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Tommy's Tumble

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But just as nobody cared that the Monkees were not real musicians, consumers didn't care that Hilfiger's real gift wasn't in design. In fact, the company began expanding at such a torrid pace in the early nineties -- as Casual Fridays were becoming entrenched in corporate America -- that the fantastic numbers WWD reported were initially dismissed as typos.

In 1989, Tommy Hilfiger USA leapfrogged from $28 million a year in retail sales to $50 million. The second year, from $50 million to $100 million. And then came hip-hop.

It happened thanks to a fortuitous meeting at Kennedy Airport in the early nineties between Hilfiger and rap artist Grand Puba. Returning from a business trip in Hong Kong, the designer noticed a group of hip-hop kids sauntering through the terminal wearing super-size versions of his clothes. Hilfiger's brother, Andy, a former rock musician who now handles the company's celebrity-client roster, recognized the group's leader and made introductions. Hilfiger had no idea who the rapper was but was intrigued that this subculture had latched on to his label.

It was as if Carnaby Street were happening all over again. Hilfiger immediately understood the money to be made if he could align himself with popular rap stars. Andy Hilfiger began giving trunks of clothes away to any rapper with a recording contract. Soon icons in the 'hood like Raekwon and Coolio began wearing Tommy Hilfiger on their concert tours and in their videos.

Unlike other brands the rap community had embraced, like Timberland and Polo, Hilfiger went out of its way to satisfy its new urban customers. Indeed, the white-bread designer actually began to cater to their culture-specific sartorial taste: The silhouette became larger-than-life, the palette became brighter, and the logo blew up, in some instances so large it covered the entire garment.

But it wasn't until March 1994, when Snoop Doggy Dog wore a comically oversized Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt on Saturday Night Live, that the brand really broke out. Practically overnight, every wannabe homie from the San Fernando Valley to Valley Stream was blowing his allowance on Tommy duds. The company's stock, after an IPO in '92, soared, splitting twice and making Hilfiger rich.

By 1995, Hilfiger's salary was $6 million. He and Susie purchased a historic farm in Greenwich for almost $10 million. The 22-room converted Colonial farmhouse looked like a location for a Ralph Lauren shoot. Situated next to a wildlife sanctuary (Mel Gibson and Diana Ross are also neighbors), the extensive grounds included a clay tennis court and stables. Hilfiger also acquired vacation houses in Nantucket and Mustique, the latter next door to Mick Jagger.

The rock-and-roll designer had arrived. But instead of concerts, Hilfiger's gigs were in-store public appearances. He would literally jet from one department store to the next (100 a year), promoting not albums but whatever collection or licensed product happened to be breaking at the moment. Fans, th-logoed from head to toe, showed up en masse to catch a glimpse of their idol. At one Macy's appearance in New York, Tommy stood at the end of the runway, ripped off his jacket and sunglasses, and tossed them into the crowd.

"It was a thrill for Tommy to be recognized," says one confidant. "He got high on it." Another acquaintance confirms this. "Tommy's newfound wealth was such a hoot for him, and he had a lot of fun. He'd go into nightclubs, and if he saw people he knew, he'd send them bottles of Dom Perignon." But all that comp champagne didn't buy Hilfiger the professional respect he craved. Fashion people balked at his mainstream popularity. Not that it mattered. Hilfiger's increasing market penetration made him impossible to dismiss. Moreover, the untrained designer was compiling an enviable client list, ranging from Prince Charles to Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was hardly surprising that in 1994, Hilfiger was considered a shoo-in to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America's (CFDA) coveted Menswear Designer of the Year award, the industry's equivalent of the Oscar. Previous winners included the holy trinity of American ready-to-wear: Donna, Ralph, and Calvin. So when the CFDA chose not to hand out the prize that year, it was widely perceived as a snub of Tommy.

The CFDA did deign to give him the award the following year, but the victory was bittersweet. "I don't think there was another choice that year," he says. "My business was doing very well, there wasn't a new menswear designer on the horizon, and everybody else had won."

One thing that rankles fellow designers is Hilfiger's honesty about the collaborative nature of his company. He admits that being a successful designer has less to do with knowing fashion than it does with playing to one's audience. "I have a creative team," he says unabashedly. "I sit with the men's designers on a regular basis and tell them what's on my mind. I'll tell them I'd really like to see woolly fabrics or plaids and buffalo checks. I give them primitive sketches from time to time," he says, "showing them what I want to see."

When it comes to designing his women's collection, however, Hilfiger is almost completely out of the loop. "I don't have a great instinct when it comes to women's fashion," he says with refreshing candor. "But I hire great people who do." People like Stephen Cirona, a cousin of Susie's, who is the company's de facto principal designer, responsible for the overall direction of both the women's and the men's lines.

"Stephen's great," Hilfiger says earnestly. He points to several mounted black-and-white photographs of Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. "Love Story is the theme for next fall," he says. "Stephen saw the movie and came in the next day so excited about adapting the clothes for the runway."

Hilfiger has also used Vogue fashion editor Camilla Nickerson as a consultant to help style his shows. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour says that since Nickerson is freelance, she has no problem with her taking outside jobs "as long as we're aware of it."

Hilfiger bristles at the notion that some of his peers see him as a mere marketer. "Everyone has their opinion," he says. "Look at Ralph. He used to be a tie salesman." When it's pointed out that Lauren actually designed the ties he sold, he's no longer able to contain himself. "My very first lines I designed as well. I sketched them out, stood in the sample room. I worked with the pattern-makers, I did the fittings."


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