Absolutely ghetto fabulous: Tommy Hilfiger on how his critical father inspired his look
His parents and teachers wrote him off as stupid, but a combination of undiagnosed dyslexia and humble beginnings drove Tommy Hilfiger to succeed. The multi-millionaire fashion mogul tells our reporter how his tough, critical father inspired the Hilfiger label's iconic preppy look, how bankruptcy was the best business lesson he ever learned, and why he'd be just as embarrassed to see Hillary Clinton in the White House as Donald Trump
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
There's time - and then there's Tommy time. You're on Tommy time from the moment the chauffeured-driven car picks you up at Gatwick Airport and deposits you, in some style, at an address in Knightsbridge.
It is here that you are given the tour of the main man's grand London HQ, before another staff member asks the driver to wait to take you to the airport once your 50-minute meeting with the star of the show is complete. That star is Tommy Hilfiger - the man who made the preppy look ghetto fabulous.
He arrives flanked by a team. It's like meeting an American presidential candidate.
The 64-year-old with - as GQ magazine described it - "the Nantucket-meets-NWA [a hip-hop group] aesthetic" has a hipster aura that doesn't seem out of place for his age. He says things, too, that are way too edgy and left-of-centre, for the head of a global company worth billions (in 2006, Tommy Hilfiger was sold to venture capitalists Apax Partners for €1.4bn and, in 2010, it was subsequently sold by Apax to Phillips-Van Heusen for €2.2bn. Hilfiger himself remains the company's principal designer.)
The Tommy Hilfiger signature colour palette of red, white and blue seems to signify something patriotic at some level about America and the American Dream.
Yet, Tommy himself - admirably, like some of the rappers who wear his clothes - isn't shy about saying what he believes is wrong with America.
"I think America has a lot of incredible aspects to it," he begins.
"If you are looking to what America has donated to society - from Disney to Apple, from Hollywood to Muddy Waters, from Elvis to Marilyn Monroe; a lot of cool stuff. But as far as the Government is concerned, as far as meddling in areas they shouldn't be meddling in, it's embarrassing. It's not what I choose to do."
I ask him if it would be more embarrassing to have Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.
"Look," he says, "people are saying that about Hillary." [Presumably, Tommy means people are saying that it would be as embarrassing to have Mrs Clinton in the White House - again.]
Could you imagine Trump dealing with Putin on foreign policy issues?
"I can't imagine it!" Tommy laughs.
"But, honestly, crazier things have happened. We never thought we'd have a black President. And Obama came right into office. But it's a bit of a mess, you could say."
Who will you vote for?
"I have no idea, because I don't like any of them. I really don't. I'm not impressed with any of them."
He has a compelling charisma, I think you'll agree, this New Yorker with the rags-to-riches life story and a fondness for the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Stooges and the New York Dolls. And, unlike most multi-millionaires, Tommy is given to much salty self-deprecation.
Ask him where he got the cojones, in 1985, to put up a giant billboard ad in New York's Times Square, on which he compared himself, a then-unknown designer, to Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, and he'll laugh at the memory.
"I met this advertising genius, this older guy," Tommy recalls. "I told him for my first advertising [campaign] I was thinking about taking a model out on a beach and photographing the model, and having it really cool and relaxed."
And what was his reaction to your great idea, Tommy?
"He said, 'You're fucking crazy'."
Tommy Hilfiger laughs like a broken drain in Manhattan.
"He said, 'You're fucking crazy. Don't do that. It will take you years and years and years to get known, and you are going to look like everybody else - with a model, looking pretty, wearing a pair of jeans. It is not going to be different enough. You've got to do something really, really different in order to get your name known'."
Tommy pauses, before adding with a laugh, "And then he said, 'Who the fuck can pronounce Hilfinger anyway?'
"So this guy was like an old timer," Tommy Hilfiger continues. "I said to him, 'What would you do?' He showed this whole idea of an advertising campaign that compared my name to established names out there that were already known. I hesitated and said, 'I don't know'. I didn't have much money to do the advertising.'
"He said, 'Look. I guarantee you that if we run this ad, your name is going to become as known as some of the big names overnight'. So we ran the advertising on a billboard in Times Square. The next day, people went crazy."
(For the record, the "big names" on the ad, listed alongside Tommy Hilfiger, were Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, and Calvin Klein.)
I point out to Tommy that, in an interview, he said about the aftermath of the ad: "The whole fashion world was beside itself. I was the laughing stock. It was the only time I thought I'd quit the business - or go hide somewhere."
Tommy answers now that, at that time, people were saying, "'Who does he think he is? How could he compare himself to these greats? He never even went to design school'.
"So at that point, I thought, 'You know what? I'm just going to make my own rules'. I just do what I want to do now. And I am not going to follow the crowd, or do what they expect me to do. I'm just going to make my own rules. So I started doing my own thing. Everybody was saying, 'In order to be a designer, you have to be very, very disciplined, to invent something innovative'."
