The man who has claimed Americana for his own tells Drapers how he has retained his popularity with fans of fashion all over the globe and how he intends to reclaim the exclusive appeal of his own-named brand.
It’s relaxed American glamour; it’s luxurious but it’s still relaxed.” Placing specific emphasis on the last word in that sentence, Tommy Hilfiger is explaining the theme of his spring 09 catwalk collection, but he might just as well be talking about himself.
Dressed in pale blue jeans and sweater, with perfect hair and teeth, Hilfiger looks younger than his 57 years and is unmistakably American (third-generation Irish American, in fact).
More surprisingly, given that in just over 24 hours his collection will be shown to the world’s most influential fashion press and buyers at New York Fashion Week, he seems incredibly calm and so do all around him.
This is a feat that seems all the more remarkable when you learn that the evening before he and his team attended a major party at iconic New York department store Macy’s (whose many windows were all adorned with Hilfiger branding during Fashion Week), and he has given no less than 24 interviews to journalists from around the world, while simultaneously overseeing the final preparations for the show.
There is certainly an undercurrent of controlled industriousness in his vast West Village studio as Polaroids are made of the final show line-up and models arrive for their fittings. But there’s none of the hysteria one expects before a show for a designer of Hilfiger’s global repute as he moves around his studio without ceremony or entourage in tow.
Two PRs sit in on his interview with Drapers but, contrary to the norm, they simply smile encouragement and only interrupt when our time is coming to an end, which it does all too quickly (in just under 15 minutes), but thankfully not before Hilfiger has time to explain his approach to design, his love of Americana and his admiration for British designers.
At one point, halfway through a sentence on the revival of British heritage brands, he breaks off and asks: “What ever happened to Katharine Hamnett? Is she still around? I loved her, she was great.” But he doesn’t pause for an answer because there isn’t time to listen to one.
The revival of British heritage brands, however, is a point upon which he is prepared to dwell because in a not entirely dissimilar way he’s trying to pull off the same trick at Tommy Hilfiger.
The brand was founded in 1985 and was as American in its heart as Hershey’s chocolate and Coca-Cola. In the 1990s his more heavily branded sports line was soon adopted as the uniform of choice by stars from the hip-hop movement, which delighted Hilfiger whose love of music and street culture is as strong as his love of fashion. But, as with many brands that gain this kind of exposure, it fell prey to international counterfeiters and its exclusive appeal was damaged.
In other words, Hilfiger had been ‘Burberry-ed’. But just as that iconic British fashion house has managed to recapture its allure by moving upmarket and placing the emphasis back on understated design and authenticity, as opposed to overt branding, so Hilfiger is doing the same with his catwalk collections.
These collections are only available in flagship stores globally (the autumn 08 catwalk line went on sale in Hilfiger’s Regent Street, London store last week) and aim to re-establish the brand’s premium credentials.
“The idea is our brand is evolving,” explains Hilfiger. “It’s becoming more refined, more sophisticated and more grown-up. It is really inspired by American icons. Grace Kelly is one. It’s Audrey Hepburn, it’s Jackie Kennedy. It’s about people who have been influential in our lives through what they do.” So Americana, a subject on which Hilfiger has authored books, remains important? “It’s totally it,” he says. “It infuses everything.”
What also infuses everything Hilfiger does is his love of culture, art and music. He describes his interests using the acronym FAME – fashion, art, music and entertainment. “Pop culture really moves the needle in society. It’s about celebrity, it’s about movies, Hollywood, it’s about rock ’n’ roll and fashion isn’t any different [from pop culture],” he says.
Given that he’s written several books, you might expect Hilfiger to read a lot but his approach to research is more about drinking up everything he sees around him.
“I don’t read a lot but I’m very, very visual and I have a photographic memory, so I look at a lot of pictures and I watch a lot of streetscape,” he says.
Hilfiger’s refocus on American culture and heritage would seem a sensible strategy in the current economic situation. Much is being made, in this the era of crunched credit and rising costs, of the apparent gravitation of consumers towards brands that have heritage and clothes that have longevity, so Hilfiger’s move seems timely. He insists, however, that the brand has never swerved from its American sensibilities; this is more a case of reinforcing them.
“Heritage has always been big for certain brands. Burberry has always been very British and Gucci has always been very Italian. We started out more than 20 years ago as an American brand and we’ve not veered from that at all, we have taken that essence around the world,” he says. “And as difficult as it is being an American outside the US in this day and age, we’re being accepted around the world as a US brand.”
Whether American preppy fashion is your bag or not, there’s no denying that Hilfiger has built a true global powerhouse and can count himself among the likes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein in terms of worldwide brand recognition. His brand is distributed in 65 countries and includes 800 dedicated retail stores in addition to being stocked in thousands of department stores and independent retailers.
As well as the catwalk collection, his product lines include men’s and women’s wear, Hilfiger Denim, golfwear, skiwear, eyewear, watches, bags, shoes and fragrances. It’s no wonder his time is short, even if he does describe his role these days as “overseer”.
“For 20 years I was so hands-on and I’ve decided to let my assistants and my design team to take my ideas to the next level,” he explains. That would seem a hard thing to do when the brand bears your name, but Hilfiger says not. “It’s great actually, it’s wonderful. Many of them have been with me for many years so they understand [what I want] and when we develop a collection, we’re not reinventing the wheel. However, we do update everything on an ongoing basis.”
“If you are not trying to do brand new trends every season, which is very dangerous and volatile, you have an archive of treasures and ideas that allow you to go forward with adjustments,” he explains. Besides he doesn’t feel that the Hilfiger customer, and in particular the American consumer, is that bothered about fashion trends. What they want are classic, comfortable clothes.
“The US market for the most part is not addicted to fashion and the majority of people are not obsessed. There are fashion victims and there are a certain percentage who are totally obsessed but it’s a very small percentage. So we, the more traditional, classic brands, can tweak up and tweak down depending on what’s going on. And we can be a bit more fashionable one season and a bit more classic another season.”
The next day at his show, his bid to “tweak up” becomes clear. At the Lincoln Center and New York State Theater in front of a packed house that includes Vogue’s US editor-in-chief Anna Wintour seated in the front row and looking inscrutable behind her trademark over-sized, dark glasses, Hilfiger sent models down the catwalk in a modern, classic
collection that was based around the core colours of navy, stone and cream with flashes of citrine yellow and apricot.
Using silks, cottons, jersey and wool, Hilfiger played with proportions on womenswear such as oversized billowy tops teamed with tailored shorts and silky evening gowns paired with parkas. Menswear was neat and slightly sporty with slim suits teamed with jersey polos and trench coats rendered in cotton jersey.
But there were definite nods to fashion too. The harem pant which became a staple feature in New York collections, and in those shown at Copenhagen last month, appeared in the form of a silk jogging pant and his pyjama suits made for a more wearable version of the 1970s-style jumpsuits shown elsewhere. All in all, the effect is clean and contemporary and the clothes were the kind the wearer could take anywhere.
Hilfiger took his bow to applause, but there was one complaint. As the crowd filed out onto the Manhattan street one fashion editor turned to another and said: “That was lovely, but 10 minutes?” It was short but Hilfiger is a busy man; he’d made his point and he’d left them wanting more.
2006 Tommy Hilfiger sold to private equity house Apax Partners
1998 Named Designer of the Year by the Parson’s School of Design
1995 Named Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America
1992 Tommy Hilfiger floats on the New York Stock Exchange
1985 Launches the first signature Tommy Hilfiger collection
1979 Moves to New York to pursue design career
1969 Sets up own store in Elmira, NY