Now, Tommy acknowledges, he doesn't even choose the pieces that will finally make it to market. That selection process takes place at "adoption meetings," where a roomful of executives collectively decide what will sell. Hilfiger's staff seems to be genuinely fond of the designer, who moves through his headquarters jovially bantering with assistants. In fact, he has put several through college. "He spares you the diva-designer act," says one.
On a trip to his headquarters, Hilfiger ushers me to a cavernous room filled with countless pieces of clothing. Some old, some new, some designer labels, others obscure brands. A bright-red Polo jacket, crumpled on the floor, sticks out like a flair. But an ex-Lauren employee now working for Tommy dismisses its significance. "Ralph has an entire room devoted to Tommy's clothes," he says. Hilfiger cracks a smile.
Next, he proceeds to the juniors'-sportswear design studio, to discuss the latest collection with the department's head designer. "This is Stacy," he says happily. "She used to work for the Gap. Before she came along, we used to steal her designs." He winks. "I mean, literally steal her designs." Stacy starts to blush.
Designer Nicole Miller commends her colleague for his candor. "Tommy is the only designer who's come clean and said that he doesn't design everything that carries his label," she says. "Designers want you to think they do everything, but it's impossible to design everything yourself."
Timothy Gunn, the associate dean of Parsons' department of fashion design, concurs. Indeed, it is because of Tommy Hilfiger, says Gunn, that Parsons is completely changing the way it educates its design students. The new Tommified curriculum, to be introduced next fall, will stress business and marketing principles as well as pattern-making and Vreeland Aphorisms 101.
"Being a designer today is much more about lifestyle than it is about clothes," says Gunn. "So we're restructuring our design curriculum. We're certainly going to accommodate the design savant, but we need to accommodate other approaches as well. Because not every student is going to be Isaac." Gunn waits a beat before delivering his punch line: "I mean, look what happened to Isaac."
The breakup of Hilfiger's twenty-year marriage, some friends say, was devastating to him, and his celebrity hasn't made it any easier. A few months ago, the Daily News ran a paparazzi shot of Hilfiger and Maggie Rizer, the freckle-faced blonde who appears in the current Tommy Hilfiger ad campaign. In the photograph, Hilfiger's fingers are tucked snugly beneath the waistband of Rizer's jeans. "It did look pretty cozy," says columnist George Rush, who ran the incriminating picture in his Sunday column. But Hilfiger denies he and Rizer had an affair. "Totally ridiculous," he says, more amused than offended.
But the designer does confirm reports linking him to Annabelle Bond, daughter of the Australian financier Sir John Bond, and admits a more recent relationship with a paralegal from Stamford, Connecticut, named Elizabeth Somerby. He says that both relationships are casual, and takes pains to stress that his separation from Susie was amicable. "She's still my best friend," he says. He recently bought a house in Greenwich right across the street from his soon-to-be-ex-wife and their four children.
Friends of the couple speculate that a dearth of quality time was a factor in his marital problems, but some believe the real problem was Susie's aversion to the limelight. One acquaintance explains: "I remember sitting next to Susie at a dinner and she turned to me and said, 'I should be more like you. Tommy needs a wife who can hold court at a dinner table. I'm not like that.' She doesn't want to be in the spotlight."
In contrast, Tommy's relentless social life earned him weekly mentions in the columns for a while. "He became a real party animal," says one confidant. "And he's completely obsessed with celebrities." He also forged a friendship with Anna Wintour. Wintour praises Hilfiger's "easy, all-American vision" and acknowledges that he took a wrong turn when he tried to go too high-fashion. "On a personal level, I really like Tommy," she adds. "He's someone you can get on the phone right away. He calls and asks your opinion on things. You can just chat with him. He's a pleasure to have as a friend."