New York's Interview magazine was pretty much on the money in 2010 with a piece that noted: "Whether trafficking in flared jeans or designing country-club sportswear, Hilfiger has always had a knack for tapping into unexpected quarters of youth culture at just the right moment."
I ask Tommy where that knack came from.
"If there is something going on that's interesting, I like to have it become a part of my brand, whether it is music, sports, or movies," he says. "I grew up with eight brothers and sisters. I was the first boy, second child. Each one of my brothers and sisters would always bring friends to our house. So there were many, many different types of people around all the time, and that was interesting to me, because otherwise, if I had to just be with my brothers and sisters all the time, I'd be bored.
"So I knew them all. And I liked sort of chaotic surroundings, with a lot of people, a lot of conversations. I was the one in the family who started bring records home."
Asked where his love of music came from, he recalls seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. "I thought they were very cool," he smiles.
Was that the defining moment of your life - was it what made you want to do something different with your life?
"No. I think the defining part of my life was the fact that I was a terrible student, and there was no way I was going to go to university, because I wouldn't be able to get the grades.
"What I found out later on," he adds, "what I didn't realise, was that I had a problem. And all of my teachers and my parents really thought that I was . . . I think they thought I was stupid. But what I found out later on was that I was dyslexic. I couldn't read. So I was faking it. And you can't fake reading to pass a test. I was really a terrible student."
The teachers had no idea that they had a student in their classes who would make millions of dollars by identifying cultural shifts ahead of everyone else in fashion and put them into his clothes, I say.
"I think they sort of wrote me off!" Tommy laughs.
"So I figured, 'I have to do something, because I am not going to go to university. I'll never get a good job. I don't know what to do'. So when music came into my life, I wanted to be a part of it somehow. But I couldn't really play and I couldn't sing. So I wanted to look like a rock star of the 1970s.
"When I started growing my hair long, and wore bell-bottoms and cool clothes," he recalls, "all of my school mates wanted to look like me. 'Where did you get those boots? Where did you get those jeans?' So I then opened a small shop with $150 I earned working in a gas station. It was a small shop. I called it People's Place. I started selling bell-bottom jeans; hippy-type clothes. That was 1969."
What music were you listening to?
"I loved Hendrix. I loved The Doors. The music was great, but I also loved the way the bands looked - and then, when David Bowie came around, I thought that was genius," Tommy says.
"I loved the music, but also the look. You couldn't go in a store and buy 'rock' style clothes then."
I say to him that I read that he hung out in two legendary fleshpots of 'sex and drugs and rock 'n roll' culture in New York in the 1970s - Studio 54 and Max's Kansas City.
What are his memories of that?
"I can't remember a lot!" he laughs.
"Look, on any given night, you'd walk into Max's Kansas City and see Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Ramones, Debbie Harry from Blondie. You'd see all different types of people, and someone would play. A lot of the time, the New York Dolls or one of the punk bands would play, and then we'd go to Studio 54 and Stevie Wonder would be blasting."
Was it as decadent as it seemed?
"Yeah, yeah, it was decadent. It was crazy."
He says that the experience of bankruptcy, however painful, was like an MBA. "Yeah, because I didn't really know what I was doing, business-wise, as a young boy having a store. So after a few years I didn't know how to run the business, as the business was growing, so I had a bankruptcy. I was 23. That taught me to, all of a sudden, really pay attention to the business. Then I thought, 'I really want my own brand'. I launched Tommy in 1985. I was 32."
I've met Tommy Hilfiger before. I interviewed him in Paris in 2007. He took me out night-clubbing afterwards. He remembers the occasion. Nine years on, he is forthcoming, revealing a realness that he has hitherto kept hidden from the media.
"Look," he says at one point, "it has not all been rosy. I've had financial problems. I've had a bankruptcy, as you know. That was early on. But later, on in order to get started, I needed money, so someone backed me and then they ran out of money. Then I was in a partnership with other people who absconded with money," laughs Tommy.
"There were a lot of starts and stops. It wasn't, all of a sudden I started Tommy Hilfilger, and it just, like, exploded."
Were there times when you didn't have two dollars to rub together?
What was that like?
"It was not easy, but I had faith in myself, and I knew that if I worked hard and I had an opportunity to prove myself, I could make money."
How much are you worth?
Yeah. If you went to the bank this minute, and said, 'I want it all out now - give me everything'. How much would that be?
"A lot!" he laughs.
You can't take it with you. Are you going to leave it to charity?
"I have a lot of children. I have seven children. And I have an ex-wife and a wife," he laughs. (Tommy has four children by his first wife, Susie - Ally, Ricky, Elizabeth and Kathleen; while, with his second wife, Dee, he has young son, Sebastian.) "I also have eight brothers and sisters."
