What’s it take to create, and sustain, a global brand, associated with class, style, and enduring quality?
Tommy Hilfiger could tell you. His household-name label developed through risk taking, staying on top of trends, and savvy social awareness campaigns.
Before the tens of billion dollars in sales, before the celebrity endorsements, and before two thousand worldwide outlet stores, there was one humble decision that started it all, fifty years ago.
Raised in Elmira, in upstate New York, the second of nine children, as a boy Tommy Hilfiger had a desire to be part of the rock and roll scene, and especially, sought to look the part. This was 1969, the time of Woodstock; there was a fashion/music revolution taking place.
But little was available in terms of the hip clothes the musicians of the day were sporting.
At age 18, he drove his Volkswagen Bug five hours to Manhattan, picking up clothing from street vendors, wore them, and impressed his friends enough to go into business. At first, he sold the garments out of his trunk. Soon enough, he opened a clothing store, People’s Place, with a $150 investment, and merchandise brought back from his New York City jaunt.
He sold bell bottoms, and styles of the day, that never saw the inside of a clothing store at that time, in that town. He refers to that endeavour as the “foundation of my career” that set the stage for his career passion.
“I heard about these guys, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and I said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ My family and friends said, ‘You can’t do it. You need design school, money, connections.’ I said, ‘No, I think I can do it,’” he said.
Unfortunately, he filed for bankruptcy by age 23, but Hilfiger soldiered on, and considered these hard-knocks the equivalent of earning his MBA.
“My dream was to really build a brand. I knew if I understood the business part of it, the creative was already there.”
Ever determined, he found contract work with two jean companies – one of them was Jordache, one of the more famous clothing brands of the 1980s. He was commissioned to design a new style of jean, but neither company felt they wanted to expand, and Hilfiger was subsequently let go after six months.
Hilfiger’s next venture was importing large quantities of denim in Mexico, but on one occasion the pre-paid non-returnable merchandise came back with a fabric defect. In an attempt to problem-solve, Hilfiger took them to a local Laundromat, placing stones in the machines in an attempt to fade them. The bad news? He owed the laundromat $32,000 for ruining the machines. The good news? He invented stonewash jeans.
In 1985, Hilfiger launched his namesake label – quite peculiar for someone who had never taken a design course.
To announce his brand, he bucked convention when he decided against the archetypal (neargeneric) fun-on-the-beach clothing advertisement. Instead, he greenlit his marketer’s idea to place a billboard in New York City, listing other famous designers’ names with blanks for some letters – hangman style – and his own name at the bottom.
The simple, suggestive message was that there was a new player in town, someone who belonged in the same category as the great household designers of the day. The brazen gamble worked: sales went through the roof.
“I thought that if I could build a better mousetrap, so to speak, - do something different than what is out there – that I could be successful. I became a student of the competition, looking at what the competition was doing. I would think, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to look like that. I want to do something different,” he said of his secret sauce.
“I think it’s about being innovative in everything you do from fabrics, to marketing, to how you show it on models. Every aspect has to be innovative.”
True to this mission, in the 1990s, he was also one of the first designers to blend fashion and celebrity. “We didn’t really have enough money for advertising, so I thought, ‘If I can dress some cool musicians, fans will come to my brand,’ Because we have these influences, people started wearing them.”
He collaborated commercially with rock icons as Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé, in what are now considered to be legendary advertising campaigns.
In 1998, Hilfiger’s brother informed him about a teenage singer with her first record deal, and not to miss an opportunity, she was given a pair of Hilfiger jeans to promote in her first music video. That singer was Britney Spears. The single was “Baby One More Time.” Sales of the womens’ jeans line soared.
In recent years, P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg have publicly worn Hilfiger apparel, boosting the image even more.
It goes a long way in explaining Hilfiger’s formula for commercial success, in his acronym of FAME – fashion, art, music and entertainment.
“The wow factor: I would say, it is modern. Modern, not just in design – because we always try to evolve the brand – more modern, but also the way we do things is much more disruptive, and more modern, than our competition,” Hilfiger told My Business Magazine. “If we have an idea, we don’t sit on the idea. We act – in most cases,” he said.
They have sold it all: clothing for men, women, a jean line, kidswear, fragrances, homeware, shoes, accessories, and more.
Today, the brand enjoys seven billion dollars in global sales, with various divisions as Tommy Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger, Men’s, Children’s, Footwear, Sport, Fragrance, Tailored Clothing, Home Furnishings, everything for the lifestyle, and still building.
Naturally, it’s not enough to merely make a product and sell it. What’s required is a wise captain at the helm, who knows and trusts the instincts of his crew. “I think a good leader inspires people around him or her.
I think they are aware of every aspect of what is going on. I think they can be motivators. And I think that if you motivate your team, in a very positive way, they will perform much better,” Hilfiger told My Business Magazine.
“I have a great team of people, and give them a lot of freedom to do what they think is the right thing to do, in terms of design, marketing, public relations, and all the areas of business that are determining the look and image of the brand.”
His latest line – a first for any designer – is geared towards those with special needs and elderly. It comes at a time when there is a tremendous need in the market, too: Statistics say that almost 60 million Americans live with a disability, and about 50 million are over age 65.
“I have children with autism. And I’ve watched them struggle getting ready for school or work because they can’t button buttons or zip zippers,” he told COMB. The new line of garments has Velcro, magnets and various openings in trousers for people with leg braces.
“People with disabilities want fashion, and fashionable clothing just like all of us, but it’s never been available to them. For a self-esteem standpoint, it’s great for young people who want to look like their peers, but may not be able to dress like them because of their special needs.”
Certainly, it’s about giving the customer what they’re looking for, but also interacting with them online, that has been a key strategy for awareness. Gigi Hadid is one such example of social media collaborative fusions: she had three million Instagram followers pre-partnership, and two years later, she had 35 million, borrowing from each other’s media footprint.
“We are ahead of the game digitally, and social media wise. Because I really believe that brands can tend to age out, and I don’t want my brand to age out, and become stale. I want it to be youthful, modern, fun, young, and surprising. I like to surprise people,” he told My Business Magazine.
“I’m always looking for ‘what’s next’? What’s next in fabric, marketing, style, fashion, the pop culture world? It has to be different, innovative, and breakthrough. I like pushing that button.”
There’s no question, Tommy Hilfiger is a perfect paradigm to teach entrepreneurs to push the envelope, and be fearless.
Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.
He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.