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Hilfiger, Tommy


American designer

Born: 1952. Career: Owner/designer, People's Places, New York, until 1979; founder/designer, and vice chairman, Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, New York; company floated on NYSE, 1992; member, Council of Fashion Designers of America; introduced women's sportswear and Tommy Girl fragrance, 1996; opened 20,000-square-foot U.S. flagship on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, 1997 (later scheduled for closure); launched first European products, 1997; introduced athletic footwear and apparel collection, licensed to Stride Rite, 1997; acquired jeanswear, womenswear, and Canadian businesses from licensees, 1998; opened flagship stores in London (closed in 2000) and Mexico City, 1999; launched women's line in Europe, 1999; introduced unisex fragrance, Freedom, 1999; sponsored rock tours for the likes of Britney Spears and Rolling Stores during its Year of Music, 1999; attempted but failed to acquire Calvin Klein, 2000; switched men's accessories licensee from Ghurka to Swank, 2000; announced first quarterly loss since going public, 2000; introduced watch line with Movado, 2001; created first full women's swimwear collection with Jantzen, 2001; menswear lines dropped from most Bloomingdale's stores, 2001; effected turnaround women's and junior's businesses, 2001. Awards: Council of Fashion Designers of America Designer of the Year, 1995; VH1's From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk award, 1995; Parsons School of Design Designer of the Year, 1998; GQ Designer of the Year, 1998; several fragrance industry FiFi awards. Address: 25 West 39th Street, New York, NY 10018, USA. Website:




Hilfiger, Tommy, with David A. Keeps, All-American: A Style Book, New York, 1997.

Hilfiger, Tommy, with Anthony DeCurtis, Rock Style: How Fashion Moves to Music, New York, 1999.



Mandle, Jay, "In a Word, Hilfiger: Fragrances, Film, Books on Fashion Titan's Runway," in Sora, Joseph, editor, Corporate Power in the United States, New York, 1998.

Le Dortz, Laurent, and Béatrice Debosscher, Stratégies des leaders américains de la mode: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Liz Clairborne, Polo Ralph Lauren, et Tommy Hilfinger, Paris, 2000.


La Ferla, Ruth, "Hilfiger Re-Emerges," in the New York Times, 31July 1990.

Younger, Joseph D., "The Man Makes the Clothes," in Amtrak Express (Washington, D.C.), September/October 1993.

"Throwing Down the Trousers," in Newsweek, 11 July 1994.

Mather, John, "Tommy Hilfiger's Great Leap," in Esquire, August 1994.

Duffy, Martha, "H Stands for Hilfiger: The Former Menswear Laughingstock Expands into the Women's Market," in Time, 16 September 1996.

Brown, Ed, "The Street Likes Hilfiger's Style," in Fortune, 16 March 1998.

Dodd, Annmarie, "From Hip-Hop to the Top: Tommy Tells How He Pushes the Envelope," in Daily News Record, 2 November 1998.

Jenkins, Maureen, "Tommy Hilfiger Success Rooted in Music Tie-Ins, Multiple Niches," in Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, 6 August 1999.

Lockwood, Lisa, "Crossing Over: Hilfiger Charts His Course in Women's Wear," in WWD, 13 September 1999.

Curran, Catherine, "Tommy's Swoon; Designer Lost Touch with Core Audience; Overexpansion Diluted Brand's Cachet," in Crain's New York Business, 4 September 2000.

Young, Vicki M., "Bloomingdale's to Drop Tommy Men's From Branches," in Daily News Record, 26 March 2001.

Fallon, James, "Hilfiger is Soaring in Europe; Designer's European Business is Over $100M," in Daily News Record, 30 March 2001.