You grew up with a big family. So did you subconsciously decide to have a big family yourself?
"I don't know how it even happened. I had four with my first wife. I had one with my current wife . . . and she had two. So you put them all together - there's seven."
What are you like as a dad?
"I think I'm a good dad."
What was your dad like?
"Tough," he says of Richard Hilfiger, who was of Dutch-German descent.
"I wanted to be supportive of my children and not be overly critical. My dad was a watchmaker. My dad was always very critical and didn't really . . ." Tommy pauses. "He thought I wasn't trying when I wasn't doing well in school."
When you made a couple of million dollars, did his criticism of you lessen? He laughs.
"He saw me when I started to become successful but then, he unfortunately . . . he passed away. I was 34."
You were just starting to climb the ladder?
"Yeah, but I think, also, growing up with very humble means drove me to become successful, because I knew that I could never become anything else."
Nine kids in a house? You shared a room with your brothers?
"We were all packed in."
I'm curious about your father's influence. Was the preppy look that you designed based, even subconsciously, on him? You once said, 'My father dressed like Mr Ivy League, all tweed suits with regimental ties, Oxford shirts and wing-tipped shoes'.
"Yeah," Tommy answers, "but as a boy growing up in Elmira, New York, we went to school wearing preppy clothes. But I really hated the preppy look. I wanted desperately to change it, and make it very cool. So I changed it and made it very cool; relaxed, nonchalant, irrelevant, colourful, full of interesting detail, and then the business starting growing."
I ask him how Tommy Hilfiger captured the urban market and became - as Interview magazine described his rise - "the de facto status label of the hip-hop nation".
"My brother really helped me do that. He knew all these guys. He knew that they were in awe of my clothes. I didn't know that. But I thought it was very cool. He came to me and said, 'These hip-hop kids really want to wear your clothes'. I said, 'Why don't we give them some clothes and let them wear the clothes on the streets, and see what happens?'."
Is it true that when Snoop Dogg wore your clothes on the American TV show Saturday Night Live in 1994, sales of Tommy Hilfiger went up $9m that year?
"Oh yeah," he smiles. "The surfers and the skateboarders and all the cool kids starting wearing my clothes.
"They really loved the clothes. Up until that point, most of these kids were wearing adidas hook-ups, or Nike or Reebok - and that was it. Rap impresario Russell Simmons said, 'The reason they are wearing your clothes is because they want to look rich', because my clothes were New England, The Hamptons."
Places they felt excluded from?
"Exactly. So they wanted to look rich."
How do you keep ahead of the game because there is always someone else coming along, isn't there?
"That's the fun part," he says.
"Because if one can think of what's next, you have an edge over the competition, because there is so much competition out there, from the Zaras to the H&Ms to the Guccis and Pradas.
"So I'm always thinking what can we do next to be unique, different, relevant - and still cool, without losing the DNA. So we did [tennis star Rafael] Nadal and [supermodel and American IT girl] Gigi Hadid for next fall. We did the 'family' campaign. We did David Bowie and Iman. We did a Lenny Kravitz thing.
"We did the sons and daughters of well-known rock stars - Sting's son, Rod Stewart's daughter, Mick 'n' Keith's children, Goldie Hawn's daughter, Quincy Jones's daughter. That set us apart.
"This is when other fashion companies were photographing models in studios and on the beach," he says, jokingly referring back to his idea in 1985, which was fatefully and wisely dismissed by his adviser.
"We decided to zig when they zagged, and do something very different. But I like doing something different, not only from the image point of view, but all the way down to what's inside that garment," he says, pointing, "See that coat? See the under-collar? I like the surprises in the details."
What will be your legacy?
"I would love to see this company go on forever, certainly, but I think it is important that my children, my grand-children, everyone, knows that in addition to making money and being successful, giving back has been paramount."
Where did you get that from?
"I really believe it was my mother, because my mother used to give food to the church; who gave to the poor," he says. "And when we weren't exactly rich ourselves, we would always look at others who were less fortunate, and reach out to them."
What was your religious background growing up?
You have Catholic guilt?
What was your mother like?
"She went to church every day," he says of Virginia, who was of Irish descent.
"Only later on did we find out that the priest was stealing all the money that she was putting in the basket every week. But my mother was the type of person who would say, 'Well, he really didn't mean it'. She died seven years ago. She was just as proud of my brother who works on construction as she was of me."
"I love life," Tommy Hilfiger adds, as he gets up to leave. "I am very grateful. I'm very happy. I feel that this is all icing," he says, smiling. "This is a gift to me, because it is all upside."
The Tommy Hilfiger collections are available in the flagship store on Grafton St, Dundrum Town Centre, retailers nationwide and on tommy.com
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