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The Drapers Interview: Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his eponymous brand this year. He reveals the highs, the lows, and his simple formula for success.

TommyLow

“Product. Product. Product”, says American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger confidently when asked the secret of his success. It sounds like a rather simple response from a man celebrating his 30th year at the helm of a worldwide lifestyle brand. Even more so for an untrained designer who has made himself as recognisable globally as his fashion label’s red, white and blue logo. But through the highs and lows, from being the first fashion business to float on the New York Stock Exchange in 1992 to plummeting sales and a fall from fashion favour in the early 2000s, it has been about more than just clothes for Tommy over the years. And that is why today the brand is back to being as strong as ever.

Greeting me with his gleaming trademark smile, the first thing the chirpy, perfectly coiffed and impeccably suit-and-tied 64-year-old Tommy Hilfiger does is compliment me on my blazer, coming close to feel its fabric and inspect its lining - always thinking about the clothes first and foremost.

We meet at 8.45 sharp on a summer Sunday morning for a 15-minute interview at the brand’s swanky showroom on Brompton Road, footsteps from Harrods. Our time is tight because Hilfiger has just landed in the UK to unveil his spring 16 menswear collection to buyers and press during London Collections: Men - a high-profile marketing exercise as much as a chance to sell his latest line. At the presentation the designer, always evolving, debuts his TH Flex capsule range, which includes innovative suits and outerwear in high-performance fabrics (wholesale prices range from £15 for T-shirts to £150 for outerwear). This is alongside an underwear presentation of eight buff models in nothing but their pants - a savvy stunt that set social media buzzing.

A couple of weeks earlier, he was in Beijing to open his largest store in China, which coincided with a complete restaging of his New York Fashion Week womenswear catwalk extravaganza on Chinese soil to mark the 30th anniversary. This followed a large Parisian store opening the previous month, complete with a celebrity-packed party.

Thirty years since the brand’s launch, sales are still soaring: to $6.7bn (£4.3bn) in 2014, of which 42% came from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 42% from North America. Revenues grew 6% to $3.6bn (£2.3bn).

Born in 1951 in Elmira, upstate New York, Thomas Jacob Hilfiger was the second of nine children and grew up a world away from today’s jet-set lifestyle. His first foray into fashion came aged 18, when he founded The People’s Place - a basement store in his home town selling second-hand jeans. But after expanding into nearby college campuses too quickly, the business soon filed for bankruptcy.

Moving to New York City, Hilfiger met Indian entrepreneur Mohan Murjani, the man behind Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Seeking to branch into menswear, he teamed up with Hilfiger to launch the designer’s first eponymous collection of fresh takes on preppy classics in 1985. Two years later, they unveiled the first of what would become another brand signature and contributor to its success: an innovative marketing campaign. The now iconic ‘hangman’ billboard, devised by art director George Lois, appeared in New York’s Times Square and propelled Hilfiger to notoriety. The headline read: “The four great American designers for men are …” and listed Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein - the biggest designers in the US at the time. The fourth was unknown upstart Hilfiger. With this creative and audacious move, he showed the importance of making an impact early on and continued to do so through subsequent campaigns.

“I always wanted to create a product that was classic but different. I didn’t want just classic; I thought it was boring,” explains Hilfiger in measured, precise tones. “Originally, I thought it was going to be an American brand in America, and a menswear brand. But now we have evolved considerably.”

Quite considerably, in fact. Sold through its own stores (1,480 globally, including flagships in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Düsseldorf and two in London), wholesale accounts (Selfridges, Harrods, John Lewis, House of Fraser and Asos.com are UK stockists), and concessions, the brand covers men’s, women’s and kids’ clothing, accessories and footwear, as well as licensed products such as fragrances, eyewear and watches.

The core line, Tommy Hilfiger, continues the original preppy American look with a twist (think slim colourful chinos, button-up shirts and polos that blend a quirky smartness with a sporty, casual feel), joined by the younger Hilfiger Denim line and the most premium and directional range Hilfiger Collection, which was presented on the New York Fashion Week catwalks.

“When we added women’s and children’s, we became more than just an American men’s casual brand. At that point, I started dreaming about building a global lifestyle brand,” says the designer, who is still involved in each collection.

Expansion over the years has been fuelled by another factor: the brand’s link-ups with celebrities. With glee Hilfiger lists pop stars such as Britney Spears, former girl group Destiny’s Child, hip-hop names such as Snoop Dogg, and even David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, who have all been decked out in his designs. “We became really connected to what I call ‘FAME’: fashion, art, music and entertainment. We used pop culture as a vehicle to get the brand more known and have fun with it.”

By the late 1980s, Murjani’s empire was in financial trouble and Hilfiger began to disentangle his name and business. His new backer was Hong Kong-based knitwear tycoon Silas Chou, who brought in two former Ralph Lauren executives, Lawrence Stroll and Joel Horowitz. With Hilfiger still in charge of design, this quartet created a new incarnation of the brand, which floated on the New York Stock Exchange within three years, in 1992. Despite scepticism from the industry, the business was a success, and added a women’s line in 1996, and a bed and bath range two years later. The brand expanded massively, particularly in its home market.

The bubble eventually burst as Hilfiger’s red, white and blue logo was seen everywhere. Trends moved on, but shops were flooded with product and the label quickly lost its appeal.

“We grew so fast and became ubiquitous and that hurt us,” says Hilfiger. In 2000, the brand generated $2bn (£1.2bn) of sales, but by 2005 annual revenue fell to $500m (£320m). “We had to pull back, revaluate, restructure and then grow again by repositioning ourselves as more of an affordable luxury lifestyle brand,” says Hilfiger. “I think affordable luxury at this point is the place to be, and it is our sweet spot in the market. Even with the downfall in 2008, when the economy was hurting, our business was very strong.”

To achieve this return to form, the brand went private again in 2006. Private equity firm Apax Partners paid $1.6bn (£1.02bn) for the business and rolled out its affordable luxury concept globally. In 2010, the brand was sold again, to Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, owner of Calvin Klein, for $3bn (£1.92bn). Hilfiger was given the title of ‘principal designer and visionary’.

Although clearly media-trained, answering questions with measured, predictable answers, at other times Hilfiger lets down his guard.

“What would I do differently? I would probably be strictly retail rather than wholesale/retail,” he says. “You can control your own destiny. Sometimes, when you’re selling wholesale, you don’t really have control of what’s going on.

“And there’s a lot of competition that wasn’t here before. Look at the Zaras, the H&Ms and the Topshops: they are powerful retailers with great products at great prices. And online, you cannot live without it now. It’s a very important part of our business and it will become even more important.” So is online the future?

“In 25 or 30 years, [online] could possibly take over for a lot of consumer products, but for clothing, I think people really want to touch and feel it. And I think there’s still something exciting and romantic about walking into a store and seeing something new: new colours, new fabrics, new fits,” he says.

It is this offering of something new, balanced with cool and classic signatures, typified by his spring 16 collection, that will sustain the brand through its next chapter. Having lost its way in the late 1990s and early 2000s by backing fleeting trends and moving away from what it does best, Hilfiger’s current ‘back to basics’ affordable luxury is the right approach.

“The product is always paramount now and we’re really focusing on the quality, the fit, elevating it all but keeping it affordable. I think that if you lose sight of that, then in this business you will lose.”

So, after 30 years, what’s next for Hilfiger? “I would like to do whatever we’re doing today, better tomorrow. And I think it’s not too complicated: making sure that the product is great, that the branding is strong, that the stores are fresh and new and that you listen to the customer,” he says, with his trademark smile. “That’s really the puzzle.”

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