The King of Reinvention
For most fashion lovers, Tommy Hilfiger is classic American style. The fashion designer behind the brand even has an inspiring rags-to-riches story that embodies the coveted American dream.
Young Tommy was one of nine children born in Elmira, New
York, in 1951. He was raised in a working-class family,
making him no stranger to hard work at an early age. From
this young age, Hilfiger’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident
to all. He began to dabble in fashion design in 1969 when he
opened his own People's Place chain of stores with just $150
in his pocket.
"As a kid, I was easily distracted. Creativity helped me get over that, helped me concentrate. That’s why I gravitated to the fashion business. I pretty much wore preppy clothes while growing up–Oxford shirts and chinos. I was growing bored with the look. I wanted to do something different with it. At age 18 I decided to get into fashion."
the big break
Hilfiger had one goal that served him well throughout his fashion career: make high-end fashion relatable. He worked as a self-taught fashion designer in upstate New York until he moved to New York City in 1979 to pursue his career full-time. Once in the Big Apple, Hilfiger partnered with a businessman named Mohan Murjani to launch his first signature collection of men's clothing in 1985. Murjani believed that Hilfiger could provide a fresh spin on typical menswear with a more "relaxed, youthful attitude."
1977 But before his big break in 1985, Hilfiger had to learn the hard way about what it takes to succeed in a cutthroat industry.
Even after Hilfiger's early success with People's Place, the business ran into financial troubles and Hilfiger declared bankruptcy at age 25. Hilfiger confesses that he "had taken [his] eye off the ball." This so-called failure forced Hilfiger to learn the fashion business from the ground up to get back on his feet again, which is exactly what he did with the creation of his Tommy Hilfiger brand.
Hilfiger came out of the gate strong by designing simple, casual styles in traditional American colors to match his red, white, and blue flag logo.
"I wanted to do something with preppy clothes. They still weren’t cool. They were stale. I wanted to make them cool again. I came up with the idea for 'preppy with a twist.' We still call it that to this day. It was a more casual look, more colorful and comfortable."
Hilfiger's legendary first ad to launch his 1985 clothing line, which displayed in Times Square.1985
After launching his first collection in 1985, Hilfiger saw a huge jump in public appeal in the 90s and many trendsetters compared Hilfiger clothing to Calvin Klein apparel. At that time, Hilfiger's target demographic was middle-aged, middle-class, white males.
Hilfiger branding was turned on its head when the prep-chic clothing was embraced by hip-hop culture. Rapper Snoop Dogg helped to push this trend forward when he sported a Tommy shirt on Saturday Night Live in 1994. This period marks the time when Hilfiger was no longer pigeonholed in one conservative demographic.1994
Once Hilfiger discovered his new popularity among urban communities, he changed his clothing style to match by introducing baggier, more casual clothing. Yet even with his inarguable success, the Tommy Hilfiger brand was still rejected by the crème de la crème of fashion. The Council of Fashion Designers of America initially refused to award Tommy Hilfiger the Menswear Designer of the Year in 1994 by omitting the category altogether. The CFDA caved and presented Hilfiger with the prestigious award the next year, in 1995.
In the dawn of the new millennium, Hilfiger experienced a surprising dip in sales with a record 75% drop in revenue. Tommy Hilfiger had a critical dilemma on his hands—his brand wasn't considered fashionable anymore. Hilfiger himself said that:
"It got to the point where the urban kids didn't want to wear it and the preppy kids didn't want to wear it."
Not one to go down without a fight, Hilfiger pulled himself up by his bootstraps for a second time. He examined the strengths and weaknesses of his company and set out to rebrand the label. In just a few short years, Tommy Hilfiger was considered hot again. Hilfiger launched a new Beyoncé-endorsed fragrance in 2004, signed an exclusive deal with Macy's in 2007, and ultimately sold the company for $3 billion in 2010.