Interestingly enough, Hilfiger's closest circle of friends are the same ten high-school classmates he grew up with in Elmira. Hilfiger keeps in touch regularly with them and is known for his unselfish support, which is frequently bestowed in the form of grand gestures. For instance, when Larry Stemerman's father was too ill to fly commercially, Hilfiger sent his private jet to pick him up so that he could see his new grandchild. "Tommy's always been generous with his money," says Stemerman. "Even in high school, if you needed ten bucks, Tommy would give it to you." Another member of Tommy's "crew" is fellow Elmira native Michael French, now an actor living in L.A. "The degree to which Tommy has been faithful to his past amazes me," says French. "He loves to talk about the old days. We'll get together and reminisce about skipping classes and the things we did at the local pool hall."
In December 1999, Hilfiger co-hosted the prestigious annual Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute gala with Wintour and Aerin Lauder, and some speculated that Wintour also used her considerable influence to help her friend gain entry to the most exclusive co-op in Manhattan -- 820 Fifth Avenue. "Valentino and Ron Perelman were both snubbed by that board. So when Tommy was accepted, the ladies who lunch thought it was scandalous," says one well-connected socialite. "They all thought Tommy got in because he got cozy with the queen bee of the co-op board, Jayne Wrightsman, through Anna Wintour."
Wintour blasts the gossip as "utter fabrication." In any case, after securing the $10 million co-op, Hilfiger didn't even move in, having decided that eighteen rooms was a bit grand for a bachelor pad. He did well on the deal, however, flipping the property to billionaire widow Lily Safra for $18 million.
Industry analysts see the Hilfiger company turning around, but it's likely to be without the help of the hip-hop community. The urban consumers who made Tommy a sizzling brand in the early nineties have turned their attention to lines financed by hip-hop icons like Russell Simmons (Phat Farm) and Puffy Combs (Sean Jean).
But Hilfiger doesn't care to court the rap crowd anymore. He's not ungrateful. They got him where he is today. But now it's time to win back all those free-spending boomers he alienated when he went ghetto. "Obviously, Tommy went too extreme into a narrow portion of the business," says Bloomingdale's CEO Michael Gould. "I think it may have scared off a whole lot of other customers." At the same time, Hilfiger has to keep teen customers happy. According to the 2000 back-to-school shopping survey conducted by American Express, Tommy Hilfiger is still the top-rated apparel brand overall among American teenagers, scoring an impressive 28 percent (Old Navy rates 27 percent; Nike, 26; Gap, 24; and Ralph, 17).
Wall Street is confident that Hilfiger can regain his core consumers. "It will never again be the hot, sexy, overly talked-about, flashy, zippy, fast-growing company it was, but it will be a damn nice company turning out lots of cash," one veteran analyst says. "What you've got is a company that went from an A-plus to an F-minus. And now it's going to go back to a B. And it's a hell of a business as a B."
Hilfiger knows, however, that getting back on solid footing is not going to satisfy stockholders forever. "The board of directors and the shareholders, it's like this mob that you have to keep feeding," he says. And to find that growth, he's looking overseas. Despite all the new stores he's opening Stateside -- in SoHo, Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami -- his main focus now is on Europe. Within the next two years, Hilfiger plans to open twenty stand-alone stores in Italy. "We're just starting in the rest of the world," he declares.
On the home front, Tommy opted out of the Bryant Park tents for this week, deciding on a smaller showroom presentation for editors. "A high-powered runway show would cost us $1.5 million," he says. "We'd rather put that into advertising." To shoot his new campaign, he hired the very hot lensman Mario Testino, who produced a series of ads as sumptuously decadent as Gucci's. Though Hilfiger praises Testino, he doesn't seem completely satisfied. "I would have liked it to be more spirited. I'd like more smiles, and for it to be more relaxed. It's beautifully photographed, but to be perfectly honest . . ."
Hilfiger doesn't finish the thought, but it's easy enough to finish it for him. The cool elitism of the fashion world, seductive as it is to a starstruck boy from Elmira, can finally seem a little empty. "People in New York and Los Angeles get a stilted image of where our brand is at. Once you get out of the precious little confine of SoHo and Seventh Avenue, you see people wearing Tommy in Kansas."
Kansas, of course, is a long way from SoHo -- but it's not nearly that far from Elmira.