Tommy’s Tumble

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 The goofy Beatle bangs have been replaced by a wash-and-wear brush cut.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.

The story Hilfiger tells about the past year is one of soul-searching and regrouping. “Learning from our mistakes is really positive,” he says. “Because we looked at the situation and said, ‘These things are wrong.’ We reacted immediately. The London flagship store wasn’t open for a year when we realized we had made a mistake.” Snobby Bond Street, observers pointed out, was the wrong address for Tommy in the first place. It looked like a matter, one noted, of “keeping up with the Laurens” – Ralph’s big flagship is right down the street.

The Beverly Hills store, says Hilfiger, was also ill-conceived. “The average age on Rodeo Drive is probably 50 years old,” he says. “My customers are much younger than that. We thought all the cool people in L.A. come to Rodeo. But they don’t.”

Buckingham Capital Management industry analyst Larry Leeds sees in the Hilfiger story a kind of fairy tale turned cautionary tale: “You have this little guy, who is a fine guy, who has a store. And he became a god, and built a business that’s as big as Ralph’s, you know? And he makes a fortune. And everything’s great.

“But then he gets absolutely carried away with urban, ghetto youth. And he loses his preppy original niche. And the thing got very overdone, and Tommy had to get back to reality. And he did. He’s a very rational guy.”

Wall Street is buying this version of the story, complete with upbeat ending. By November, despite continuing declines in earnings, analysts were enthusiastic about the turnaround in the works, and the stock had climbed back to 13. By last week, when the most recent figures were released, the stock went as high as 15.

And Tommy, despite chagrin at abandoning some of his cutting-edge pretensions, has recovered his mainstream roots. “We’re about color, we’re about preppy, we’re about classic, we’re about America!” he says, reciting his mantra. “We learned the hard way that that’s where we belong.” He picks up a placard displaying a photo from an old Tommy ad campaign: a gaggle of meticulously art-directed models posing languidly in front of a billowing American flag. “It was my insecurity about being this,” he says, his eyes misting over at the sight of the iconic tableau. “I thought we could be much more than this. When in reality, just this is incredible.”

If Tommy seems to have an almost corny belief in the American dream, it may be because he has lived it. Thomas Jacob Hilfiger was born on March 24, 1951, in Elmira, New York, a dreary upstate town best known as Mark Twain’s summer residence. The second-oldest of nine children, Hilfiger was raised in a white clapboard Victorian house. Richard Hilfiger, a watchmaker at a local jewelry store, was an affable man of Dutch-German descent. His wife, Virginia, worked as a nurse. Even with two incomes, the Hilfigers lived from one paycheck to the next.

Tommy began working at an early age: mowing lawns at 9 and pumping gas at the local Hess station at 16. “I worked the night shift and made $1.25 an hour, which was great money at the time,” he says. “I bought all my own clothes. I helped out my brothers. I didn’t depend on my parents for anything.”

No one would dispute that the young Hilfiger was enterprising, but nothing about him suggested that he was destined for celebrity. Small for his age, he concealed fifteen-pound weights in his pockets to make the junior-high football team. Nor was he a star pupil. In fact, he had to repeat the tenth grade. It wasn’t until much later that he was diagnosed as dyslexic. “Tommy was only a C guy, and he wasn’t a great athlete either,” remembers Marty Herrigan, Hilfiger’s football coach at Elmira Free Academy. “I guess that’s why he became a businessman.”

What he did possess was a precocious sartorial flair, which he inherited from a father regarded as Elmira’s resident Beau Brummel. And he and his siblings enjoyed a certain social cachet. “Our house rocked,” says Hilfiger, grinning. “My brothers practiced their music in the basement, and all the kids from the neighborhood came to hang out. It was a very cool spot.”

Tommy’s first big fashion epiphany occurred in 1969. To finance a summer away from home, Hilfiger took a sales job at a hippie clothing store on Cape Cod. The former preppy returned home from vacation decked out in sandals and bell-bottoms. His hair had grown out, rock-star-style – sort of Prince Valiant meets Brian Jones. He listened to Hendrix and Stones eight-tracks. He dropped acid. His parents were, to use Hilfiger’s own words, “freaked.” He was 17.

What happened next has become part of garmento folklore. Realizing that Elmira was a fashion wasteland, full of teenagers like himself who craved mod clothes but couldn’t find them, Hilfiger and two high-school buddies pooled their life savings ($50 apiece) and went into the jeans business. Hilfiger drove his rusted ‘59 VW Bug to Ithaca and scrounged up ten pairs of bell-bottoms. The initial inventory sold out in a day.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, Hilfiger made the 250-mile trip to New York, where he stuffed his Bug with 600 pairs of jumbo-legged jeans, which he purchased for $3.50, and flipped them in Elmira for $5.88. In a week, all 600 pairs were snapped up.

Eventually the three high-school seniors decided to become retailers themselves. On December 1, 1969, they opened a store called People’s Place in downtown Elmira. It conformed to the typical trippy-jean-boutique template (head shop downstairs, Day-Glo and incense all around) and became an instant hit with Elmira’s high-school crowd. “I couldn’t wait for three to bolt from school and open the store,” recalls Hilfiger. At the end of their senior year, the three partners were doing almost $1 million in volume and pulling down $60,000 salaries.

The local newspaper wrote up People’s Place and Hilfiger spouted off about rebelling against “the Establishment.” Larry Stemerman, one of the three original People’s Place investors, says he and Hilfiger weren’t nearly as rebellious as they were portrayed to be: “We laughed about it because we weren’t rebelling against the Establishment – we were the Establishment.”

In the early seventies, Hilfiger made his first trip to London. The swinging Carnaby Street scene was already winding down, but to Hilfiger “it was amazing,” he says wistfully. “For the first time, I saw how music and fashion complemented each other perfectly.” He came back with a rock-star wardrobe of frilly shirts and form-fitting velveteen pants.

By the mid-seventies, Hilfiger and his partners had seven stores scattered around upstate New York, a six-figure income, and an automotive fleet comprising a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Jeep, and a Jaguar. People’s Place was hot, with a customer list that included the J. Geils Band and Bruce Springsteen.

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.”

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.”

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.

Tommy’s Tumble