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, a Manhattan apartment, a Vermont ski house, an island getaway on Mustique in the Caribbean, and summer houses in East Hampton, New York and Nantucket, Massachusetts.


To say you are a public figure would be an understatement. It’s natural that people write about you extensively in the media. Do you read everything that is written on you?
Not really. You know why? It’s just like the rumour. A lot of stuff that comes out on me is assumption. If I read it and it’s not true, I get frustrated. I don’t want to get frustrated. So let somebody else read it. If they believe it, they believe it; if they don’t, they don’t. If something glowing comes out on me, what is that gonna do? If it’s gonna make me feel like I am a big shot or something, that doesn’t do anything. I don’t ever want to lose being humble. A lot of people read praise about themselves in their press and they believe it. Even if it’s making them into someone better than they really are, they believe it, and in the process become a different person.

Chances are then; he won’t read this interview earlier.

Share This