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Tommy's Tumble

Tommy Hilfiger's stock price was plummeting. The hip-hop crowd was deserting him. The fashion flock was dissing him. And he'd split with his wife. Tommy Hilfiger, fashion victim? Not for long.

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Tommy Hilfiger does not look like a fashion victim. The much-maligned designer -- five eight in his own monogrammed sneakers -- is holding court in his spacious, wood-paneled corner office. He's dressed comfortably but fastidiously in a freshly pressed blue button-down and vintage Levi's. It's exactly the type of digs you'd expect Tommy Hilfiger to have: safe, tasteful décor and a panoramic view commensurate with an eight-figure salary.

The expensive props scattered around speak to Hilfiger's eclectic tastes and pop and rock enthusiasms: a hand-carved, Louis B. Mayer-size mahogany desk; a Fender guitar autographed by Bruce Springsteen; a pair of jeans worn by Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return. Miles Davis, playing soft and low, wafts through the air like vapors.

Hilfiger picks up the jeans from the back of a leather wing chair and opens the fly to reveal a row of large plastic buttons, which hang from the black thread like ripe olives. "The quality is remarkable," he says. "I'm giving these to Naomi as a present." That would be Naomi Campbell, Hilfiger's friend and one of the models for his label's rock-and-rap runway extravaganzas.

In person, Hilfiger seems very different from his relentlessly cheerful public image. After all these years, the perpetual flower child finally looks his age. The goofy Beatle bangs have been replaced by a wash-and-wear brush cut. The signature toothy grin has given way to a serious mien. Tommy seems chastened. All grown up.

But it isn't his new look he wants to discuss today. It's his obituary, which he feels his peers are collectively writing at this very moment. Talk to enough industry pundits, and it becomes glaringly obvious that Tommy Hilfiger is not suffering from the usual bout of designer paranoia. Indeed, the fashion jackals gathering in the Bryant Park tents this weekend have already hammered out most of Tommy's obit copy between Cosmos at Moomba.

The bullet points are certainly compelling evidence for a postmortem: After a decade of averaging an envy-inducing 48 percent growth, Hilfiger's earnings plunged last year -- as much as 75 percent in the worst quarter. The once-unstoppable stock sank from a high of 41 to a low of 6.3. His flagship stores in London and Beverly Hills were shuttered. An ambitious and widely anticipated Calvin Klein acquisition collapsed. His exuberant runway shows were canceled. A corporate housecleaning eliminated a number of Hilfiger's longtime colleagues. The hip-hop crowd that had propelled his success had deserted for younger, hipper, often blacker labels, and (horror of horrors) the company recently announced an upcoming plus-size line that may make shareholders happy but won't be seen in Vogue anytime soon.

"This is a $2 billion company that is disappearing day by day," says one former employee who jumped ship recently. "Just because you have Mario Testino shoot your ads doesn't make you fashionable."

As Hilfiger battled to shore up his business -- and endured a ruthless satire from Spike Lee, who named a clueless Caucasian designer in his latest film "Timmi Hilnigger" -- there were fires on the home front too. In the kind of when-it-rains-it-pours plot twist that drama queens relish, Tommy and his wife split up. "After twenty years of marriage, we have mutually and amicably decided to separate," announced Hilfiger in a press release issued to preempt the gossip columns. "Tommy's gay!" the fashion vultures declared gleefully, if ridiculously. "He's pulling a Jann Wenner!"

In the face of this barrage, Hilfiger seemed to shrink. Once a nightly presence at Moomba, he drastically lowered his profile, rarely venturing out even for lunch. "I don't love sitting in a restaurant being talked about or stared at," he says.

The gossip about his marriage and his sexuality has been particularly galling, and when, after negotiations worthy of a Mideast summit, Hilfiger recently sat for his first major interview in two years, he quickly set the record straight. "Let me assure you," he says adamantly. "I love women."

And he hastens to add that reports of his company's demise have been greatly exaggerated. "Suddenly our growth rate wasn't double-digit anymore," he says with a shrug. "Men's was growing at 5 percent rather than 20 percent. That's when the negative press started." He throws his hands up. "We announced for the first time ever that we weren't going to make the quarter -- but we ended up doing $2 billion, and made about $170 million after taxes. That's unprecedented for any apparel company."

Probe deeper, however, and you find that Hilfiger actually agrees with some of his colleagues' criticism -- he was a fashion victim. "At one point, I told my people, 'We have to be the first with trends.' So we ran out and tried to do the coolest, most advanced clothes. We didn't just do denim embroidery. We jeweled it. We studded it. We ramped it up. We really pushed the envelope because we thought our customer would respond." He takes a sip of Evian before continuing his self-flagellation. "But the customer did not respond in a big way," he says. "And our business last year -- men's, women's, juniors' -- suffered as a result."

For the designer, it was both a personal and a corporate identity crisis. "When business plateaued in '99," he explains, "we thought the customer didn't want the Tommy logo anymore. So we took it off a lot of stuff. We made it tiny. We became very insecure about being a red-white-and-blue-logo brand. We thought we had to be much chic-er, more in line with the Euro houses like Gucci and Prada."

Perhaps Tommy's most telling indulgence was the now-defunct Red Label luxury line -- designed to cater to the rock stars, rappers, and other celebrities Hilfiger had been dressing -- which offered such items as $7,000 patchwork python trousers (he sold only four worldwide) and spent millions on fashion shows. In the process of competing with the highfliers, he strayed from the original nouvelle-preppy vision that made his company so successful.

For a moment, Hilfiger is subdued by his confession. But he finally unveils that blinding smile. "As a result of learning from our errors, we went back to our roots: classics with a twist."

To prove his point, he holds up a colored T-shirt with the Tommy logo blown up so large as to be parodic. "This shirt is our No. 1 seller," he announces. The Juniors Pieced Flag T-shirt he holds in his hands sold a staggering 300,000 units in the previous two months.


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