Tommy Hilfiger launched his namesake brand in New York City in 1984, quickly becoming a fashion force known for his fresh take on preppy American style. There were highs—in the early 1990s Hilfiger was the apex of cool worn by everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Gwen Stefani. During the late 1990s things were bleaker for the brand, which at that point was a public company with a plummeting stock price. By 2010 Hilfiger was back on top and Phillips-Van Heusen acquired the company for $3 billion. Now Hilfiger is scooping up the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s CFDA Awards.
Hilfiger chatted with us, reflecting on his success and also sharing he has no plans to retire any time soon.
What’s it like to be receiving the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s CFDA Awards?
"I’m honored, I’m humbled, I’m grateful. But I always thought lifetime achievement awards were for very old people!"
In retrospect, what do you consider to be some of your career highlights?
"I was in high school when I started my first business. And then I had a bankruptcy when I was in my early 20s. So I learned a lot about business early on. Then when I started Tommy Hilfiger in the 1980s I created this sort of older, preppy look, and it was different from what everyone else was doing. I think that’s why we became established. And then we went public in the 1990s, which was a big milestone. I won the CFDA menswear award in 1995, which was a really big honor. And then we started going overseas. Today, we are a global lifestyle brand with American roots. I never expected this. In the beginning I thought we were going to be a menswear brand for American men in America. And then things happened, great things happened, but it was unexpected for me what we have morphed into."
How difficult do you think it would be to build a major lifestyle brand today?
"I think it would be very challenging to start one today. There is a lot of competition. It requires a tremendous amount of money and you really need traction so to speak. If you are not a big name, it’s going to be hard to compete in this world."
What has been the biggest change in the fashion industry since you launched your business?
"Competition. H&M. Zara. E-commerce. Amazon. The advent of luxury is hovering over at all times. There are more malls. More shoppers. And just more products out there."
What’s it like to have your daughter Ally follow in your footsteps now that she has launched a fashion line, NAHM?
"Well, her [label] is very downtown and she is just starting out. But I’ve always told her that this business is always exciting and challenging, because there is something different on your plate every day."
You’ve become increasingly involved with the CFDA, helping to support young talent including underwriting the “Americans in Paris” initiative. What’s motivated that?
"I love young talent, and it inspires me. I was helped by a lot of people along the way. And I like to think that maybe we can lend a hand to young designers coming up."
Who have been some of your mentors?
"Leonard Lauder of Estée Lauder has been a tremendous mentor over the years. My partners Silas Chou, Lawrence Stroll, Joel Horowitz. My CEO Fred Gehring is amazing. There hasn’t been just one. There have been a lot of people that I have looked up to."
At what point do you think you would be ready to retire?
"I don’t see myself retiring at all. I look at Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and they are all deep into their 70s, which makes me feel like I have a little longer to go."
What keeps you excited about this business?
"Everything. We are evolving the trends. We are developing our runway collections for September for men and women. We are opening stores. We are expanding. We just did a golfwear line. We are expanding the homeware section. We are launching a new fragrance next year. There really never is a dull moment."