In an article titled "Throwing Down the Trousers" (Newsweek, 11 July 1994), Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are rendered in a showdown over men's underwear, the former having long occupied Times Square billboard space with provocative underwear ads. Hilfiger, seen standing on Broadway and 44th Street with his boxer-clad male models, meekly states, "My image is all about good, clean fun. I think Calvin's image is about maybe something different." Hilfiger is smart. He juxtaposes his hunky models in flag-and-stripe-designed boxers at surfer jam length with the implied enemy in bawdy, black, sopping promiscuity. Hilfiger has been rightin design and business in promising "good, clean fun" in an unabashed American style that has achieved phenomenal success. America has wanted a menswear mainstream, neither aristocratic nor licentious. Emerging first in the 1980s with a clever campaign announcing himself among established designers, he has come to fulfill his own declaration to become one of the leading names in American design, certainly in menswear.

Acknowledging "I'm both a designer and a businessman" in the September-October 1993 issue of Amtrak Express, Hilfiger divides his own successful role into its two components that he himself has rendered indivisible. Hilfiger has most certainly learned from American designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein that fashion is a synergy of business, aspiration, and classic designwith the image and craving constituting aspiration as perhaps the most important element. Hilfiger has shrewdly chosen a particular place for himself in American menswear imagery.

Whereas Lauren has preempted old-money WASP styles and Klein has successfully created a sexy vivacity, Hilfiger has come closer to Main Street, a colorful Americana that still waves flags, still loves button-down collars, that appreciates classics, and adores his "good, clean fun" along with family values. His customers may even abhor pretense or promiscuity, and may strive for collegiate looks but would never rebel too muchdressing a little more modestly and traditionally than those who prefer his designer-commerce confreres. His closest kinship (or competitor) in the market is David Chu's similarly brilliant work for Nautica, likewise reaching into the smalltown, cautious American sensibility for roots and imagination.

The "real people" effectiveness of Hilfiger is, of course, both real and illusory: he is stirring the deep-felt American conservative sensibilities of the late 20th century at the very time when culture is annulling any vestige of Our Town sentimentalities. The "feel good" ethos of Hilfiger's design is not image alone, for his intense commitment to value-for-price and quality materials confirms the joy in his design. His colorful, sporty, comfortable clothing appealed preeminently in the 1980s to the middle class in America. In 1988 Hilfiger said in his own advertising, "The clothes I design are relaxed, comfortable, somewhat traditional, affordable andsimple. They are the classic American clothes we've always worn, but I've reinterpreted them so that they fit more easily into the lives we live today." By the 1990s, Hilfiger was a clothing symbol of African American and Hispanic urban youth, engendering immense street-smart urban loyalty along with his classic Main Street constituency. Hilfiger's clothing is readily identified, with logos clearly visible on his ever-expanding clothing collections.

Hilfiger has associated himself with two other popular American images, both with special appeal to youth: sports teams and rock music. He has captured 30-something clients who are aging into their 40s, and yet Hilfiger is also building his young following. His great success has defied much élitist fashion skepticism. Ruth La Ferla, writing for the New York Times in July 1990, reported unforgivingly, "As a 'name' designer Mr. Hilfiger sprang full grown from the mind of his sponsor, Mohan Murjani, in the mid-1980s. Explicitly promoted as a successor to Perry Ellis or Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren, Mr. Hilfiger achieved a degree of fame, or notoriety. But the stunt never came off; Mr. Hilfiger's fashions and image did not gel."

Of course, American enterprise is full of "stunts," from P.T. Barnum to Henry Ford to Dr. Kellogg, all with origins in harmless chicanery and old-fashioned chutzpah. Despite detractors, Hilfiger has consistently created his own dynamic and vigorous vision. After Murjani's backing, Hilfiger took his business public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1992, a rare instance of a designer-name business trading with success.

Hilfiger's sensitivity to casualwear can be brought to the business side of the male wardrobe, especially as it is already inflected by casual and sports-influenced notes. In 1994 he added tailored clothing to his line, confident the men who had already associated him with comfort and clean-cut exuberance would carry those same ideals to a full-cut American suit or jacket for business. Part of his business acumen and pragmatism is expressed a statement to Joseph Younger that he wanted to dress men from head to toe before dressing women and childrenwhich was exactly what he did (though many of his men's shirts, shorts, and trousers were worn by women and teens).

