On 29 November 2021, American sportswear designer Tommy Hilfiger received the Outstanding Achievement Award at The Fashion Awards 2021, which celebrates “the overwhelming creative contribution of an individual to the fashion industry, who throughout their illustrious career has constantly shaped and reshaped the fashion world through their innovation and creativity”.
Considered one of the highest accolades in the industry, the 70-year-old principal designer and founder of his own eponymous brand joins a stellar cast of past winners such as Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada, Ralph Lauren and Anna Wintour. In honour of his achievements, here are six things to know about the man:
01 | He started out selling jeans
Without any formal training in fashion, Hilfiger’s career began in 1969 at the age of 18.
“When I was a young teen, I would take a trip into New York City, five and a half hours from my home, to find great clothes. When I wore them to school, all of my friends wanted to know where I was getting everything,” he revealed in an interview with businessoffashion.com.
He and his friends chipped in US$125 each and started selling jeans, and then opened a store called People’s Place, in his hometown of Elmira, New York.
“It got to the point where I was selling jeans out of the trunk of my car because people wanted them so badly. Much to my parents’ dismay, I decided to skip college. I really believed that I could teach myself how to grow a business and a brand and get my degree in the ‘real world’,” he said.
Unfortunately, People’s Place went bankrupt when Hilfiger was 25. A few years later, he formed a design team and landed Jordache as a client, but was let go shortly after.
Despite job offers to be a design assistant at well-established brands such as Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, Hilfiger decided instead to launch his own namesake brand in 1985, with a single menswear collection featuring modernised versions of classic preppy styles like button-down shirts and chinos. By 1988, sales had reached US$25 million, increasing to US$500 million in the mid-1990s and hitting almost US$1 billion by the late ’90s.
Over the years, the product portfolio expanded to encompass Hilfiger Collection for women, Tommy Hilfiger Tailored for men, Hilfiger Denim, men’s and women’s sportswear and kidswear, with licensees offering Tommy Hilfiger-branded lifestyle products such as footwear, eyewear, sunglasses, watches, socks, jewellery, handbags, fragrances and bedding.
Things went south in the 2000s, with sales plunging as much as 75 per cent when “it got to a point where the urban kids didn’t want to wear it and the preppy kids didn’t want to wear it”.
But in 2010, PVH Corp acquired the Tommy Hilfiger Group for a cool US$3 billion ($4.1 billion), with Hilfiger remaining firmly on board as principal designer and creative director. Today, there are more than 2,000 Tommy Hilfiger retail stores in more than 100 countries across five continents worldwide.
02 | He’s a music buff
“Some designers will make you believe that it was they who were leading fashion, but I really believe that the trends were coming from the music stage,” the self-professed fan of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Led Zeppelin told GQ in an earlier interview. As such, some of his earliest designs were inspired by The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix album covers.
In the ’90s, the hip-hop community started wearing Hilfiger’s brightly-coloured, loudly-logoed and oversized creations, with famous fans like Snoop Dogg, Puffy, Coolio and Aaliyah co-opted to walk for his runway shows.
The company went on to sponsor Sheryl Crow’s If It Makes You Happy tour in 1997; in 1999, it sponsored Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time tour, Lenny Kravitz’s Freedom tour and The Rolling Stones’ No Security tour, even designing the merchandise for it.
Hilfiger was also an early admirer of Beyoncé from her fledgling Destiny’s Child days. “We were doing a show in New York and our DJ cancelled, so my brother Andy introduced me to an all-girl music group to perform instead. We dressed them in boys’ clothes, because we didn’t have womenswear at the time, and afterwards I asked my brother who the one in the middle was — who had the most incredible voice — and he said to me that her name was Beyoncé. We formed a relationship with her, and she eventually became the face of our True Star fragrance.”
03 | He lays claim to being the first streetwear brand
“We were really the first street brand. In the late ’80s, when we were doing more athletic-inspired outerwear and pieces for Tommy Jeans, it became the streetwear of choice for skaters, rappers and the whole cultural crowd,” he said in a recent interview.
In fact, Hilfiger has said his obsession with athletic aesthetics came from working in a sporting goods store in his early teens.
“I used to look at all the baseball, football and hockey uniforms and loved the way all of the letters and numbers were sewn on. I liked the strength of the material and I liked the different colourways. So when I started doing my whole preppy thing, I thought the sports look was missing from it. I started designing sports uniforms and created my own team uniforms. That’s when we started doing really oversized hockey jerseys, football jerseys, basketball jerseys, and it caught on in a major way.”
04 | He believes in giving back
“If you have any sort of success, you should find a way to give back, whether it is to your favourite charity or helping young people in need,” Hilfiger has said. The company supports various international initiatives and charities including Save the Children, Autism Speaks, the World Wildlife Fund and Fresh Air Fund. There’s also Camp Tommy, where every year, 500 boys aged 12 to 15 who come from low-income communities in New York are hosted at a summer camp, where they get to enjoy the outdoor life in a more than 2,000-acre expanse of lush, green forest with lakes, ponds, streams and hiking trails through the woods.
05 | He’s big on sustainability and inclusivity
In a move to create “Waste Nothing and Welcome All” fashion, Hilfiger’s focus in past years has been on making his products fully circular, and building a brand that’s accessible and inclusive. For example the brand’s Autumn/Winter 2021 collection claims to be its most sustainably made so far, with parkas and vests filled with Ecoloft; it’s also scaled up the use of organic cotton (which requires less water and none of the pesticides found in conventional cotton) and wood pulp fibres like Tencel and viscose sourced from responsibly managed forests.
In 2016, he launched Tommy Adaptive, the world’s first designer clothing line catering to special needs kids who may have trouble getting dressed in normal clothing, as his own kids are on the autism spectrum. The line has since expanded to cater to adults with disabilities as well.
06 | He’s all for collaborations
To court Gen Z, the brand has, in recent years, launched a series of collaborations with the likes of Paris-based fashion collective Vetements, supermodel Gigi Hadid, actress/singer Zendaya, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and even a gender-neutral clothing line with Pose superstar and activist Indya Moore.
There’s also the Manhattan prep meets Brooklyn street collection released in August 2021 with Brooklyn designer and long-time mentee Romeo Hunte, and another capsule collection with Timberland released in October 2021 featuring multi-functional pieces like zip-off carpenter pants and a two-in-one reversible varsity jacket that blends outdoor functionality and Americana style.