Who Is Tommy Hilfiger?
Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger has built his brand, using his signature red, white and blue tag, which has become popular among the upper class and the casual buyer. Before making his immensely popular product, he opened several stores in the 1970s. It wasn't until 1984, when he was approached to design a men's sportswear line with his name that he took off into the stratosphere of fame and fashion.
Tommy Hilfiger was born on March 24, 1951, in Elmira, New York, the second of nine children in a working class Irish-American family. His mother, Virginia, worked as a nurse, while dad Richard made watches at a local jewelry store. Tommy Hilfiger attended Elmira Free Academy in high school, where he was neither a star athlete (he was so small, he had to sneak 15-pound weights in his pockets to get on the football team) or student (he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia).
First Entrepreneurial Venture
Hilfiger's entrepreneurial gifts, however, were evident from a young age. As a teenager, he began buying jeans in New York City that he remade and sold for a markup in Elmira. When he was 18, he opened a store called The People's Place in Elmira that sold hippie supplies like bell-bottoms, incense and records. Wildly successful at first-Hilfiger soon had a chain of stores and a six-figure income-a downturn in the economy hit his business hard, and he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1977.
In 1976, Hilfiger fell in love with Susie Carona, an employee at one of his stores. The couple married and moved to Manhattan shortly after the bankruptcy. They were hired as a husband-and-wife design team by the apparel brand Jordache, but were fired after only a year. Hilfiger developed a reputation as a hard-working young designer, and was considered for jobs at Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. What he really wanted, however, was his own label.
In 1984, Hilfiger was approached by Indian entrepreneur Mohan Murjani, who was looking for a designer to head a men's sportswear line. Murjani allowed Hilfiger to design the label under his own name, sealing the deal. The pair announced Hilfiger's arrival onto the scene with a blitz marketing campaign that included a bold billboard in New York City's Times Square announcing Hilfiger as the next big thing in American fashion. "I think I am the next great American designer," Hilfiger told a reporter in 1986. "The next Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein."
Their tactics rankled the fashion establishment, which looked down on Hilfiger's naked self-promotion-Calvin Klein even got into a shouting match with the billboard's creator at a New York City restaurant. Though Hilfiger was embarrassed by the fallout, the bold tactics worked. Hilfiger's line of preppy clothes with his trademark red, white and blue logo soon became wildly popular. By the early 1990s, the hip-hop world embraced oversized versions of Hilfiger's clothes, and the brand assiduously courted rap stars and celebrities. Snoop Dogg's choice of a giant Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt during a Saturday Night Live performance in March 1994 brought sales figures to an all-time high.
Despite Hilfiger's commercial success, however, the fashion elite still snubbed him. In 1994, the year Hilfiger was the frontrunner for the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Designer of the Year, CFDA decided not to give the prize at all. They, later relented, and gave it to him in 1995.
In 2000, Hilfiger split with his wife of 20 years, with whom he had four children. His professional fortunes crumbled as well. His clothes fell off in popularity among the hip-hop set, and sales plunged by as much as 75 percent. Worse than bad sales, the Tommy Hilfiger brand 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." Hilfiger took a hard look at his company's mistakes and reworked the brand. In 2007, he signed an exclusive deal with Macy's to sell the company's best-selling lines only at their stores.
Personal Life and Career Rebound
Hilfiger married second wife, Dee Ocleppo, in December 2008, and the couple welcomed son Sebastian in August 2009. In May 2010, his once-again-profitable company sold for a whopping $3 billion to the clothing conglomerate Phillips-Van Heusen. He received the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Geoffrey Beane Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Today, Hilfiger continues to be the principal designer of his brand, and there are more than 1,400 of his stores in 90 countries. In 2016, he took his "classic American cool" looks in a new direction. He partnered with Runway of Dreams to create a line of adaptive clothing for children with disabilities.
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