Tommy Hilfiger interview

In the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Centre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side it’s 4 hours to Showtime and there is a distinct frisson of tension in the air. Severely made-up women hiss last minute instructions into headpieces and an army of caterers hurriedly arrange delicate little morsels (which nobody touches) onto silver trays. A tizzy of stylists nervously flit back and forth, their heels seemingly powered by mini jets. There are banks of alter-like make up tables upon which rest gigantic bouquets of white roses. This is Tommy Hilfiger’s war room and for one night only, the rather fraught focal point of New York’s fashion week.
On a balcony above the perfumey tumult, perched on a high stool amid a cluster of lamps sits the man himself. Lean, chicly sockless and dressed in a slim fitting navy suit of his own design he sighs thoughtfully at the awful significance of today’s date – September 11 – but chooses to dwell on the positive. “Of course I was here that day too and it was a terrible time for all New Yorkers, especially those who lost their lives or those who lost loved ones. I was uptown and I can clearly remember the shock and the terror. You never know when something like that is going to happen. I was living on Central Park West. I saw the second tower collapse. But today is a new day….we have a wonderful space here. And it will be a great show.”
Today is also a more jarring personal anniversary in the Hilfiger calendar. It was six months ago at his Spring Show in New York, which took place in this very hall, that his then fiancée, Dee Ocleppo, first paraded her diamond engagement ring before the cream of New York society. The wedding between the designer and the statuesque blonde, who had been previously linked to Prince Albert of Monaco and Bruce Willis, was to happen in two parts. Firstly there was to be a “simple” no-guests wedding on the island of Mustique followed by a gigantic party this month (sub note: October) at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, at which they would be celebrated by friends like Harvey Weinstein, Vera Wang and Anna Wintour.
And then, without warning, in early August, the announcement came that the nuptials were off and the couple were separating. The split was initially reported to be amicable but the online rumour mill had them wrangling over everything from money to honeymoon destinations. He smiles, when I bring it up, as though suddenly remembering a long forgotten holiday that had fallen through because of inclement weather. “Oh yes. Sure. It was just that I decided that it was awkward with so many kids in the equation (Hilfiger has four from a previous marriage, while Ocleppo has two) and that it was going to be complicated. It was both of our decisions. But you know what? We remain good friends, it was all very amicable. And in fact she is going to be here tonight.”
As one of the few heterosexual fashion designers in the industry Hilfiger would seem to have unique access to a bevy of lissom beauties to move on with but he gives a rueful would-that-I-could smile at the suggestion that he would in any way use this position to his advantage. “You know I would say I have the pleasure of working with some very beautiful women,” he begins, carefully measuring his words. “But there are certain kinds of men in their fifties who go chasing after young girls in their twenties and I would really never want to be that kind of man.”
In person Hilfiger is cool but friendly, mildly batting away each question before moving on. He gives quick, one-sentence answers, punctuating each swiftly made point with a beatific close-lipped smile. He is leanly worked out, exudes a Zen-like calm – the result, he tells me, of daily yoga sessions – and even in a room full of sleek, nattily attired Italian publicists his own personal style stands out. And yet this sartorial self-possession and sharply cut suit seems a million miles from the breezy preppiness and very conspicuous labelling of his brand. Today for obvious reasons he’s dressing up, he tells me. Most days he looks “more like you.” He notes with approval my Tommy shirt (“that will never go out of style”), fingers my jacket (“is this ours too?”) but agrees that he would never do anything so vulgar as flagrantly display a logo himself. “People wear logos because they’re looking for status,” he tells me. “I don’t want to call attention to myself.” And you don’t need status, I suggest. “Exactly.”
