“The road to success is not easy to navigate,” Tommy Hilfiger once said, “but with hard work, drive and passion, it’s possible to achieve the American Dream.” The man whose bold, preppy classics and global billion-dollar brand capture the go-getting attitude of “Team America” with more gusto than a troupe of cheerleaders is proof that with the right help and nurturing – and a little bit of luck – original new brands can grow in any economic context.
Hilfiger started his first business, People’s Place, in 1969, during his senior year at high school, with some “school buddies” who each chipped in $125. It was an instant success. Right from the start, Hilfiger has said, he was “learning on the job,” and from 1985, when he founded his eponymous brand, he learned to fuse business acumen and creativity with increasing success. Throughout it all he admits he had “incredible mentors” to inspire him. “They knew things about the business that I would never have learned,” he says, which is perhaps why he is so passionate about mentoring and supporting emerging designers as they begin their own journeys.
When we meet, Tommy Hilfiger is in town to support the British Fashion Council’s London Collections: Men. During his brief stay he has a day of back-to-back interviews, photo shoots, and then a dinner to host with Condé Nast executive Jonathan Newhouse and GQ editor Dylan Jones. He is also here to show his support for Simon Spurr, one of the designers he mentors, who now designs the British menswear brand Kent & Curwen. The sunshine pours in through the window of his London showroom and bounces off the polished wood floor, while his latest men’s collection hangs proudly to attention and the scent of Diptyque Baies candles fills the air. It makes me think of another all-American hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, who “had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it”. Today Hilfiger wears a crisp white shirt, grey three-piece suit and tortoiseshell glasses. His handshake is firm, his eyes have a twinkle and his story has a rather happier outcome than Gatsby’s. Hilfiger is not here to talk about himself or his global brand, but rather about his mentoring schemes and helping the next generation of designers to get its foot on the fashion ladder.
“I have a lot of years of experience in the business, from both a creative and a business standpoint, and I thought I could be somewhat helpful [to younger designers] in giving my advice and sharing my experiences,” he explains. Behind the scenes Hilfiger doesn’t simply enjoy his own success and concentrate on his own brands, he actively champions the next generation, visiting colleges and universities to give advice and answer students’ concerns or questions. “They have such a different way of looking at things,” Hilfiger says. “It’s amazing to think how we used to do it, no email, no phones. Today, there are no rules; anything goes. The young are now a different voice in society – they have a different viewpoint – so I always learn so much from them, too.” While others prefer to write a cheque or turn up at prize giving, Hilfiger gets involved: “It’s really not hard work! Tell a story or describe what has happened to you or what you think should happen to them.”
Over the past five seasons Hilfiger has also supported the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s Americans in Paris initiative. “Anna Wintour asked me to be involved,” he says, “and I thought it was a great idea as it allowed us to help American designers come to Paris and show their collections to international buyers and press.” For Americans, Paris never fails to cast its spell as the gateway to Europe, the arts and infinite possibilities. The city has inspired many great American writers, composers and artists, and, of course, as home to haute couture and the final stop of the biannual fashion circuit, it has also launched and nurtured fashion designers. Now, with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the city plays host to the American designers of tomorrow as they make their debut on the international stage.
“When I first came to Europe,” Hilfiger remembers, “I wasn’t the kind of designer they were accustomed to. They were used to very proper French, Italian or British designers, and here’s this American coming in with a very casual approach.” He showed “everything from sports to street, tomboys to preppy,” rather than “gowns on beautiful women on the runway. We had hip kids with long hair and Afros, all different shapes and sizes, and it was a bit like a circus!” It was different, it was American, it had conviction and, sacré bleu, it worked. “I guess that was one of the most important things I learned: be different, be unique. You don’t need more of the same. You have to build your own territory and create your own lane. If you’re doing the same thing everybody else is doing, always do it in a different way. Different fit. Different detail. Different trim.”
It is perhaps this attitude and work ethic that makes Hilfiger such a dedicated mentor. One of the Americans in Paris he met in 2011, and still continues to mentor today, is shoe designer George Esquivel. “I think what most impressed me [about Hilfiger] is how he conducts business on such a large, global scale, yet all the while he treats everyone with so much respect and dignity,” Esquivel says. “That is something all business leaders should strive to do.” After Esquivel completed the programme, Hilfiger didn’t just wave goodbye – he asked Esquivel to collaborate on a limited-edition collection. “If they want to do something different, I’m all for it,” says Hilfiger, who is already thinking about their next collaboration. “Aside from all the great business advice, Tommy encouraged me to stay true to who I am as a designer and always follow my instinct,” says Esquivel. “It’s probably one of the most valuable things I have taken away from our relationship.”
Originality and “finding a certain reason for being and sticking to that” are key to good design, but, Hilfiger adds, “It’s also about editing all your ideas: no rules, no price points. It’s liberating but a lot of creative people have way too many ideas. Edit it down to your best five ideas, and then execute those really well.” His five rules of design are “fit, quality, style, price, and uniqueness. You have to be unique. Lots of people say, ‘I’ve got a great style,’ and I will ask, ‘Well, where’s the fit, where’s the quality, the price, the uniqueness?’ A lot of young designers don’t look at it that way; they just want to know how funky something should be or how weird something should be. Sure, it would be fun to make, but could people really wear it and can they produce it?” Yet Hilfiger always encourages people to try something new and if he were starting today he’d love to create something like Dover Street Market. The best advice he was ever given, and which he continues to give, is, “Listen to everyone.” As he notes, “It’s not always the students who bring the young, fresh ideas; the veterans can bring ideas and experience as well.”
New York-based designer Simon Spurr was introduced to Hilfiger through Anna Wintour, after she came backstage and asked Spurr how busy he was. The project she had in mind was for him to be a creative consultant for the Tommy Hilfiger Runway collection and though Spurr no longer works for Hilfiger he still often turns to the designer for advice. “When Tommy speaks,” says Spurr, “mountains move. His door is always open and, like Anna Wintour, he really cares about the next generation of designers. He will go completely out of his way to help promote someone he hardly knows, just because he likes what they do or maybe sees a little of himself in them. We need more Tommy Hilfigers in our industry.”
Art direction Mate Moro, Aron Filkey
Creative direction Nora Gyenge
Styling assistant Harry Doncaster