Hilfiger's business experienced ups and downs during the late 1990s and early 2000s, going from being Wall Street's fashion-industry darling for eight years (starting in 1992) to suffering lowered profits and stock prices in 2000. Many of the company's troubles were attributed to overexpansion, both in customer base and retail presence. During the late 1990s, Hilfiger entered several new business segments, including fragrance (Tommy, Tommy Girl, Freedom); a cosmetics line, Tommy Hilfiger Color; women's sportswear; a watch collection (licensed to Movado); a full line of women's swimwear (licensed to Jantzen), athletic apparel and shoes (licensed to Stride Rite), and the Hilfiger Home collection, which like the apparel, was influenced by the designer's preppy and patriotic sensibilities. This aggressive strategy led the brand to lose some of its cachet, especially in the eyes of its loyal consumers. Stores began to discount Hilfiger merchandise, and retailers were quoted in publications such as Crain's New York Business as saying its core designs were a season or two behind the trends.

Hilfiger's marketing direction in 1999called the Year of Music did not help matters. Sponsorship of tours by mainstream musicians such as the Rolling Stones and Britney Spears alienated the hip-hop youth who had been the company's loyal customers since 1994. Some of the designer's problems were beyond his control, however; email rumors circulated, suggesting Hilfiger was a racist (unfounded), which had ramifications on sales. All of this led the Tommy Hilfiger company to announce a loss in the quarter ending March 2000, the first ever since it went public eight years earlier. The design firm now found itself in the position of explaining to the financial community how it would turn itself around.

Although the company's retail operation grew quickly in the late 1990s, with 15,000-to 20,000-square-foot flagship stores opened in London, Mexico City, and Beverly Hills, many of these large stores were closed within a few years. Hilfiger refocused its retail strategy on smaller stores, such as a planned outlet in New York's SoHo neighborhood. In addition, the designer's expansion into womenswear did not meet expectations, and as of 2001, the company was in the midst of turning this segment around.

Other setbacks included Bloomingdale's decision, as part of a restructuring, to eliminate the Tommy men's brand from all its stores except the 59th Street New York flagshipwomen's and children's apparel were unaffectedand Hilfiger's failed attempt in 2000 to acquire rival Calvin Klein. One bright area of Hilfiger's business in the early 2000s, however, was Europe, launched through a license with Pepe Jeans London in 1997. The business began with men's sportswear and segued into other men's categories, as well as women's and children's apparel and licensed fragrances. Europe was Hilfiger's largest market outside North America, with products sold in upscale department stores such as House of Fraser, Harrods, Galeries Lafayette, El Corte Ingles, and Brown Thomas.

To get its domestic business back on track in 2001, Hilfiger concentrated on returning to what company executives (quoted in Crain's ) termed "traditional Tommy Hilfiger stylingclassics with a twist." Hilfiger continues to oversee a youthful, purely American look with ties to music and pop culture; part of his fall 2001 collection was inspired by auto racing and featured sleek leather pieces. The challenge for Hilfiger now is to continue his appeal to a broad range of demographic groups yet not lose sight of the fashion-forward urban consumers who put him on the map.

Richard Martin;

updated by Karen Raugust

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Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger (born 1952) has brought the fashion industry to its knees with his enormous success in the retail clothing market. His all-American designs appeal simultaneously to everyone from 60-year-old golfers to gangsta rappers, a near-impossible feat in the demographics-oriented rag trade. But the key to Hilfiger's professional triumph isn't the clothes; it's the label.

Tommy Hilfiger has been referred to as the Ralph Lauren of a new generation, but he has clearly come unto his own in the world of fashion. With successful lines of men's clothing, women's clothing, home furnishings, and a unisex fragrance, Hilfiger became the fashion guru of the 1990s and the biggest thing to hit the fashion industry in a decade. An enticement to a wide variety of consumers, his designs are casual while his prices remain moderate. Hilfiger's most praiseworthy achievement, however, is his precision of brand execution. Alan Millstein, editor of The Fashion Network Report trade magazine, described the method behind Hilfiger's success to USA Today: "It's a combination of great marketing, merchandising, and hype. He's packaged better than any designer since Ralph Lauren."

