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Tommy Hilfiger: How The American Fashion Designer Made His Name

I’ve got a great bio on Tommy Hilfiger and his impact on American fashion.

Tommy Hilfiger: How The American Fashion Designer Made His Name

BEGINNINGS

Thomas Jacob Hilfiger lived his early life in the fashion mecca of New York City. He was the second of nine children in a working-class Irish-American family. His mother Virginia Hilfiger worked as a nurse while his dad, Richard Hilfiger, made watches at the local jewelry store. He attended Elmira Free Academy where he would jump into retail at the early age of 18. During his senior year of high school, he would start a business with a few school buddies. They'd chip in about $125 bucks each and started selling jeans. They'd later open a clothing store called the People's Place. And it blew the fuck up. They sold hippie products like bell-bottoms, incense, and records. He told Forbes that, "It got to a point where I was selling jeans out of the trunk of my car because people wanted them so badly." But shit hit the fan 7 years later. He filed for bankruptcy at the early age of 25.

Around the same time, he'd fall in love with one of his employees, Susie Carona. The couple would move to Manhattan right after the bankruptcy. Beginning a new chapter in his design career.

THE RISE

Susie and Tommy would form a design team when he was 28 and would land Jordache as a client. But they were fired after a year, putting Hilfiger back on the streets from a designing perspective.

He would be offered design positions with Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, but he'd turned down those offers because he felt the strong urge to start his own brand.

And it happened. In 1984, Hilfiger was approached by Indian entrepreneur Mohan Murjani. The Murjani Group was looking for a designer to head a men's sportswear line. He would let Hilfiger design the label under his own name.

He'd make his arrival quickly, initiating a massive blitz marketing campaign with a bold billboard in New York City's Times Square. Hilfiger told a reporter in 1986, "I think I am the next great American designer... The next Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein."

By 1988 his brand hit $25 million dollars in sales. And his fashion tactics would shake up the fashion industry. Hilfiger's line of preppy clothes with his trademark red, white, and blue logo became widely popular. By the early 1990s, the hip-hop world embraced oversized versions of Hilfiger's clothes, and the brand courted rap stars and celebrities, like Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz, and The Rolling Stones. Snoop Dogg's choice in an SNL performance in 1994 brought sales figures to an all-time high. The clothing line would expand and start tackling women's clothing, fragrances, and much more. They'd hit $500 million in sales in the mid-1990s. And by the end of the decade, they hit $1 billion in sales.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America named Hilfiger menswear designer of the year award in 1995.

At the same time, he would establish The Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation with a mission to empower America's youth, pushing education and cultural programs.

soiree tommy hilfiger

PITFALLS

In 2000, Hilfiger would split with his wife of 20 years. At the same time, his fortunes would crumble as well. The brand would fall off in popularity, and sales would drop as much as 75%. His brand simply wasn't cool anymore.

"The large logos and the big red, white and blue theme became ubiquitous," Hilfiger said. "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."

REBOUND

He'd take a hard look at his company's brand and would rework it. In 2007, he'd sign an exclusive deal with Macy's to sell the company's best-selling lines.

Hilfiger would marry his second wife, Dee Ocleppo, in 2008. In 2010 his company would become profitable again and would sell for $3 billion to Phillips-Van Heusen. Tommy Hilfiger's net worth would skyrocket. He'd remain the company principal designer, so he could continue to provide leadership and direction. He'd later receive the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Geoffrey Beane Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

TOMMY TODAY

Thomas Hilfiger continues to be the principal designer of his brand. We're starting to see a resurgence of 90s fashion, and the brand has flourished over the last few years because of it. There are nearly 2,000 of his stores in 100 countries.

Hilfiger has an incredible passion for philanthropy. Supporting initiatives and charities like Save the Children and World Wildlife Fund, while also sitting on the Board of Next for Autism.

His life and career have been chronicled in his memoir, American Dreamer, which was published in November 2016. It's a reflection of his iconic experiences in the fashion industry, early childhood, milestones, setbacks, and his relentlessness to creating a multi-billion dollar global brand and becoming one of the greatest designers of all time.

All, Story of the Week

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March 28, 2022

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