When people hear the words “American” and “fashion” in the same sentence, a few names automatically come to mind, almost always including Tommy Hilfiger. He’s one of the few who has been able to create a strong enough identity to make himself synonymous with American fashion. As you might expect, it wasn’t an easy journey to the top, and with all the competition and diversity in todays ever changing fashion world, it’s a struggle to stay relevant and fashionable.
Tommy was born in the small town of Elmira, New York to a working class family. His interest in fashion started at a young age. He started working retail at age 18, and soon after opened his first store called The People’s Place, because he wanted to make clothes “for the people.” He would trek to New York City to buy bell bottoms and other jeans that weren’t available in his hometown and sold them in his store, along with other hippie-chic items like incense and records. His store saw success and led him to open a total of 6, but by the time Hilfiger was 25, the economy was in the midst of a downturn and his chain went bankrupt.
He fell in love with and married a woman who worked at one of his shops, and together they started work at Jordache. Although they were fired after only a year of working there, Hilfiger managed to build a reputation as a thoughtful and hard worker and was offered jobs at Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, which he turned down because he wanted to start his own line. Hilfiger was lucky enough to be approached by an Indian investor named Murhan Mojani, who wanted to find a menswear designer to fund. The two came up with a blitz marketing campaign comparing Hilfiger to other great American designers, still seen as one of the most outstanding and memorable today.
As you can probably imagine, this campaign caused a stir in the industry; some of the designers mentioned were upset with their mentioning in the ad without their permission, and it was quite a bold thing to come out and declare one’s self as “the next big thing in fashion.” Ultimately though, the campaign worked and catapulted the Tommy Hilfiger brand into the spotlight and into success. He had a lot of support from the hip hop scene, with rap stars and celebrities sporting his designs. Snoop Dogg wore one of Hilfiger’s iconic logo sweatshirts in March of 1994 on Saturday Night Live, which increased sales figures to an all time high. Commercially, he was quite successful, but the fashion elite still snubbed him. He was up to win the CFDA’s menswear designer award in 1994, but they chose not to give it out at all. They gave it to him the following year, and this has been a highlight in Hilfiger’s career.
By 2004, the company had 5,400 workers and revenues in excess of $1.8 billion! However, soon after, the Tommy Hilfiger brand was starting to decline in popularity. The big, flashy brand name and logo trend wasn’t as cool as it used to be, and the industry was changing at an alarming rate. Although Hilfiger had a diffusion line (“Tommy”) and many licenses, the company was losing money and needed to be re-vamped. In 2006, the company was sold for $1.6 billion to a private investment company. In 2010, the brand was profitable once again and the owner of Calvin Klein, Phillips-Van Heusen, bought the company for $3 billion. The ad campaigns of the last few seasons, which portray young, sexy, beautiful people wearing the Hilfiger brand, probably have a lot to do with this new found success; it’s very desirable for American youngsters once again.