NEW YORK—Tommy Hilfiger kicked off Fashion Week by visiting students at the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea, Feb. 7. The students had plenty of questions and Hilfiger graciously complied. Here is an edited version of the questions and answers.
Describe a Normal Day
I wake up. I do yoga or exercise. I see my children in the morning before they go to school, or spend some time with them.
Then I usually go and sit with the accountants, with the business people, and learn about what’s going on with the business. How much did we sell in the Fifth Avenue store yesterday? What sold? What didn’t? How’s business in Europe? What’s going on with how business is?
And then in the afternoon I work with the people who are setting up our fashion shows, the models, the stylists. I look at the advertising. We look at the new styles we’re designing, the fabrics, the clothes. At night we do charity events, go to dinners with people. That’s usually what I do. And I travel a lot also.
Has Anyone Doubted You?
Has anyone doubted me? Well, I’ll tell you a story. When I first wanted to open a store, my parents told me I was crazy and that it was not going to work and that there was no way I could do it. I earned and saved $150, because I was working nights in a gas station during high school. I saved that and I bought 20 pairs of pants. I rented a spot in the downtown area and paid $50 a month in rent. I painted it black. I called it ‘People’s Place.’ I played music and I sold jeans to my friends.
And then I bought sweaters and candles and other stuff. But then one day I decided I wanted to be a designer, because all the clothes I was selling in my store I was buying from other people. I bought them from the streets in New York. I bought them from other stores. I bought from different parts of the city.
I wasn’t happy with those because everybody else had them, those other stores had them, and there’s things that I would always see other people wearing. So I wanted to do something different. So one day I took pad and a pen and started drawing pictures of jeans that were very different from everybody else’s—different pockets, different belt loops. I had local seamstresses make them for me. I put them in my store. People loved them.
So I said I want to be a designer, this is what I want to do. I’m going to create and make my own collection. And I told my neighbors, and friends, and relatives—I have eight brothers and sisters—I told my brothers and sisters. They all laughed. There’s no way you could do it. You need connections. You need money. You need to know how to cut patterns. They told me every reason I couldn’t do it.
In my mind, in my heart, I knew I could do it and I went out to do it. But I hit many different obstacles; had many, many, many reasons why I could have just given up. Money—I was broke. I didn’t know how to cut patterns. I didn’t have connections. Some of my stuff didn’t fit. Sometimes I couldn’t get the right fabric, couldn’t pay rent.
I had all sorts of problems but I never, ever, ever gave up.
Was It Difficult Growing Up With Eight Siblings?
I’ll tell you the hard part. You have to share everything. You have to share food, clothing, space, everything. And my parents didn’t have much money, so we had to go out to work. I was working when I was like 11 years old. I learned that going out and doing hard work was just what you did. I learned how important it was to make money, because once I made money, I could then do what I wanted to do: buy myself a car, buy my own clothes, save up to buy jeans to open a store with. So I was really motivated to go out on my own, because I knew there was no way that my parents were going to give me any money at all.
Who Was the Most Important Figure in Your Life?
There was a man by the name of Mr. Lauder, Leonard Lauder, who really helped the Estée Lauder brand and he was a mentor to me many, many years ago. He’s in his 80s now and he took the Hilfiger fragrance at the end of 1990s and made that into a big business. I think he’s a very smart businessman; he’s always given me great advice.
What Is Your Advice to High-School Students?
My advice to students who want to take their career to the next level is very simple. If you could get a job working in a retail store, a clothing store, you will learn so much. You’ll learn that every customer has different requests; they have different color preferences, fit preferences, fabric preferences. Some like some brands, some like other brands. If you work in a clothing store you would learn so much that would help you, whether you’re in graphics, or visuals, or fashion design. That is, I think, is a great education. So on weekends, or evenings, or holidays, if you could work in a stock room of some kind of fashion store, or footwear store, apparel store, that is the best experience. You’ll learn a lot.
What Was the Most Useful Thing You Learned in College?