Tommy Hilfiger Timeline
Major Milestones in the Brand’s History
At the age of 18, Tommy Hilfiger launches People's Place, one of the few stores to sell hippie garments in upstate New York.1977
People's Place, Hilfiger's first company, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.1979
moving to new york
He moves to New York City to start fresh in fashion.1985
men’s line launched
Hilfiger releases his first men's sportswear line, with backing from Mohan Murjani.1987
Company retail sales reached $70 million. The Tommy Hilfiger brand expands outside of the U.S. in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Canada, and Japan.1988
Hilfiger establishes Tommy Hilfiger Co. Inc.1989
Sportswear Holdings Ltd., owned by a former Ralph Lauren executive, acquires the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation; sales increase from $28 million to $50 million in the first year.1992
Tommy Hilfiger Co. Inc. goes public. The Hilfiger brand gains popularity in the hip-hop community with baggy jeans and oversize red, white, and blue logos.1993
Hilfiger makes major expansions in belts, neckwear, leather goods, men's suits, and childrenswear. 200 Hilfiger men's clothing stores will open within the next two years.1995
cfda award winner
He wins the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award, although he downplays the honor since he considers himself to be the only choice for the year.1996
women's line launched
Hilfiger debuts his much-anticipated women's clothing line at 400 major department stores throughout the U.S.1997
The Tommy Hilfiger brand expands to Europe, and sales boom by 38.4%. Hilfiger publishes his first style guide, All-American.1998
Introduced red label
Hilfiger launches bed and bath, denim, and home collections; the upscale Hilfiger Red Label for celebrities is introduced. Hilfiger receives the Parsons School of Design Designer of the Year award.1999
2nd book published
Hilfiger sales top $1.9 billion. He publishes his second book, Rock Style.2000
End of 20-Year Marriage
Business starts to wane; Hilfiger divorces his wife of 20 years.2002
GQ Designer of the Year
The company reports total losses at $439 million. Hilfiger is elected the International Designer of the Year by GQ Magazine.2004
Beyoncé revamps the brand as the face of the new Hilfiger True Star Fragrance. The exclusive H by Tommy Hilfiger line debuts to support a brand comeback.2006
H by Tommy Hilfiger is discontinued; the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation is acquired by Apax Partners for $1.6 billion.2010
The Tommy Hilfiger fall collection receives rave reviews. Tommy Hilfiger celebrates its 25th anniversary as a fashion label. The Hilfiger brand reaches profitability again and sells to Phillips-Van Heusen for an impressive $3 billion.2013
spring 2014 collection
Hilfiger launches his spring 2014 women's collection. The lightweight, upbeat Hilfiger line is sporty, colorful, and California casual.
Classic American Fashion
25 Years in the Making
It took Hilfiger's long-lived business-savvy, dedication, and determination to put his brand back on top after 25 years. What's the secret to the brand's decades of success? Hilfiger states:
"My answer is that I never feel that I’ve made it. When someone feels that they have made it then their success is over, whereas I want to keep working, perfecting my collections, making the brand better, the stores better. You know, I want to make everything that we do today better tomorrow."
At the same time, Hilfiger remained true to his initial vision. Hilfiger set out to reinvent the classics in his first menswear line way back in 1985. More than 25 years later, and this task still proves difficult; designing classics with a twist is often harder than launching new clothing creations, according to Hilfiger.
Hilfiger's brain is always working on fast-forward. As soon as a new collection launches, he begins to plot how he can make the styles more relevant for the next year. As Hilfiger saw in the early 2000's, a popular brand can become boring and outdated at the snap of a finger. Re-creating traditional trends is key to provide a fresh, new look in what Hilfiger describes as "pop meets prep."
Before starting his own label, he was offered a full-time design job at Calvin Klein, which he turned down.
His first wife was once an employee at his first company, People's Place.
In 1992, Tommy Hilfiger was the first designer company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.
He received a humanitarian award from the Red Cross in 2006.
Hilfiger was one of the first American designers to utilize celebrity marketing to sell his clothes with advertisements featuring A-list artists like David Bowie, Britney Spears, and Jewel.
When people think Tommy Hilfiger, they think classic, trendy, and preppy. Hilfiger is now a renowned fashion designer that has made his preppy American sportswear style a staple in closets throughout the US. The Tommy Hilfiger brand has expanded to include men's, women's, and children's clothing lines, as well as sportswear, denim, fragrances, accessories, and home furnishings. Hilfiger says it best:
"The preppy lifestyle has gone global. We feel that our business has grown so well because preppy travels so well. It's all-American classic."