Friday, March 5, 2010

Tommy Hilfiger Talks Social Media, Fighting Axl Rose, and Succeeding in this Economy

Tommy Hilfiger sat down with Worth Magazine Editor-in-Chief Richard Bradley Wednesday night at the French Institute Alliance Francaise's Fashion Talks series at Florence Gould Hall - and the result was a powerful and beyond-fascinating roadmap into the mind of one of America's most iconic designers.

"It's 99% fun, 1% reality," Hilfiger says, of the empire he's created.

On his childhood: "I really wasn't a great student. I was always dreaming about the future. I had trouble reading so I always thought I was dumb. [It turns out I was] dyslexic. I learned at 10 or 11, that work could be fun. I had two choices: mundane and horrific, or fun and have pleasure doing it. At the time I was raking leaves and pumping gas during the night shift."

On how he started designing: "I was buying clothes and re-selling them at my store People's Place in Elmira, New York. I realized: I don't like those pockets. I don't like those colors. I don't like those sleeves. I took out a notebook and started sketching. My friends laughed. 'There's no way you could do that.' I didn't go to college or design school... I thought 'I'll show them'."

On how he started his business: "In the seventies, I had long hair and was wearing bellbottoms. Some people were staring at me and others were dressing like me. I thought: All these people want to dress like me, I should sell the clothes... So I started re-inventing preppy 50s and 60s classics I grew up wearing."

On integrating music into his ads: "In the beginning, I didn't view myself as a businessman. I loved the ambience and flavor of pop culture. It was a feeling that excited me. I wanted to connect the brand with what I love. I thought, using musicians in advertising would keep the brand young and cool."

On competing with other retailers: "Abercrombie and J Crew weren't even in existence when I started. But they did take a lot of the market share. Our philosophy became to enhance our fabrics, even if it was more expensive, to elevate our brand."

On the brand thriving in this economy: "People prefer to buy jeans and casual classics [in a downturned economy]. They're affordable and durable, and psychologically make sense. I saw a lot of designers making really expensive clothes and going out of business... They were frivolous and not meaningful. We're in a sweet spot globally because we're positioned as a premium brand. Luxury is up there, premium is down here."

On his rumored prejudices against black people: "We have a policy in our company to not comment on rumors... This is an example of how ridiculous rumors are."

On fighting Axl Rose at his 2006 concert: "Axl pushed me [out of the way], and I said 'That was rude.' [He turned around and] had a huge ring on. He wears all this jewelry. [I'm thinking], if I get hit, it's over. No teeth, no eye. So I hit him before he hit me. It was self-protection. Now we're friends."

On what the future will bring: "I'm a perfectionist, and it's never perfect. I'd like to do furniture - we have a home goods collection but no furniture. I'm obsessed with designing furniture."

On technology and social media: "Streaming shows live on the internet is as great as having them television. [Social media] is a great advantage to be able to speak directly to consumers, and globally."

On success: "You need drive, passion, hard work and this other little thing: money. If you don't have money, you need a lot of the other things... Lastly, you need a product that sets [itself] apart from the rest."

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