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Hanging With Hilfiger

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The all-American designer unveils the new Macy’s and gives us insight into his overwhelming successAfter decades of thriving in the fashion industry, the name Tommy Hilfiger has become synonymous with classic American style. Starting out with

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Photo by Richard Phibbs

$150 and less than two dozen pair of bell-bottom jeans in 1969, the ambitious self-taught designer launched a small chain of stores called People’s Place, where he lured customers with his in-demand hard-to-find designs. In 1985 he bestowed his first signature collection upon the fashion world, and today Hilfiger heads a multibillion dollar brand that includes clothes for men, women and children along with fragrance, accessory and home collections. Hilfiger has taken his exuberant passion for fashion to the nth degree globally and counts loyal customers in Europe and Asia as well.

Last fall, Hilfiger paid a visit to New Orleans to celebrate the grand opening of the fabulous new Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center. The dapper designer mingled with the crowds at both the cocktail gala that benefited the NOCCA Institute and at an exclusive autograph session the next day at Macy’s. New Orleans Living met with Hilfiger at Macy’s and then caught up with him again in the new year to discover that the sultan of American style had carved out time to frequent fabulous restaurants and glorious antique shops on this trip to New Orleans. He thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of one of his favorite cities in the country!

Hi, Tommy! What do you think of the gorgeous new Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center?

I love it! The food is amazing, the people, the shopping—this store is beyond cool! It’s amazing. It’s something I never expected.

You partnered with pop musician Gavin DeGraw for the Macy’s appearance and others around the country. Why Gavin?

He is sort of our target customer. And his fans are my target customers, and we wanted somebody all-American cool with a pop attitude, somebody who is wholesome, friendly and outgoing. My brother Andy knows Gavin very well and introduced me to him. We said, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to sponsor on tour and somebody to perform for us, would you like to do it?” He was on board.

Why do you consider music and fashion such natural allies?

I think they always have been, and I think fashion people love music, and musicians and music people love fashion; it goes both ways. Every superstar has been a trendsetter—Madonna, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Elvis—you just go right down the line.

Does music influence your work?

Yes, it always has. I was influenced by the rock ’n’ roll groups of the seventies, like the Stones, the Beatles and the Who. I loved the way they dressed. And when I started my first store in 1969, all of the images and the clothes and the accessories were from that era. It was a little hippieish, and it was a little rock ’n’ roll and mod and cool, and it really sort of launched my business. Later on, I decided to go back to my original American roots and mold the clothes to be more American classic so that we hit a broader audience. And at the same time, it’s what I wear. So in addition to making clothes for Mick Jagger or Lenny Kravitz and other celebrities, which is a small part of my business, the big part of my business is selling to all-American classic sort of people.

Your clothes have a classic yet modern preppiness to them. How do you keep things fresh with fashion?

It’s evolving all the time. There was a time when the style was a little more younger and street, and there was a time when it was very surf/California oriented. And there was a time when it was a little bit athletic with logos and red, white and blue. Now, as the result of the success we’ve had in Europe, it’s more polished, more refined, more sophisticated—still cool American classic and still youthful. But it isn’t planted in any one of those previous segments. We are the number one American designer brand in Europe, and we went into Europe with our preppy all-American flair; however, the Europeans’ discerning taste was different than the Americans’ taste, so we upped the quality of everything. The fabrics are much better because they didn’t care whether they were spending $150 on a jean; they didn’t think twice about it. So we are getting the best denim, the best washes, the best fit, just really putting quality in the product. As a result of that success, we decided to do that worldwide.

Customers have stuck with you and have continued to wear your clothes throughout the years.

Yes, we have a lot of loyal customers. In South America, we are the number one designer brand. We do a huge business. A lot of it is because we are cotton based, and we are upscale to the Venezuelans and the Columbians. There’s a lot of loyalty there. Not everyone who buys a Ford this year will buy one next year; it’s that sort of thing. And interestingly enough, my look has traveled well overseas. In Japan, in Korea, in China, in India, in Europe, it’s very well accepted.

What are some great trends in clothing that will carry us through winter into the spring season?

I think quality, number one, and comfort. I think the best trends are luxury and anything that seems luxurious and anything that seems like you can wear it for years to come.

Macy’s is now 150 years old. Why do you think Macy’s has been so successful for so long? hilfiger2

Because I think they appeal to upper-middle America, but at the same time they have product for middle America. They also have all the best brands, and they have incredible service. They’re great!

Tell us about the inspiration behind your big, beautiful book that you were autographing called Iconic America: A Roller Coaster Ride Through the Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture.

It’s a provocative and engaging look at the emotional impact of American history and culture on our society and the rest of the world. George Lois and I wanted to give a realistic view of what American culture has contributed to the world by showing the good, the bad and the ugly. The book is a good reminder of who we are, where we have been and what this country stands for.

How was the Macy’s cocktail gala?

It was fantastic! The fashion show was fun. Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, Russell Simmons and other associates and friends of mine were there. And for Terry Lundgren, the CEO of all Macy’s, to come and put his blessing on it was great. We met customers, we met VIPs and we really sort of lifted the unveiling of it.

I hear you are a fan of New Orleans …

Yes, I used to come to Maison Blanche. And I’d go see a guy by the name of Brother in Lafayette, Louisiana. Brother Abdalla was his name, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but he had a store named Brother’s, and he promoted Tommy Hilfiger in the very beginning. And I love the antiques. I went antiquing yesterday and today, and we’re going back tomorrow. Oh, it’s so cool, it’s amazing! And I love all the food here. I just had lunch at NOLA today and it was just unbelievable! Oh! I ate at a restaurant called August, and I’m going to a restaurant called Stella! tonight. Then I’ll be going to Petunia’s tomorrow for brunch. The food here is just amazing!

Yes, you are definitely in luck if you are hungry in New Orleans! So Tommy, you will be making a return to the tents of New York Fashion Week this February to show your collections during the coveted 10 a.m. slot. What are you looking forward to most on this day?

This season marks our return to the Bryant Park tents for the first time in four years following a period of reestablishing our runway presence in iconic, off-site venues. The 10 a.m. time slot is great as it allows us more time than other slots would to create a specific runway atmosphere. I am most looking forward to seeing everything come together. The runway collection and the show itself is a result of a lot of teamwork and hard work, and I really enjoy seeing everyone’s effort culminate in a beautiful presentation.

During these hard economic times, why will people still buy clothing?

Because if they can’t afford a vacation, a car, a TV or other luxury item, they can buy a shirt or a blouse or a sweater or a dress and it makes them feel good. My clothes are also accessible and affordable, so they can still wear designer and get great quality. My clothes are also something that they can wear from day into evening, and they can wear it for years to come, and it’s really sort of a sweet spot in positioning. And it makes sense to feel good with clothing you feel good in. And I don’t think they’re going to be reaching up to the very expensive designer brands, because they’re just too expensive. Handbags, dresses, everything is probably double or triple what my price points are, and at the same time a lot people don’t want to reach down too low because quality is poor.

Congratulations on your recent nuptials!

Thank you! The wedding was very intimate and low-key, which is exactly what Dee and I wanted. Afterwards we went to Mustique, where we spent the holidays with family and friends.

You have what many would consider a dream job. What does it take to create a dream job, and how do you continue to be successful at it every day?

You need the dream, and once you have the dream you have to execute, you have to go for it and never give up and never let anything stand in your way. If something is in your way, you have to get around it somehow. You need solutions to problems all the time. Once you get a solution to a problem, you’ll get to the next problem, you’ll need another solution. You have to keep on working.