Small-Time Start in Retail

Tommy Hilfiger was born in 1952. The second of nine children, he grew up in Elmira, New York where he devoted hours to studying the music and styles that were popular in the glamour centers of culture like New York and London. He idolized rock stars, especially Mick Jagger. But Hilfiger didn't possess any extraordinary talents or an academic background that would propel him to success. However, he did have a certain charm and style that he supposedly inherited from his father, Richard "Hippo" Hilfiger, a watchmaker by trade. Although, Hilfiger has described himself as a scrawny, dyslexic kid who became the class clown to mask his embarrassment over less-than-average grades.

Hilfiger was still a high school senior when he set out to provide the young people of Elmira with bellbottom jeans. In 1969, he drove to New York City where he spent his life savings of $150 on 20 pairs of Landlubber jeans. He brought them back to Elmira and opened a hippie clothing shop called The People's Place. By the time he was 26, this shop had expanded into a chain of seven stores, scattered throughout upstate New York and catering to the college campus crowds. Hilfiger ran the stores for ten years, until the retail market went into an economic slump and he went bankrupt. Hilfiger discussed his business' failure with Lisa Armstrong of the London Times. "I was hard on myself," he said. "I vowed never to fall into sloppy work habits again. Money, after a certain point, is not what drives me." He admitted that fear of failure is his impetus to succeed.

Hilfiger never went to design school, but he began to experiment with fashion design in the early 1970s, while he was running The People's Place. By 1979, he had sold his business and moved to Manhattan with his wife Susan Cirona, who had been a creative director of his People's Place boutiques. He began to work as a freelancer and befriended a number of people in the business, including the late designer Perry Ellis. Within five years Hilfiger was working under contract with Asian textile mogul Mohan Murjani, the man behind the trendy Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. In 1986, Murjani and Hilfiger placed a billboard on Times Square that announced Hilfiger would soon dominate men's clothing, although at the time he was hardly known. Under Murjani's management, the Tommy Hilfiger mens-wear collection grossed $5 million in the first year and $10 million in the second. However, these were modest sales by fashion industry standards. In 1988, Hilfiger bought out Murjani and joined Silas Chou, a Hong Kong clothing manufacturer. By that time, the company was bringing in around $25 million a year. They began their new endeavor cautiously, hiring experienced executives from well-known companies like Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne. Three years later they took the company public. By 1999 the company was grossing more than half a billion dollars and was the highest-valued clothing stock on the exchange.

An All-American Look

Although he is not readily acknowledged as a true designer, Hilfiger is incessantly compared to fellow American designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. He has admitted to redesigning and updating clothes rather than creating brand new fashions, but that hardly matters to the throngs who adore the red, white, and blue rectangular Tommy label. Hilfiger threads inspire devotion from consumers who love his all-American chinos, chambray shirts, knit polo shirts, jeans, and other wardrobe essentials. Jodie L. Ahern summed up the allure in her Minneapolis Star Tribune report: "His clothes are classic, comfortable, high-quality garb that appeal to young and old and are priced in the upper-moderate range. It's really that simple." Hilfiger consciously eschews the virtuoso fashion-designer image, following the lead of mainstream retail stores like The Gap and Banana Republic, which provide stylish, well-made clothing at reasonable prices. Nonetheless, he was gratified to win Menswear Designer of the Year in 1995 after having been snubbed the year before when the Council of Fashion Designers of America left the category unawarded.

Though some disdain Hilfiger's designs, challenging his status as a true "designer," it is difficult to criticize the businessman behind the brand name. "Tommy will never be on the designer rack," Millstein admitted to USA Today. "But he's powerful enough to have become a brand name. That's what every designer really wants to be." Hilfiger understands the difference between designers and "brands." He admitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I treat my company the way the French designers treat their Saint-Laurent or House of Chanel. We do fashion shows, we use the best photographers, the best models, we hire the best people, we believe the show is very important. But beyond that facade we make sure that we're very tedious in building our brand. It's a designer brand. Calvin and Ralph and Donna (Karan) and Armani are designer brands, but some of the other designers are not designer brands. Once you become a recognized brand the licensing becomes incredibly profitable." Most designers take the traditional route to fashion fame, beginning with an expensive couture line, which few ordinary women buy. They generally cash in on their fame later by lending their name to mass market clothes. Hilfiger used music videos like a catwalk to reach the young, fashionable crowd. The aggressive construction of his empire and the advertising onslaught, which costs up to $20 million a year, are what has made Hilfiger a household name.

