Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc.

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Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc.

25 W 39th St.
New York, New York 10018
Telephone: (212) 548-1000
Web site:



In September 1997 Toth Design and Advertising introduced a Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc. ad campaign for men's tartan-style polo shirts. The polos were usual enough, typical plaids in green, reds, blues, and blacks. The men in the ads, however, were all wearing skirts, Scottish kilts to be exact, and frolicking about like schoolboys, kicking up their feet and having a glorious time. The images expressed in the "American Tartans" campaign were typical for Tommy, a men's, women's, and children's clothing and accessory business that was founded in 1984 by Tommy Hilfiger, the company's director and principle designer.

Among Tommy's more visible products was a line of baggy, well-worn street clothes marketed to what is called the hip-hop generation, a term characterized by 1990s inner-city youth, rap music, and MTV rock videos. The clothes were often produced in red, white, and blue colors that sported the Tommy logo—a white, red, and blue flaglike rectangle with the names "Tommy" and "Hilfiger" boldly embossed across the top and bottom. Tommy also produced a wide array of men's casual sports clothes that managed to attract the 20-something buyer to high-end sportswear in department stores. It was to this latter audience that the "American Tartans" campaign was partly aimed.

Toth handled Tommy's advertising from 1992 to 1997. Their strategy was to create a brand image for Tommy that could compete with its main rivals, Polo Ralph Lauren and Nautica. Both of these brands of men's clothing embraced particular images that the "American Tartans" campaign wanted to counteract. "We looked closely at both Polo and Nautica and the lifestyles portrayed in their fashion," said Tyrone Sayers, an account supervisor at Toth. "Their image was highly affluent, something the common man will not identify with." When Toth advertising began its work for Tommy, it wanted to describe a lifestyle that someone could see themselves in. Tommy "is more relaxed and open, goofing around and smiling. We wanted something that was more approachable," said Sayers. "We wanted to present a product that was youthful, relaxed, informal." The "American Tartans" campaign reflected this principal image.


When Toth began to create advertising campaigns for Tommy in 1992, the business was still small and growing. "We were virtually unknown when we started," said Sayers, "and the name—Hilfiger—was easy to trip over. We needed a brand image that would reinforce who we were, and that took precedence over any particular product." That image turned out to be what Sayers described as the "Peter Pan syndrome," which, according to him, was present in just about every man. "The image of men in their 20s is actually all men. Men grow up and acquire families and mortgages and responsibilities, but they still see themselves in their 20s, laughing with their friends and having a good time. This is the Peter Pan syndrome."

Playing on this concept, Toth placed men in ads that turned the fashion world on its head. They smiled, they laughed, they hugged each other, and they had fun. "What we did was position Tommy as somebody who really is aspiring to be happy, " said Michael Toth of Toth Design and Advertising in a 1996 Vogue article. In the early 1990s leading men's fashion campaigns used images that were glum and stoic. "People were ready to see a guy smiling in an ad—which was like a no-no at the time—doing something that felt real and honest. People inspire to happiness because everyone wants to be happy, and that's what Tommy projects. It's not something we invented. The suit fit." One Toth ad campaign portrayed a group of young men playing football, covered in mud from head to toe. Their clothes, which happened to be the product, were also covered with mud. Hilfiger liked the fun that was taking place in the ad, although he admitted that it might be difficult to sell clothes covered in mud. The article quoted Hilfiger as saying that such an ad was one "Ralph [Lauren] definitely wouldn't do and some of the other competitors wouldn't even consider, which is what I like about it."

Tommy's ads also sought to reach different nationalities and socioeconomic groups, setting another trend in the fashion world. "Tommy described the life he saw around him—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, men, and women," said Sayers. "Two and a half years ago," said Hilfiger in a 1997 US article, "you may not have found too many black models in advertising campaigns with top designers. Today, most top designers use them. I believe I was a part of that." A typical Tommy campaign often incorporated models of different ethnic backgrounds, walking and talking together, their arms wrapped around each other, playing ball and having fun. It was an approach that spoke to Hilfiger's vision of a more diversified world. "The young people of America today, or the world today, have very open minds," said Hilfiger. "They're not looking at minorities as being negative. They're just looking at it at face value, that this is America today, this is the world today. We're all a part of it. We should be enjoying it, we should be understanding it, we should be living it; we're all part of the dream."

