If anyone wanted to make a film about the American fashion industry and needed a protagonist who embodied the business, in all of its strongest and weakest qualities, they would do well to look to the life and times of Tommy Hilfiger: a plucky, can-do kid who decided to start a fashion label despite having no training in fashion design or business.
There’s his early days in the denim market; the use of celebrities to market his label; the tireless self-publicity, turning himself into a celebrity; the ubiquity of the label leading, inevitably, to public fatigue; the humbled redirection of the brand in a more cautious 21st century. Just as Hilfiger has always prided himself on marketing distinctly American styles, so his own career is a perfect encapsulation of the US fashion business of the past quarter-century. Even the designer’s office is American to a nigh-on parodic degree: On the top floor of an unassuming building in midtown Manhattan, Hilfiger has tricked the place out to resemble the inside of a chi-chi beach house, replete with white painted floorboards, beach chairs, antique mirrors and striped awnings, where waiters in white buttoned-up shirts tote around goblets of ice water with slivers of lemon. Outside one of the windows looms the Empire State Building. The only way this room could present a tableau of more idealized Americana would be if Frank Sinatra was snapping his fingers in the corner while Martha Stewart busied herself baking an apple pie.
This romanticized style has proven highly lucrative for Hilfiger — although interestingly, about two-thirds of the company’s revenue comes from sales outside the US, suggesting it’s easier to buy into Hilfiger’s idealization of American life if you don’t actually live in the US. Last year, Phillips-Van Heusen bought the brand from London-based Apax Partners in a US$3 billion cash-and-stock deal — Apax had itself bought Hilfiger in 2006 for US$1.6 billion — and, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, the acquisition was the biggest announced by a US clothing retailer in 10 years, and the eighth biggest announced by any US company last year.
Yet Hilfiger, who is now “global brand ambassador,” studiously presents a self-image more in keeping with the hokey, down-at-the-homestead look of his label than that of a very, very wealthy man who leads a very, very ritzy life. He arrives wearing a blue cardigan, loafers and red corduroy trousers, like a slightly wacky university researcher, as opposed to a fashion designer who has a two-floor apartment on the top of New York’s Plaza hotel, a house in Greenwich, Connecticut and another in Mustique, where his neighbor is Mick Jagger. One of his four children from his first marriage, his daughter Ally, starred in a reality TV show called Rich Girls, which probably needs no further description.
Hilfiger bears a striking resemblance to his old friend, Andy Warhol, whom he used to hang out with at Studio 54, and, like Warhol, his manner of speaking is careful and clipped to a frankly anachronistic extent. Contractions appear to be as verboten in the Hilfiger universe as ripped jeans (“do not,” almost never “don’t”). At one point, the word “foolish” is spat out with a passion that suggests it is possibly his strongest epithet.
Hilfiger’s outfit is, inevitably, an advert for his latest collection, called Prep World. It is a celebration of all things preppy, including logoed collegiate jumpers, blazers and shirt dresses. Preppy is a distinctly American look — slightly stuffy and slightly sporty, and one familiar to non-Americans from films such as Dead Poets Society (brass-buttoned blazers, shirts with posh crests) and Love Story (Ali McGraw’s cable-knit jumpers and long cashmere scarves are pure prep). Hilfiger has always loved the look because, he says, settling back into an armchair, it is “classic, traditional and easy to wear. It is the basis of all American fashion.”