People are attracted the sense of fashion they get from the everyday clothes. The distinctive Tommy label gives them the recognition and acceptance they crave. Hilfiger, who built his company on a brand, is very particular about what the Tommy logo represents. "It is important that my logo communicates who I am to the consumer," he tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It has to say, 'I am about movement, energy, fun, color, quality, detail, American spirit, status, style, and value.' The brand must relate to the consumers' sensibilities. Whether they are based upon sports, music, entertainment, politics, or pop culture-it must have the cool factor."

Celebrity Chic

One of a designer's best marketing tools is dressing celebrities. Hilfiger established himself first with young rappers whose influence was glorified through music videos and television. In 1992, he dressed Snoop Doggy Dogg for a Saturday Night Live appearance. Other artists soon adopted his clothes, and the relationship between clothes and music became so tight that Hilfiger wound up in rap lyrics. Since then, Hilfiger's trendy status has attracted many more big names to his designs. He has dressed music stars like the Fugees, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, David Bowie, and TLC. Michael Jackson wore a Hilfiger sweater in promotions for his album HIStory. Some of his fans include celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Sidney Poitier, and Quincy Jones. He's also used names to sell his merchandise in print ads. Errol Flynn's grandson, Luke, and Jackson Browne's son, Ethan, were used to sell Hilfiger's fragrance. Hilfiger originally set out to dress celebrities and has specifically targeted the young, up-and-coming, cool crowd. This has been an enormously successful strategy for the designer whose company experiences a surge in sales whenever a name like DiCaprio appears in Hilfiger clothes.

Celebrities lend their assets to Hilfiger's merchandise, but his real customer base is with real people, especially kids. Hilfiger may appeal to all ages, but what sets him apart from other designers is his lock on the youth market. Hilfiger is known to be a kid at heart, a favorable prerequisite to selling to kids. His love of all things fun is manifested in his office decor: a red leather jacket signed by Bruce Spring-steen, photos of Mick Jagger and John Lennon, electric Gibson guitars, a Superbowl football signed by Floyd Little, and books on trains, vintage convertibles, and sports.

Hilfiger has also been anointed as fashion's nice guy by the national press. The image is supported by his philanthropic deeds. He has been involved in the raising of money for multiple sclerosis research (one of his sisters suffers from the disease), sponsoring T-shirt sales during one of Sheryl Crow's concert tours and then donating the money for breast cancer research, and raising money for a youth center serving lower-income families.

Hilfiger says he would like to be known as an important American designer. With a $600 million a year business, some would consider him pretty important. He owns a quarter of the company and is personally valued at around $100 million. However, Hilfiger's popularity with the masses may be a signal that his decline as an innovator for young style-setters is imminent. The Hilfiger name has saturated the market and is already becoming passe in the urban environments that often define what is up-and-coming. Nevertheless, Wall Street continues to show enthusiasm for Hilfiger stock. The company is hoping to stay on top of its brand development, which will include a broad expansion of the product line and more overseas sales. Hilfiger maintains to the Albany Times Union, "the key is to keep coming back, but coming back in different ways."

Hilfiger and his wife have four children and live in a 22-room estate on a converted farm in Greenwich, Connecticut. He also owns homes on Nantucket and the Caribbean island of Mustique.

Further Reading

Albany Times Union, January 25, 1998.

Daily News Record, November 2, 1998.

London Daily Telegraph, August 22, 1998.

London Independent, August 4, 1996.

London Times, February 24, 1999.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 22, 1996.

Portland Oregonian, December 13, 1998.

USA Today, June 14, 1995. □

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