He is dapper, speaks his mind and is a perfectionist. Tommy Hilfiger, the man who made the term ‘American Cool’ famous, tells Nikshubha Garg how he started off his business with just $150 dollars, turned it into a billion-dollar affair and why he loves to lead life luxe-size
Tommy Hilfiger, Designer and Founder, Tommy Hilfiger Corporation
American Cool and Tommy Hilfiger are often mentioned in the same breath and the credit for making the former a global fashion trend goes to Hilfiger. On a Sunday evening, I meet the man at a suburban five-star hotel, where he is staying to commemorate his brand’s 10th anniversary. Hilfiger looks dapper in red chinos, royal-blue loafers and a blue checkered shirt and appears far from tired, despite having a choc-a-block schedule. As we settle down, I ask him what does the term, American Cool imply? The 62-year-old says, “It means casual. By ‘cool’ I’m referring to the youth as in every country they are the ones who are influenced by pop culture.”
Tommy Hilfiger defines his personal sense of fashion as simple, comfortable yet classy. Pic/ Rane Ashish
It has been 35 years since the sexagenarian came to India to source fabrics and look for tailoring and manufacturing units. Ever since his relationship with the country continues to blossom. “In the first year itself, I was invited to the factory owner’s house for lunch. As he guided me to the dining table, I was taken aback as I saw there wasn’t any cutlery. ‘We eat with hands,’ he told me. I don’t think I have ever laughed harder than that. All through my life I was taught never to use my hands while eating and here I was in a country where eating with hands was a part of their culture. I lapped up the food happily,” he says.
The entrepreneur recalls that over the last three decades during his visits to India, he has noticed the transformation the country has undergone. “Back then women preferred sarees while men were comfortable in pyjama kurtas. There were fewer high-rises. Premiere Padminis and Ambassadors were the only cars on the road,” he says.
But over the years, not only has the country developed but even Hilfiger has become a household name. Thanks to foreign direct investment and the influx of international luxury brands in shopping malls, Hilfiger’s apparels, accessories and perfumes with his trademark blue-white-red rectangular logo are a common feature in many people’s wardrobes. “It’s been a great journey since I opened my first store in Bangalore in 2004. I couldn’t have asked for more,” says the designer.
Journey to the top
Every successful individual has had a journey replete with ups and downs and Hilfiger’s life is no exception. Born in a middle-class family in Elmira, upstate New York, Hilfiger began working at the age of 11 by distributing newspapers. “Much to my parents’ dismay, I didn’t go to college,” he says.
He admits that he knew that he wanted to be successful but was clueless about which profession he should take up. “I would dream about being a musician but I wasn’t talented enough. At some point I wanted to be a footballer but I wasn’t big enough. I loved the way musicians such as Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin and Jim Morrisson dressed during the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was inspired by their edgy dressing style and wanted to be a part of the fashion revolution,” he admits.
At an early age, he enjoyed wearing trendy clothes such as Oxford shirts and chinos. Taking his love for fashion forward, he started his first store, People’s Place. “I set it up at the age of 18 with $150 in my pocket and 20 pairs of jeans, which I bought from other stores. It was an instant hit,” explains the fashion czar.
When everything appeared to be going his way, Hilfiger went bankrupt at 25. “I was devastated. I always believed that the store managers would be honest in running the stores but I was mistaken. The bankruptcy set me back and I realised that I needed to take the brand far more seriously and understand the business of the business,” recalls the entrepreneur.
“There was too much on the line. I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t a failure. At the same time, I had to show my parents that even though I didn’t go to college, I had what it takes to survive in the ‘real’ world,” he says.
Gradually, he focused on strategies and learnt to read balance sheets. After a client rejected Hilfiger’s designs as the former didn’t want to expand beyond jeans, the designer built his own brand in 1984. A manufacturer backed him but claimed that his buyers had a different sensibility and weren’t attuned to the kind of clothes that Hilfiger had in mind for them. So the young designer took all the clothes and went door-to-door selling them. He was rejected a number of times but he was determined. The father of five focused on the business every single day and it grew gradually. By 1988, his sales soared to $25 million. In the mid-1990s, it reached $500 million and by the end of that decade it was $1 billion. Today, his lifestyle brand has a business of over $6.4 billion.
It’s a well known fact that when one becomes famous, they are constantly under scrutiny and Hilfiger got a taste of it when in 1996, the rumour mills were abuzz with the news that he made racist comments against Asians and Africans. “The rumour was absolutely false. Probably a jealous competitor had planted it. It shattered both my family and me. I never categorise people. In fact, I always have and always will make clothes for everyone,” he explains.
Learning life’s lessons
Designers around the world constantly deal with the pressure of hitting the right note with customers, but sometimes they do get it wrong. “Every designer needs to have a sense of what clicks with their customers. You do that by tapping the culture of a particular place and the trends that have made a mark. For instance, I know that a particular pattern or colour will never be a hit with a certain section of people, hence, I will never repeat it,” says the fashion icon.
Hilfiger confesses that over the years, he has learnt to take criticism in the right spirit. “People have told me that a particular outfit I designed is awful or the quality isn’t great. But you learn from such feedback and improve upon it,” he states.
Having learnt his set of lessons, Hilfiger admits that he is more relaxed about his collections than he ever was but at the same time, he believes in perfectionism both at work and at home. “I want everything to be perfect. I am also obsessed about symmetry. If I see a particular chair kept on the right, I would want a chair on the left to be complimenting it. Also, if a painting at home is even slightly tilted, I cannot rest until I have put it straight,” he laughs.
Hilfiger is a man of many interests. Apart from listening to music, the Beatles and Rolling Stones fan also loves collecting art and enjoys activities such as biking, volleyball and sailing. “I am a self-confessed foodie and Italian and Indian are my favourite cuisines. While in India, I make it a point to gorge on Naan, Dal, Chicken Tikka, Butter Chicken and Seekh Kebab,” he laughs.
Hilfiger has been designing for the Indian customers for a long time now and sees a sea change in the fashion sensibilities of the population today. “I closely follow Indian fashion and admire the works of Prabal Gurung, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Sabyasachi. I also love Sonam Kapoor’s dressing sense. She is incredibly talented,” he adds.
He confesses that he has now trained his sights on architecture. “I love architecture and investing in projects. I just bought a hotel in Miami and am working towards redecorating it. If I get my way, I wouldn’t mind spending all my time indulging in these pockets of interests,” adds the self-taught designer sheepishly.
Hilfiger is known to be stylish and considers his dressing sense to be simple, comfortable yet classy. Ask him whether he takes fashion tips from anyone and he quips, “No way. I don’t listen to anyone, I make my own rules,” he signs off.
Movie: The Runaways
Actors: Bradley Cooper
Book: The Catcher in the Rye
Destination: New York City —the city is incredibly iconic with an unrivaled energy
Born: March 24, 1951
Place of birth: Elmira, upstate New York
Education: Although I never went to design school, I knew I had what it took to begin to translate my artistic vision into a viable business
First job: I started my career as a teenager with $150 in my pocket and the dream of becoming a designer best advice you ever got: Never give up on your dreams