Tommy Hilfiger Learned To Be A Businessman At Studio 54

“I heard that once you and your buddies made money, you couldn’t spend it fast enough. That at one point, you had a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Jaguar, and a Jeep,” the formidable Fern Mallis chided Tommy Hilfiger. The designer laughed and gave a sheepish smile. “Well… yeah, that sounds about right.”

Hilfiger is Mallis’ latest guest on her “Fashion Icon” series at the 92nd Street Y, and she’s just gotten to the heart of what makes Tommy, Tommy; in asking how he got where he is today, she questioned how his first, originally successful business venture went bankrupt.

“Studio 54 had opened in New York,” he said to knowing laughter, “and we thought we should go there rather than watch the business. And we basically let it slide through our fingers. That was my Master’s degree. [It] was a tremendous learning experience, and it taught me you have to keep your mind in the business, and really take care of it. When people ask me now if I’m a designer or a businessman, I say both.”

A little bit business empire, a little bit rock and roll: that’s the Hilfiger brand. The founder and designer walked in on the tail of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Gil” and an opening montage of Americana images interspersed with “The Hilfigers” ad campaign, clad in a light grey suit, his full head of white, neatly combed hair as gleaming as his smile. Hilfiger and his multi-billion dollar company are known internationally for putting an edgy, James Dean stamp on preppy American sportswear; an odd combination, true, but hearing Hilfiger’s background, and his struggle to make it in the industry, makes it all a little more plausible.

Tommy was born “a scrawny, dyslexic kid” in Elmira, New York, with dreams of making it big (originally in football, though that was discouraged). This drive led he and his friends to start their own business their senior year, driving the 200-some miles to New York City to buy excess merchandise, especially jeans, from stores in the Village. They bought them at $5 a pair, and “stonewashed, cut, decorated, and embellished” them (so it began…) to resell for $12 or $13 in a basement.

“We painted it black, and called it People’s Place. We burned incense, played really cool music; no other store in the area had what we had.” It flourished, and they opened several stores on college campuses around New York state. “It was always my dream to build a global, lifestyle brand,” he said.

Then the devil rock music, and Studio 54, bankrupted that dream, leaving Hilfiger to attempt a fresh start in New York City. He floundered through odd jobs and failed start-ups for years before a backer eventually took interest and, with a line of menswear and denim, Tommy Hilfiger Corporation was born.

The rest, as they say, is history. Hilfiger’s prior failures taught him the importance of paying attention to the business, and he nursed it into the insanely profitable megabrand it is today. Cockiness played a part; Mallis tells the anecdote of the infamous Times Square billboard erected in 1986 that listed the “top four menswear designers: Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein… and Tommy Hilfiger” and claiming they called him “the competition”. It didn’t go over well.

She also notes they’re both Aries; determined, “probably because of the ram,” remarked Hilfiger. “They push forward. So maybe there’s something similar [to me] with that.” Probably.

Tommy Hilfiger became the first fashion brand to go public on the New York Stock exchange in 1992, and started marketing the music industry by dressing musicians, notably rappers; the bright, loose, logo-bearing clothing of the ‘90s began with Snoop Dogg appearing on SNL in 1992 in full Hilfiger. He remembers meeting Beyoncé at age 16 when she played his Macy’s fashion show, and befriending Mick Jagger, who directed his CFDA award video in ‘95. “We continue to wrap the brand around pop culture,” he explained. “I have a saying, and still do, of FAME: F is for fashion, A is for art, M is for music, and E is for entertainment. I thought that if I dressed the musicians, maybe their fans would come too.”

Rock icon? Sure. But it’s all business, in the end, which isn’t a bad thing in a world where every celebrity has her own shoe or jewelry line. He advises aspiring young designers — the real ones — to never lose sight of the money end as he once did. And to keep it real: “I set out 25 years ago designing clothes for everyone. I didn’t go into couture or luxury, which I love, because I wantedto design for broader audiences: affordable, accessible, inspirational, aspirational. Clothes to last.”

It’s paid off. Tommy Hilfiger is booming in Europe and Asia. “I don’t know if the American flag sells, but our red, white, and blue flag sure sells!” he laughed, to many raised eyebrows; we are on the Upper East Side, after all. His philanthropy soothes them though; Tommy Hilfiger sponsors the Americans in Paris initiative with Anna Wintour, donates copiously to breast cancer research and multiple sclerosis, contributed to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, and adopted a Ugandan village, where company employees volunteer and have, so far, built two schools, a hospital, and established running water and electricity.

All this, plus his various menswear and womenswear collection, which get better every season, and a new gig as the fashion consultant to American Idol. It’s quite an empire, likened to that of Kaiser Lagerfeld, whose namesake line he actually owns. (When asked if they’re pals, he pauses. “We’re… friendly. It’s a respectful relationship. In China, he’s a rock star. In Japan, as he says, he’s a rock star without a guitar.”) When asked whom he admires, he lights upon “The Old Guard” of the couture era — St. Laurent, Dior — and their remarkable methods of design, but also admits Armani, Karl, and even Ralph Lauren, his “biggest competition” are formidable. “As my hair gets whiter and I’m standing next to those three, I’m so proud to be there.” He laughed again, before quickly adding, “But they’re all much older!”

Young at heart, always with an edge. And never slowing down. “I’d like to do a hotel!” he quipped. “Hotel Hilfiger?” Mallis asks, somewhat incredulously. Hilfiger cracks a knowing smile. “Hey, I believe dreams come true.”

Photo courtesy of Joyce Culver for 92nd Street Y.

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