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Hilfiger, Tommy

sportswear corporation label designer

B. 1952

Birthplace: Elmira, New York

Awards: Menswear Designer of the Year, CFDA, 1995
         From Catwalk to Sidewalk, VH1 Fashion and Music Awards, 1995
         FiFi, men’s fragrance award, 1996
         Designer of the Year, Parsons School of Design, 1998

Normally when we talk about the big three, we are referring to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. There is, however, another big three: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger. Together, they form the triumvirate that dominates the menswear industry.

Tommy Hilfiger was one of nine siblings born into a middle-class family in Elmira, New York. After high school, Hilfiger began his career in the fashion industry with $150 and twenty pairs of jeans which he sold out of the back of his car. This self-taught designer had opened ten specialty stores, People’s Place, across upstate New York by the time he was twenty-six. In 1979 he sold his stores and moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion design. Hilfiger launched his own label through a licensing agreement with Murjani International; however, he terminated his agreement with Murjani, which was suffering financially, and went in search of a new backer.

Hilfiger found Silas Chou, a private-label contractor. Instead of creating a licensing agreement, the two decided to form a partnership. Hilfiger contributed the design direction, and Chou contributed the manufacturing connections that would allow them to produce Ralph Lauren-quality products at slightly lower prices. Chou and Hilfiger also brought former Ralph Lauren executives Lawrence Stoll and Joel Horowitz into the partnership, and in 1984 the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation was born. The first collection was launched with a series of exaggerated advertisements, including a Times Square billboard advertisement in which Tommy Hilfiger declared himself “one of America’s top four designers.”

Tommy Hilfiger is often considered a re-designer. He interprets the American spirit into a line of clothing which captures the red, white, and blue dream of America in comfortable sportswear. Over the next decade, Hilfiger fought with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren for the same customer base: predominantly middle-class, white males between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five. His all-American sportswear classics were popular, but not greatly different from his competitors’.

Then, in 1994, rapper Snoop Doggy Dog appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. Sales suddenly skyrocketed, and Hil-figer became the first designer to dress both jocks and homeboys. Realizing the potential profitability from tapping into the black urban rap subculture, Hilfiger reevaluated his line and adapted his designs to the oversized silhouettes favored by the rap music factions. Hilfiger also realized the importance of the status symbol to this group and emblazoned his name prominently across all his designs. There was no doubt whether a garment was a Hilfiger.

As the Hilfiger label gained prominence, the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation expanded its product offerings through a series of licensing agreements to position itself as a lifestyle brand. The Tommy Hilfiger Corporation became a relentless marketing engine to convert Hilfiger’s followers into life-sized Tommy dolls. Hilfiger launched new apparel and accessory lines to dress his dolls from head to toe for all occasions. Under the labels Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger; Tommy Jeans; White, Red, Blue; Crest; Flag; and Hilfiger Athletics, the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation built on its men’s casual clothes and better sportswear business to offer new lines of sportswear, tailored apparel, bridge suits, jeans, and athletic wear for men, women, and children, as well as an exclusive custom design line for musicians. Hilfiger licensed accessories such as shoes, handbags, belts, neckwear, dress shirts, swimwear, eyewear, sleepwear, underwear, intimate apparel, watches, socks, and jewelry to provide the complete Hilfiger look for men, women, and children. The Hilfiger Corporation also added the fragrances Tommy (for men), Tommy Girl, and Freedom to their offerings and expanded into home bedding and linen collections. Hilfiger maintains control over the design, marketing, advertising, and distribution of all licensed products through collaboration with each manufacturer to ensure a cohesive brand image and to maintain quality.

In 1992 the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation offered stock through an IPO at $15 per share. Fueled by the trend toward casual dress, in 1995, the stock hit a record high of $47. However, by 2000, the stock had plunged to $9 per share, and the corporation posted its first quarterly loss since going public. What was happening to Tommy? Many started to question whether Hilfiger had lost sight of his core audience, or if in his quest to become a lifestyle brand he had oversaturated the market by applying his not so subtle label to too many products. Did the world need Tommy shampoo, moisturizer, and hair gel? Was the Hilfiger cachet gone?

By the mid-1990s several other brands had gained prominence in the men’s sportswear market. Hilfiger was now competing with urban sportswear designers such as FUBU and Karl Kani and specialty retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle for market share. Hilfiger needed to refocus his designs, redefine his product line, and update his image. Season after season the products demonstrated only the slightest style variations, diluting the demand. How many red, white, and blue striped sweatshirts did one person need? In 1997 Hilfiger began “operation clean-up” to redefine his men’s sportswear into two marketing segments: Flag and Crest. The Flag label would continue to be marketed to the young, status-conscious customer with the Hilfiger logos prominently displayed, while the Crest label would be marketed to a slightly older, more understated customer with subtle logo and branding treatments. Hilfiger also dropped his signature collection, which was unprofitable, and released the Hilfiger retail store exclusive Blue Label collection for department store distribution. Throughout the late 1990s, Hilfiger struggled to gain entry into the women’s sportswear market with several failed attempts to launch sportswear and career collections, and he has since decided to postpone any further ventures until he can more clearly define his target customer.

When you think of Ralph Lauren, you conjure an image of old money. When you think of Calvin Klein, you conjure an image of sultry seduction. When you think of Tommy Hilfiger, you conjure an image of small-town, mainstream America, but with a slight urban twist. Despite recent troubles in the marketplace, Tommy Hilfiger’s sales exceed $1 billion a year. His celebrated red, white, and blue logo, symbolizing the All-American spirit, is available in over 10,000 department and specialty stores across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Japan, and the Far East. His products transcend race, age, and lifestyles; they appeal to college students, lawyers, rappers, and jocks.

Hill, Peter(1767–1820) - Clockmaker, Chronology [next] [back] Hilfiger, Tommy - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Tommy Hilfiger

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