For over 30 years, Tommy Hilfiger has been translating the American dream into clothes – a meeting in New York with the eternal sunny boy of the fashion industry.
He strolls casually into his office, the very picture of serenity: Tommy Hilfiger, 67, founder of the eponymous fashion label. Dark suit, skinny tie, black shoes – his entrance is that of a man who has nothing left to prove, pretty much unaffected by the buzz all around him, the nervous staff tightening up schedules, pressing elevator buttons and wearing worried faces. In front of the building on Madison Avenue, a flag sporting the brand logo flutters in the breeze – blue, white and red. But how does he see the country? What does the USA mean to someone who has adopted the U.S. national colors for his fashion label?
Mr. Hilfiger, this sentence came from you: “I am thankful to be an American dreamer.” What values do you associate with that?
I was talking less about values than about the opportunity to live a dream unhindered. That is not possible in many countries, but here in the U.S. it is, provided you have the necessary determination and drive. Being an American gave me the freedom to do what I believe in.
That sounds very patriotic …
To me, the American flag is the most important symbol. I was raised that way. Every morning at school, we recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag and I always imagined that the stars and stripes on it were fluttering proudly in the wind.
Do you tear up when you hear the national anthem at the Superbowl?
I’d have to be able to hear it first. There’s far too much background noise in the stadium for that.
We are meeting here in your office on Madison Avenue, where your sofas also pay tribute to an American success story: jeans. Is that pure coincidence?
No. We used old jeans sewn together to make two huge sofas. It took a Parisian furniture maker two years to complete the job.
Was some of the denim from Hilfiger jeans?
I ask you! As if any of our stock got left on the shelf…
Now he’s grinning. This was, of course, a sly dig at the competition: Look how good we are. Sales in 2017 totaled 7.4 billion US dollars. After a long period of stagnation in the noughties, the brand is back on top form again. It has just announced a collaboration with Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton, and will be launching a collection under his name in the fall. Auto fan Hilfiger is delighted.
Jeans are among the iconic items of American attire. Will it still matter whether a trend comes from the United States in the future?
America is a breeding ground for pop culture. Fashion, art, music and the entertainment industry all influence the world. Take a look at the streetwear revolution of recent years. It started in the USA. I am proud that we are a part of that.
In the mid-1980s, your company began to establish the laid-back preppy look – what was the industry’s reaction?
At the time, they looked down on us because we defined ourselves as a brand for everyone, not just for a handful of affluent customers. And that still holds true today. We aim to provide a premium product, to offer good quality at a fair price. The elite wanted nothing to do with any of that.
You mean the haute couture houses that until recently were accustomed to dictating fashion?
Today, we can see that things have come full circle. In order to gain new impulses, haute couture is now taking its lead from casual wear, which has now become the catalyst for those houses’ growth.
Louis Vuitton is now cooperating with the New York skater label, Supreme, for example…
and they have just signed up Virgil Abloh, who founded the Off-White label. He will be reinventing streetwear at luxury level. This is a clear indication that we live in a time with no real style rules. People can wear whatever they please, and that makes for the greatest possible individualism. Virgil will take his ideas from what is also there for any of us to observe: from films, from the celebrity world, from pop idols. People want to improve their look, that’s a fundamental desire. Clothes are a catalyst that helps them to achieve that.
When he says that, it sounds a little like a motto that he’s been propagating for years. Polished, polite, correct. Hilfiger is careful not to offend. Maybe the past has taught him caution. He became popular in the 1980s with an ad on Times Square, when as a still lesser known fashion designer, he impudently compared himself to the big names of the trade: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis. The press trashed him and his “colleagues” treated him with contempt, but fashion fans were fascinated by the brand and its refreshing attitude to life.
What do customers get – back then and today – when they buy Hilfiger clothes?
Authenticity. It’s not an invented name, it’s not a label that was created solely for the purpose of selling clothes. Tommy Hilfiger has great credibility; the brand arrived at its mainstream status via the streets.
Your designs became famous overnight in 1994, when the rapper Snoop Dogg appeared on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” in a rugby shirt with your name emblazoned on it. How did you feel at that moment?