In fact it’s been a rough few years for his brand, although it’s shown strong signs of recovery recently. During the early 1990s the designer had managed the seemingly impossible, out Ralph Laurening Ralph Lauren and selling an even cleaner, preppier Hampton-ish glamour to the masses. For a while every mall in America was crowded with kids wearing Hilfiger’s designs. But then in the later part of that decade the brand strayed from the safe ground of crisp polo shirts and into the bolder and baggier fashions of the rap world. In the short term this was a boon for the company and, as the likes of Snoop Dogg and Coolio were seen in Hilfiger gear, the company’s share price soared to more than $40 a share. The Hilfiger band had reached its saturation point. With a mixture of pride and regret the designer now tells me it was “everywhere.”
But the music industry, particularly rap stars, are fickle in their tastes and as they abandoned the red, white and blue baggies, the company turned back to it’s core audience only to discover the prepsters had moved on. At one point the share price dropped to $6 a share. In 2005 the company was sold to a private equity firm, which was charged with turning around its flagging fortunes. They developed a new line, H, which was promoted by David Bowie and Iman but this never really took off and there were some who questioned whether the Hilfiger name could ever be returned to its former glory. Adding to his woes was an ‘Apprentice’-style show (in which he selected hopeful designers to work for him), which was quickly cancelled.
Throughout all this there was one sign of hope. It was noted that in Europe the Hilfiger name still enjoyed a certain level of cachet. Without a rap subculture to sully it, and his own public persona to muddy the waters his brand remained at more or less it’s pristine original level of exclusivity. It was recently decided that, just as in Britain and Ireland, the clothes would only be stocked in upmarket department stores in America and as of this summer Hilfiger rejected overtures from the likes of Wal-Mart and reached an exclusive agreement with Macy’s. “The product in the US was broader and more mainstream but in Europe it was more upper class” he tells me. “So we wanted to make it more like it was Europe. And so we got rid of all the big logos and made a collection that is today much more sophisticated and refined.”
If he doesn’t give the impression that the success of this strategy keeps him up at night it might be because a lifetime in fashion have taught him that it’s better to handle the inevitable ups with a degree of equanimity. Born 57 years ago in upstate New York he was the eldest of seven children and remembers that this meant he had to be “a sort of a parent” to his younger brothers and sisters. “My father was a watchmaker. We were working class. I had to oversee a lot of the goings on in the family and so I became very responsible. I helped bring them (his siblings) up.”
A slender preppy young man, his ironic nickname at school was “the bull”. “I was this big” he tells me, holding his thumb and forefinger a few inches apart, “my friend who was big was ‘the flea’ and I was ‘the bull’, so that was a little joke.” He was determined to play football, even if it meant getting hurt. “If you didn’t you were a wimp.”
By his own account his interest in clothing design sprung up almost from nowhere late in this sporty-preppy adolescence. At 18 he had a job in a shop selling “candles and beads, that sort of thing”. With just $150 to his name he bought a few pairs of jeans and began customising them. “I sold them to stores and they were very successful so I decided I would start designing jeans myself. And they did well.”
He would open his own store, The People’s Place, in upstate New York but with recession looming and the local buying public diverted to a new super mall, which had opened on the outskirts of the town, The People’s Place went bankrupt. Hilfiger was just 25 at that point and decided to move to New York City with his now estranged wife Susie, where he turned down jobs with Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis to start his own company. “It was a wild time. I was young and starting out. I was already known in the industry and had won a number of design awards but the wider public wouldn’t have been aware of me at all,” he remembers. This was not to be the case for long. In the mid 80s he founded The Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, opened his own store and debuted his signature menswear collection. Slowly, a polo short at a time, Hilfiger began a shake up of the fashion industry, pulling the cable-knit rug from under Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis and selling a sleeker, more modern preppiness to middle America. In 1992 the company went public and by the early part of this decade Hilfiger employed over 5,000 people. His empire expanded from clothes into watches, fragrances, gloves, socks, underwear. An entire Tommy lifestyle was available for purchase. “They were great years,” he tells me. “But there were tough times too. And you have to be able to handle the low spots, especially in this industry. You have to be very humble because you can never tell when everything is going to be taken from you. Even now I think of that even though we’re on a roll. You have to brace for those moments.”
