Ahead of his visit to India, Tommy Hilfiger talks about the continued appeal of prep and why his ‘modern family’ campaign is a hit across the world. By Rosella Stephen
FASHION circles are abuzz over American designer Tommy Hilfiger’s Indian itinerary — from September 26 to 28, he has dinner parties to attend, a guest lecture, an in-store event with actress Sonam Kapoor, private dos and the big anniversary bash at The Leela Palace in New Delhi. Hilfiger, of course, is no stranger to all the attention. From the rise, fall and rise again of his fashion empire, to his celebrity friends, neighbours (Mick Jagger, for starters) and passion for art (Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns), the media has documented everything. Born and raised in a working-class Irish Catholic neighbourhood, with eight siblings, Hilfiger’s ‘rockabilly meets the country club set’ fashion has seen business booming in the US and overseas (global retail sales were over $6 billion in 2013). His brand campaign, featuring The Hilfigers — a fictional family that he earlier called ‘‘quirky, modern and slightly dysfunctional’’ — continues to make the cut every season.
As for Hilfiger, he admits that he is ‘‘driven’’ by his real family. ‘‘There’s nothing in the world that means more to me. My wife is my muse and our seven children are absolutely my biggest joy,’’ says the designer, 63, who hangs out with A-listers like Beyonce, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lopez. It wasn’t always that way, going by an infamous quote from long ago — ‘‘I had no confidence at school. I was not a good student and I really thought I was pretty stupid. Just dumb,’’ he had said. ‘‘Algebra looked like Chinese characters to me, and I could never get into reading Shakespeare. I just did not get it.’’
Today, there is no arguing that Hilfiger is comfortable in his skin and the perfect ambassador for his brand of classic, all-American prep style. That he stopped dyeing his hair a long time ago is telling. “If Ralph (Lauren) can do it, if Giorgio (Armani) can do it, if Karl (Lagerfeld) can do it, then I can go white, too,” he had declared. He has admitted in the past that declaring bankruptcy at age 25, surviving race-related controversies in the mid-90s, and realising that trends are short-lived (refer to the brand’s hip hop-friendly look of the 90s) have been crucial lessons. Recently in the news for his capsule collection with actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, he hopes to add ‘hotel’ to a growing list of products that include eyewear and home furnishings. With 80 locations across India and counting, and a commitment to clean, modern classics, the designer interprets Brand Hilfiger for us:
30 years into your career, what are your views on the continued appeal of prep?
Prep is rooted in the American East Coast and celebrates classic, clean-cut styles; the look is all about confidence, eclectic details and not taking yourself too seriously. The phenomenon has gone global and I love to see the way the style differs across borders.
Your recent capsule collection, To Tommy From Zooey, features 1960s and 1970s-inspired frocks in vintage cuts.
I met Zooey (Deschanel) at an event in Los Angeles last winter, and as we
started talking about fashion and design, it just clicked that a collaboration with her would be exciting. I have always appreciated Zooey’s ability to weave her original personality into her wardrobe and her fearless approach to accessorising. The collection is a blend of Zooey’s personal, vintage-inspired style
mixed with our signature American preppy look. I love to collaborate and learn from others, and I’m always thinking about interesting partnerships.
Experiences in India you want to revisit?
I have visited India many times and have fantastic memories of travelling here. I am continuously inspired by the country’s energetic culture and heritage, and the busy marketplaces. I had always thought Indian food was very spicy, but since visiting the country many years ago, I’ve learned otherwise! I love the cuisine in India.
The English countryside as sartorial inspiration?
Travelling is very inspiring for me, from Mumbai to Paris, Tokyo or London. The English countryside has a rich sartorial history with fantastic inspiration — great tailoring, classic cuts and heritage fabrics like tartans and tweeds. I look at these and then reinterpret them to reflect my brand’s all-American roots. The result is classic, preppy and cool, and can work anywhere
in the world.
Fabrics like cashmere and tweed are consistently on your mood board.
I like to use fabrics with a great heritage,
like tweeds, cashmere, silk, mohair and denim. We always look for premium quality materials, which can last our customers for seasons to come.
Are you working with new age, performance enhancing materials?
We’re constantly researching the latest developments in fabrics and fibers. Our Fall 2014 Tech Trad collection was inspired by the great outdoors and we integrated sporty, adventure-inspired elements throughout the collection – from bungee cord details to functional nylon.
What are the lessons that came with failure? What dictated the return to preppy?
I started my first business when I was just 17 years old, and I consider that my “real world degree”. When I later founded the Tommy Hilfiger brand, I was lucky to have great business partners and mentors. We have also learned to stick to the preppy heritage that’s at the core of the brand DNA.
How does your familiarity with a large family translate into your fashion, business and campaigns?
My family means everything to me, and it inspired our brand’s global marketing campaign. The Hilfigers are a fictional family of eclectic characters who reflect the inclusive nature of our brand and the definition of today’s “modern” family. Every season they head on a new adventure that’s inspired by the preppy lifestyle.
You were inspired by rock stars and their clothes when you started out. Who is on your playlist right now?
Music always plays an important role in my design process, and I’m lucky I have my kids to keep me up-to-date on cool artistes. I like a mix of old and new, from Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones to Kings of Leon, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
On sport and vintage influences.
I’ve always been influenced by East Coast sports like rowing, sailing, rugby and football. I like to incorporate Ivy League-inspired details in my designs, from preppy crests and badges to collegiate graphic prints. I also love to reinvent the classics from a modern perspective. Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jackie O are icons, and we still celebrate them today.
Some women who inspire you?
I’m surrounded by inspiring women: my wife, Dee, and my three daughters. Dee is the ultimate Tommy girl — vibrant, cool, and effortlessly chic. She isn’t afraid to have fun with her style and try new things.
The limited edition pieces (box) are available at select stores and on order. Priced at Rs.14,999 (bandi) and Rs.3,999 (shawl).
I have a passion for art, especially pop art and iconic American artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I still think Jasper Johns’ Flag would be the ultimate piece to own. It’s on display at the MoMA and I love to see it in person when I’m in New York.
I love coffee table books about modern art, and one of my favourite places to get them is the Rizzoli store on 57th Street in New York. I recently bought a great book called Jean Michel Basquiat by Enrico Navarra. I also enjoy biographies and am currently reading Steve Jobs’ book — he was a legend in his field.
Decade, wrapped up
To mark a decade in India, Tommy Hilfiger has launched a limited edition shawl and bandi jacket. With white paisley jacquard on a navy blue base, contrasted with the brand’s signature red, white and navy multi-stripe design on the reverse, it works with both dresses and jeans.
The ‘60s and ‘70s were a great time for music, and I love to listen to classic rock bands from that time – Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and David Bowie. I like to mix those classics with modern artistes like Imagine Dragons, Beyoncé and The Black Keys.