Hilfiger, meanwhile, was pursuing the rock-star lifestyle he had always craved. He wore monster bells so oversized that his high-heel snakeskin boots were concealed beneath the voluminous folds of fabric. He got his hair styled in a Rod Stewart rooster cut.
"I was 23 and chartering planes," says Hilfiger. "We were flying to rock concerts, taking dates to London and Paris." And he was spending so much time in New York that he took a pied-à-terre on East 12th Street near the Fillmore Theater.
In 1976, Hilfiger walked into his store in Ithaca and met a pretty teenage employee named Susie Cirona. The attraction was instantaneous and mutual. "It's no surprise they fell in love," says one friend. "Tommy and Susie were like bookends. They looked alike, they acted alike, they even talked alike. They could have passed for brother and sister."
But while Hilfiger's romantic relationship was blossoming, his business was not. Other retailers in the area finally began offering bleached bells and tie-dyed T-shirts. Making matters worse, the upstate economy was falling into a recession. Stores began folding, and the unpaid invoices piled up. In August 1977, Hilfiger and Stemerman filed for bankruptcy. "We did not tend to business," says Hilfiger sheepishly. He squirms in his chair. "It was a rude awakening."
Hilfiger and Stemerman divvied up the four remaining stores. When a buyer for Hilfiger's half surfaced, the newlyweds moved to Manhattan and waited for the checks to roll in. They never did -- the buyer filed for bankruptcy after closing the deal with Hilfiger. Cash-strapped and desperate for work, the young couple began pitching themselves on Seventh Avenue as a husband-wife design team. It was the peak of the designer-jean craze, and Jordache was looking to market a full-blown collection. The Hilfigers got the nod but were fired after only a month. A job at Bonjour quickly followed; it didn't last long, either, but Hilfiger kept at it.
Despite his involvement with a string of fashion-world bottom-feeders, Hilfiger built up a reputation as a savvy and hardworking designer. He was on a shortlist to do Perry Ellis's sportswear line, and Puritan Fashions asked him to design its Calvin Klein jeans label.
When the Klein job was placed on the table in 1983, Hilfiger didn't immediately accept. Not that it wasn't tempting, especially to someone who was broke and starting a family. But what Hilfiger really wanted was his own label.
Into the breach stepped Mohan Murjani, an Indian entrepreneur with a posh Etonian accent who was looking for a young designer to launch a new line of men's sportswear. Born into a family of textile barons, Murjani was a colorful character who owned the license for Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and also for Coca-Cola clothes, which had mushroomed into a half-billion-dollar enterprise.
Hilfiger, who had always been self-conscious about his lack of design training, found a soul mate in Murjani. Far from being put off by Hilfiger's lack of atelier experience, Murjani considered it an advantage. If a design had to be altered to cut manufacturing costs, he knew Hilfiger wouldn't whine about artistic integrity.
"The plan was to be a younger Ralph Lauren," Murjani says mischievously. The contract Hilfiger signed gave Murjani ownership of both the new company and the Hilfiger name; but it gave Hilfiger financial security and the pleasure of seeing his name on backsides across the country.
Hilfiger came up with the design formula that would inform his work for years to come: classics with a twist. Like Ralph Lauren, he pillaged all the Ivy League icons, but he added quirky details. Like stitching the buttonhole with contrasting thread, or using a pastel fabric to line the collar of a sober oxford shirt. The most striking thing about the clothes was the logo. The abstract composition resembled a miniature Mondrian and made Lauren's polo figure seem stodgy in comparison.
To publicize the new line, Murjani hired legendary adman George Lois, whose hip, controversial campaigns inevitably generated media attention. For Murjani, he outdid himself, concocting a $160,000 one-shot campaign that propelled Hilfiger from relative obscurity to stardom overnight.
Lois used just a single line of ad copy: THE 4 GREAT AMERICAN DESIGNERS FOR MEN ARE: R-L, P-E, C-K, T-H." When the "initial campaign" was unveiled on a Times Square billboard in 1986, it caused a sensation.
"The whole concept was to make Tommy famous with the first ad," explains Lois. "The hubris was beyond belief. Here we were saying that somebody who hadn't sold one item of clothing yet was a great American designer." Lois stifles a laugh. It's still one of his favorite campaigns.
But the Old Guard was not amused. To this day, many designers bear a grudge against Hilfiger. Some, like Calvin Klein, because he was included in the ad copy. And some, like John Weitz, because he wasn't. Geoffrey Beene had an especially catty response: "I don't go along with the Gabor girls that any publicity is good publicity." Gleefully fanning the flames, Lois ordered a gigantic billboard right in the middle of the garment district.
Three months after the campaign was unveiled, a furious Klein confronted Lois at Mr. Chow. "Do you know it took me twenty years to get to the point where Tommy Hilfiger is today?!" the designer erupted in the crowded dining room. Lois calmly brushed aside Klein's finger and replied, "That's my job, schmuck. Why take twenty years if you can do it in twenty days?"
Hilfiger himself was by no means as confident as his ad campaign would suggest. "Everybody thought I was a complete jerk," he says feebly. "I considered leaving the business, because I thought I was doomed. I thought Calvin, Ralph, and Perry would somehow strong-arm Bloomies into not buying my line."
Those fears were unfounded. In only eighteen months, the nouvelle-preppy line grossed more than $11 million. With sales doubling every year, Murjani drew up an expansion plan that included opening six stores in a year, including a Rodeo Drive boutique.
Then, in 1988, the Murjani empire imploded. Hilfiger's clothes were still selling well, but his boss had overextended himself. Coca-Cola apparel, the cash cow he had relied upon to subsidize numerous business ventures and corporate expansion, had fizzled.
Desperate not to see his label vanish, Hilfiger hired a phalanx of expensive lawyers and began hunting for a white knight. His financial savior turned out to be Silas Chou, a scion of a wealthy Hong Kong textile family. Chou insisted that he give up his ownership of the Tommy Hilfiger name, but in the end, Chou's manufacturing and financial power were difficult to turn down. Hilfiger agreed to take a 22.5 percent share of the new company.
The calculated commercialism upon which the company was based was obvious from the start and goes a long way toward explaining the fashion industry's long-standing animus. "Hilfiger is the fashion equivalent of the Monkees," said one industry analyst at the time. "They had a concept and found four guys that could play, rather than beginning with the talent."