One such moment came a few years ago as an internet rumour that Hilfiger had publicly said that Latins, African-Americans and other minorities were pulling down his brand image and really shouldn’t be wearing the clothes gathered some steam. “There are some things you can let slide,” he tells me “but this was something I felt I really needed to address”. He went on Oprah Winfrey and publicly rubbished the claims. “It was a very warm interview and I was incredibly grateful for Oprah giving me the opportunity to clear that up. It had gone on for years. I don’t know how it started.”
That Hilfiger was simply able to call Oprah up and ask for an audience gives an idea of his celebrity in America. The RSVP list to the show in a few hours includes Hillary Swank and by the late afternoon there is already a smattering of photographers prowling the sidewalk outside the Lincoln centre. Hilfiger’s children, who will be in attendance, are stars in their own rights now. His daughter, Ally, was featured on a sort of precursor ‘the Hills’, MTV’s Rich Girls (which, endearingly, revealed him as a bit of a doting pushover) and his son Rich Hil (the last two syllables jettisoned for coolness) is a hip-hop artist. Ally is now running her own vintage accessories business and has said she regretted making the show. Tommy tells me that it hasn’t always been a gilded passage for them. “Certainly my fame made things more difficult for them in a way. If you’re a known person in this country (America) certain people will try to tear you down, that’s just the way it is. You have to rise above some things.”
He’s said in the past that designers like himself and Ralph Lauren merely “download ideas onto people” and gives a little bemused smile at the idea that he might do his own sewing. “I’ve always been upfront about the fact that I’m a businessman and a designer. You know a lot of designers say ‘oh all of my ideas just come out of my head’ whereas I’ll tell people that I’m inspired by rock ‘n roll, by photography and by art. There’s no huge secret to it.”
He has a quiet day-to-day he tells me. He lives on Park Avenue in Manhattan and sees his children off to work before taking his yoga class – “for fitness and relaxation”. He then makes the short trip to his office in Chelsea on the door of which there hangs a $37,000 pair of jeans, which were once worn by Marilyn Monroe. “I am happy,” he tells me brightly, when I wonder if this has been a tough summer. “I feel better than I did in my forties. I’ve a lot to be grateful for.”
He remains on his perch after I depart, serenely watching the frenetic preparations below him. By the time I return a few hours later a well-heeled Manhattan crowd have already mostly taken their seats in a long, multi tiered room. The men wear brightly coloured bow ties, waistcoats and are conspicuously sockless. The women are immaculately coiffed and wear panoply of designers but nothing that looks like it might have been pulled from the rack at Macy’s. Nowhere but nowhere is the famous Tommy Hilfiger crest to be seen. (I realise that I have committed a major fashion faux pas and discreetly pull my jacket closer to my status-hungry chest). The sounds of George Michael singing ‘Jesus To A Child’ wafts from the speakers and a bank of photographers train their lenses on the celebrities here gathered. There is a quiet hum of conversation, which gives way to a small commotion down one end of the room as the svelte forms of Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Helena Christiansen take their seats. A few mortals further along Pharrell Williams sits, his earrings glinting in the evening light. In terms of magnetism Anna Wintour in the front row, seems to trump them all. Her huge black shades glare out like some sci-fi robot. In one swift moment the room around the shades goes black and the show begins.
The models strut down the runway, staring straight ahead with dead eyes, and as promised by Tommy there is not a hoodie or rugby shirt in sight. Princess coats, sheath dresses and tunic tops over wide trousers recall the boomer years with the palette of red whites and blues the only link with the brand’s immediate past. It’s classic Hilfiger Americana; fun, youthful, steeped in nostalgia. At the end he emerges beaming, walks half the runway proffering an impish little wave to the gathered cognoscenti. Within moments people are already filing out of the Lincoln Centre into the warm night air, forsaking the free champagne. This is New York fashion week and there are a lot of shows to get to.

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 11, 2009.

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