I hope you don’t follow my trail. I never went to college. I started my business while I was still in high school and my business really became my education. But if I happen to do it over again I would have either gone to FIT, or Parson’s, or one of the design schools. I had to really learn to do what you’re learning to do now and it took me a lot more time while I was trying to build my business. And if I had been able to do what you are learning to do now I wouldn’t have to hire other people to do it.
What Does It Take to Be Head of a Fashion Show?
First you need the clothes. Once you have the clothes then showing them is easy. You just put them on models—who could be your friends—and you show them in front of an audience. You’re going to need music, you need the clothes, and they can walk around the room, or they can walk down the runway and back, they could walk on a sidewalk and back, they could stand still, there’s still life shows, but first you need the clothes.
Is It Difficult to Maintain Everything?
Yes. Because what you have to do is to make sure that the timing is right, that the clothes fit—because if the clothes are on the model and they don’t fit, it shows right away that they don’t fit. And then you need the right accessories, footwear, jewelry, hair, makeup, lighting. It’s like a Broadway production really, because when we have shows now, we have hundreds, thousands of people in the audience, and everybody is watching every model.
How Do You Choose the Music?
We invent sound tracks for our fashion shows and we use a combination of music of today, but remixed, because we don’t want to use the same music that Michael Kors or somebody else might be using. So we remix it and sometimes we even do some nostalgic music—like our show for this time is going to be influenced by the ’70s, so we’re taking some ’70s music, but making it now.
Give Us an Insight Into Your Spring/Summer 2013 Collection
I think it’s more European. Americans are always looking at Europe for inspiration; they’re looking at us for inspiration as well. But this year it’s more English. [...] It’s closer now than it ever was. French was one way, Italian was one way, Japanese looked one way—now it’s a big blend. We look for inspiration all over the world and, at least for this show coming up, we looked at England and the U.K. for fabrics.
How Does Fashion Reflect Your Views of Society
We’re always connected to what’s going on in society. Over the last 20 years, America in particular has become much, much more casual. When I started, the line was a little bit more dressed up; over time it became more and more casual. But now it’s cycling back to more dressed up. So I think that when the economy is a bit more down people are going to be more dressed up because they need jobs and they want to impress other people. When the economy is really great, they’re not so cautious about how they dress. So I think with the economy having trouble people are more conscious of the way they dress.
What Is Your Cultural Inspiration?
Always America for me. Because as an American designer, I want to celebrate America. You know, Hollywood is in America. We make all the movies in the world. We make most of the music in the world. We have the most interesting places—I mean think of Miami, L.A., Las Vegas, New York. We have incredible inspiration coming from this part of the world, from America.
If you think of everything we invent in America from Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, to Twitter, to Facebook, to M&M’s, Coca Cola, McDonald’s—we invent and create amazing things in this country and everyone outside of this country looks to us for inspiration. We have the best television shows of anywhere in the world, we have Broadway, we have the best sports events, the NFL, the NBA, we have amazing things in this country.
We have amazing minds and great people who invent and create and really make things happen in the world. To the point where people from all the other countries are always looking at Americans and what they’re doing. […] I think that there are great things happening in other countries and always great to look at for inspiration, but if you look in your own backyard, there is so much here.
What Does the Future Hold?
I never want to be too far ahead. Because I think if we’re too far ahead, we fail. And I don’t want to be too far behind, because I’ll fail also. So I’m always walking that tight rope of being advanced enough and relevant for that moment.
I’d like to think that we also set trends and we make statements as to what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. One big thing we do is we take a certain amount of money we make and always give back. I opened a camp with the Fresh Air fund called Camp Tommy. We put 15,000 children a summer through the camp. Kids from the ghettos—Harlem, the Bronx, East New York—who have no place to go in the summer. We put them on a bus. We take them into the country. We teach them not only how to use computers, but teach them how to go fishing, camping, enjoy the outdoors.
My idea was that if I can make a difference in helping at least 1 or 5 out of those 15,000 a summer, I’m doing something really great. So it’s very important for us to take money from everything we sell and give back. We are helping with extreme poverty in Africa. We’re helping kids with autism. People with MS. So we’re really, really giving and helping to the community.
But I’d love to be able to finally find how to make clothing in the U.S. more to give people jobs here. And if we could figure out a way to make all organic cottons, I would like that very much.
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