I was incredibly proud of being a part of what at the time was a burgeoning youth culture. I had closely followed its emergence from the underground, but never imagined the far-reaching consequences it would have, never imagined that hip-hop would suddenly outshine all other trends.
Framed photos of hip-hop stars hang on the walls of his office, but even more of 1970s and 1980s icons: David Bowie, Mick Jagger, all of them his contemporaries and role models. As a teenager in upstate New York, Hilfiger achieved coolness with his taste in music. Dyslexic and no ace on the football team, but he knew which records to listen to.
Back then, you wanted to be a rock star. How did your passion for music become a passion for design?
Lots of rock musicians came to New York for the first time in the late 1960s: Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. They poured into the city from all directions, Hendrix from Seattle, Janis Joplin from San Francisco, the Stones from London. Together, they formed a cultural revolution that changed my world, the world of a teenager growing up in a small town four hours from Manhattan. In New York, people were wearing fringes, bell-bottoms and floral shirts. For me it was an irresistibly cool vibe and I just lapped it all up.
Only you couldn’t play an instrument…
I liked the clothes. My hometown, Elmira, was devoid of fashion, so I opened a small shop, People’s Place, and with a couple of friends sold bell-bottom jeans from the East Village, joss sticks, jewelry and candles. Within a radius of 100 kilometers, we were the only people selling this new lifestyle.
What promise did the revolution hold?
It stood for the anti-establishment and was therefore against everything that had been my life up till then, the average world of American television sitcoms in which everything was perfect. I rebelled against all of that. I wanted to experience something more dangerous and more exciting.
And, did you?
Take a look around you.
That was also the time when you experienced your first “relationship crisis” with your native country. The Vietnam War was raging and you decided that if you were called up, you would emigrate to Canada. Did your parents berate you for being unpatriotic?
My father felt I would be stabbing my country in the back. For him, the whole hippy revolution was totally removed from the American way of life. I never gave a thought to such concepts because I was far too busy setting up something of my own after school. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go to college, that I wanted to stay a part of that culture.
Are there any traces of the psychedelic hippy era left in U.S. society today, has anything survived?
Of course. Right now, we are seeing people come together in grass-roots movements again, which is very much in the spirit of those years. They’re organizing demonstrations, protesting against the government.
Hilfiger’s assistant shifts nervously in her chair. Did the boss just make a statement on the current political situation? Such comments are not appreciated in the Hilfiger corporation, where the designer still oversees the creative process but no longer owns the business. It is now the property of the U.S. Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, which also owns Calvin Klein. So it’s better to steer clear of politics, express no opinion, upset no one.
Social cohesion is something you care about. Would you say it is jeopardized or reinforced when people come together to protest?
To be honest, I see greater cohesion in society today than existed in the 1950s or 1960s. People have no problems accepting minorities – that was inconceivable in my youth. Same-sex marriage, equal rights for people of different skin colors: In my experience, young people, in particular, today are absolutely color-blind – in the good sense. I see that as a significant improvement on the old days.
You don’t want to politicize the fashion industry, but is that even possible in light of what you yourself have just described?
We are a democratic brand…
No. Let’s put it this way: We are integrative. I would like to make clothes for everyone, regardless of their skin color, sexual orientation, political party, size, age and so on. That is my statement for the world.
Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking how much easier life was in the 1970s, without the information overload we have today?
There were plenty of things I simply didn’t care about back then; I never got wind of them. With the omnipresence of news these days, that’s hard to imagine. But we cannot turn back the clock. We see that in fashion, too.
What do you mean by that?
The millennials have no interest in the kind of fashion shows we used to have. I also find them boring these days. In a short space of time, several models walk by in new pants or shirts – great! The young target audience is looking for an experience they can share with other people on social media. They want to buy everything at the same moment and wear it the next day, not wait six months for the designs to reach the stores. That’s why we stage our shows as events, a concert in London, maybe, or a two-day street carnival in New York. It’s hard to reach young people any other way.
Imagine you could give your younger self a piece of advice – what would it be?
Stay focused – concentrate on your dream.