Living life and enjoying it to the fullest became the image that characterized Tommy products. Toth's campaigns for Tommy showed healthy, happy, diverse people in a carefree atmosphere. "It was a lifestyle picture that we were after," said Sayers, "and we always tried to tell a consistent story."


The "American Tartans" campaign was designed to appeal to men between the ages of 18 and 40. Part of what Hilfiger called his "American Classics," the long-sleeve tartan polo shirt was marketed to men who felt and acted as if they were 20, which, according to Sayers, was just about all men. Part of the inspiration for the campaign was The Mighty Mighty Bostons, a rock group that wore kilts when performing. The rock band's image helped attract men in their late teens and early 20s to the product, said Sayers.

In addition, 30- and 40-year-olds who worked during the week and dressed casually on the weekends—men who fell into the Peter Pan syndrome—were also targeted. Sayers said, "When these men come home from work, they feel as though they are dressing and acting far different than their fathers did. People's chronological age and the way they act are very different today. A youthful spirit and lifestyle appeal to these men, and we took that approach."


Tommy's main competition, Polo Ralph Lauren and Nautica, both marketed upscale men's fashions and a wide array of additional products, everything from cologne to home furnishings. Polo Ralph Lauren, which also carried the brand names Polo Sport and Chaps, designed and marketed menswear and women's wear sold in department stores. The Polo Home Collection sold products ranging from linens to giftware, much of it manufactured by such companies as Reed and Barton, makers of flatware, and WestPoint Stevens, which made bedding. In February 1998 Polo's net worth was put at $147.6 million, with 5,800 employees. Nautica's subsidiaries, Nautica International and Nautica Furnishings, offered men's sportswear, outerwear, dress shirts, robes, loungewear, and swimwear. Nautica's net worth in February 1998 was $56.4 million, and the company employed 1,700 people.

A company somewhere between Polo Ralph Lauren and Nautica in size, Tommy netted $113.2 million and employed 1,820 workers at the end of fiscal year 1998. In order to compete, Tommy had branched out considerably since the company's first signature collection of men's clothing was introduced in 1984. In 1996 Tommy launched a line of women's clothing and fragrance under the name "tommy's girl" and a line of children's clothing. The company was scheduled to introduce a collection of home furnishing products in 1998. All of this was in addition to Tommy's extensive line of fashions, which had grown to include athletic wear, dress and business clothing, men's cologne, and accessories such as belts, bags, and sunglasses.

Like its major competitors, Tommy opened its own retail stores, both in the United States and elsewhere. In November 1997 Tommy's first flagship store debuted on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and in September of that year the company opened a London store on Salone Street that featured men's sportswear. By February 1998 Tommy had 55 retail outlet stores in the United States, compared to Polo's 100 and Nautica's 50.

There were other competitors for Tommy in the higher end of fashion and accessories. Perry Ellis, Gap, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein all vied with Tommy in the fashion world. Tommy's more universal marketing strategy, however, attracted the businessman as well as the hip-hop generation and the campus crowd. Michael Callahan, writing in a 1995 America West Airlines Magazine article, described Tommy's marketing strategy: "A tanned Wall Street banker carrying a Coach leather attache stands one aisle over from the hip-hop youth in headphones, both picking through tartan Oxfords that sell for $95, tennis shirts for $52, and hunter-green cardigans for $82. The banker is too young, too current for Lauren; the hip-hopper too fresh, too streetwise for The Gap or Structure. But they're both perfect for Tommy Hilfiger, the man who is revolutionizing how the younger generation is wearing clothes—his clothes."


According to Sayers, tartan plaids had been a repeated theme in the fashion world. "Tartans come and go," said Sayers. "It's a ubiquitous design and everyone uses them. We had to find a way to distinguish from everyone else's tartan shirt. We took the plaid story and turned it on its ear." The decision to develop the tartan theme for the 1997 fall men's campaign came out of a product meeting, Sayers said. Tartans were usually a part of the fall line, and Tommy had featured plaid boxers and skirts for women in the past. "This fall, we saw tartan reoccurring across all deliveries [new shipments], and it was the biggest single theme," Sayers said. "So we developed a tartan focus instead of the usual brand message. We had to decide how we were going to deliver it."

"But we still had to present our consistent lifestyle message and brand statement that's an umbrella over everything Tommy," said Sayers. Toth decided to dress the models in Scottish kilts—tartan plaids were Scottish, after all—and show the men "jumping and cavorting and having a ball." The men were relaxed, open, and goofing around in what Sayers described as a "strong American identity: active, slightly irreverent, and diverse." This was keeping with the brand image Toth had developed for Tommy, including the Peter Pan syndrome.


A product of the late 1960s hippie counterculture, Tommy Hilfiger grew his hair long and sported bell-bottoms in high school. He was the first kid in Elmira, a town in upstate New York, to dress like a hippie. He and a few friends spent the summer of 1969 on Cape Cod working in a boutique—called a head shop back then—selling posters, incense, and other paraphernalia. At the end of the summer, they used their earnings to buy out the store, added some bell-bottom jeans and velvet tops, and went back to Elmira to open their own shop. They called it People's Place and housed it in a tiny basement they painted black. By 1975 People's Place had stores throughout upstate New York, usually near college campuses.

Instead of buying clothes for his stores, Hilfiger wanted to become a designer. People told him that with only a high school diploma he could not be successful at designing clothes or at breaking into business. But Hilfiger was not deterred, and he went to New York City to pursue his dream. In New York Hilfiger worked for various companies, all the time waiting until he could start his own. In 1984 Calvin Klein offered him a job for $100,000 a year, but Hilfiger turned it down. Soon afterward Mohan Murjani, an apparel manufacture, invested in Hilfiger, and in 1986 his first ad campaign hit the streets.

Initially Hilfiger's fashions were designed for the preppy-minded consumer. Then in March 1994 something unforeseen happened: Snoop Doggy Dogg wore an oversize Tommy T-shirt on Saturday Night Live. The hip-hop generation went wild buying Tommy clothes, and Hilfiger was smart enough to capitalize on the association. He began to cater to hip-hop consumers, designing just for them. Other designers "thought it was the plague," Hilfiger was quoted as saying in a 1997 article in US magazine. But the strategy paid off, and Hilfiger's fashions set the trend for street clothes in the 1990s.

The "American Tartans" campaign was mainly a print campaign, with ads appearing in such men's magazines as GQ, Men's Health, and Esquire. Print ads also appeared in the New York Times and on billboards in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles. In addition, some public telephone kiosks in New York ran images of the campaign.


The "American Tartans" campaign did not noticeably increase sales of Tommy's long-sleeve woven plaid jerseys. But it did invoke smiles from the advertising industry, Sayers said, "whenever we showed it." In May 1998 Toth ended its relationship with Tommy, whose image, according to Sayers, was shifting. "Tommy has become more well known and successful, and what Tommy wants the brand to be has changed," said Sayers. "It's now upscale and sophisticated. It's a great company with great potential, and we watched it grow from $70-odd million to a company worth $1.5 billion."

From 1994 to 1998 the company's sales increased from $321 million to $847 million. Compared to Polo and Nautica, Tommy's net growth from 1997 to 1998 was the largest, 31 percent, as compared to 25.8 percent for Polo and 28.2 percent for Nautica. Hilfiger himself had won several awards for his fashion images and marketing strategies. In 1995 he was named Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. That same year he received rock video station VH1's From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk Award at its annual Fashion and Music Awards.


Avins, Mimi. "Take a Spin inside Tommy Hilfiger's Fashion Cuisinart." Los Angeles Times Magazine, August 25, 1996, p. 19.

Callahan, Michael. "The Rise and Rise of Tommy Hilfiger." American West Airlines Magazine, October 1995, p. 36.

Tavee, Tom. "The People's Choice." US, November 1997, p. 111.

Van Meter, Jonathan. "Hip, Hot Hilfiger." Vogue, November 1996, pp. 306-9.

                                        Anita Coryell