What do you think of when you hear the name Tommy Hilfiger? That flag? Those jeans? The 90s? Probably all of those things. For me it’s mostly the 90s but, because that was 30 years ago (sorry to remind you), it can mean only one thing: Tommy is back! It wasn’t exactly an easy journey so I thought I’d have a little look at where it all started, where it went wrong, and how they managed to bring it all back.
Like so many big names in the fashion industry, Tommy Hilfiger had no formal fashion training, he simply liked clothes and was good at spotting a niche in a market. He was a businessman first and foremost who was soon to become one of the biggest fashion designers in the world. Growing up in Elmira, a small city near to New York (I mean near in the American sense) Hilfiger would make the 4 hour drive to buy all the new jeans that you couldn’t get in the smaller towns. People would pay well for these pieces that he sold right out of his car.
This entrepreneurism from a young age turned out to be a smart move as, at the young age of 18, Tommy Hilfiger managed to open his own store - People’s Place - in Elmira selling those same items he sold from his car. However, this was 1969 and Hilfiger was a music fan, so he expanded into the style of the musicians of the time. Jeans from a car turned into colourful hippie-style clothes, bell-bottoms and light flowing shirts. It proved to be a smart move as one store soon turned into seven.
Never one to stay still for too long and tired of the clothes he was getting in to sell, Hilfiger started designing the clothes himself whilst teaching himself the trade. There’s no way of growing into the global success of Tommy Hilfiger without this sort of self-motivation. As soon as he started designing for himself, Hilfiger knew it was what he wanted to do. So when People’s Place went bankrupt in 1977, perhaps it was a blessing: a time for a new focus.
Tommy continued designing clothes for a number of other companies up until 1985 when Mohan Murjani took an interest in investment and the familiar Tommy Hilfiger brand was born. Right away the company showed ingenuity in their branding - the instantly recognisable flag - and in their advertising. The launch of the brand was announced via a huge billboard in New York which showed the image below:
By placing his own name with the three most famous brands in America before selling one item, Tommy Hilfiger was the name on everyones lips, including TV hosts, as everyone first wondered who it was and then became convinced that he truly was one of the great American designers. Within three years he would part ways with Murjani, get new investors, and become one of the biggest clothing brands in America.
At this time, Tommy Hilfiger made ‘preppy’ clothes: all collared shirts, sweaters, and khaki. It all fell into place at the perfect time as office environments were changing and it was these office workers who would be the main target base. Casual Fridays were becoming much more popular and where better to show off your brand new Tommy gear? A bit of something flash so people know you’re not to be reckoned with (in a professional sense). Either he’d read the market or right place right time but by the mid 90s Hilfiger was a ferry from selling jeans from a car. Somewhere along the way though, the focus shifted, and Tommy Hilfiger became a whole new beast.
My own recollection of Tommy in the 90s wasn’t one of preppy wear, it’s one of streetwear: big logos and oversized clothing, not the subtle designs favoured by those office workers they targeted. With no defining reason the hip hop community took up Tommy in a big way: Snoop wore a rugby shirt with large Tommy logo across the front on SNL and whether that was the reason or not, Tommy shifted to streetwear.
To align itself with the growing popularity in streetwear and the hip hop community, Tommy Hilfiger began creating larger clothing and larger logos. Imitating the other chosen uniforms of the time like Karl Kani and, as the 90s continued, FUBU. But as is so often the case, as fashion trends come and go, it wasn’t going to last long.
In what seemed like an almost overnight event, Tommy was no longer in. Up to this point the growth of the company had been so huge that they’d gone from 100m in sales to 2bn in just under a decade. Now although that didn’t completely disappear there is a distinct downward spiral from 2000 that saw stocks at the lowest they’d ever been. Tommy had oversaturated the market to the point where it was no longer an exclusive brand. It no longer felt elite. Everyone was wearing it. It was official: Tommy was out.
“We made the mistake of following a trend that was going to be short lived. Because any trend is short-lived”
Because their popularity had dwindled, they could no longer command high prices for their items. Tommy took the step of producing clothes of a lesser quality at a lower price, completely negating what they were known for in the first place. However, at this time, the European market - where Guess only launched in 1997 - was growing. This meant that the company could stay afloat but also they needed to look to Europe for inspiration.
Tommy Hilfiger started to look at the European model and it dawned on him that they were doing something very simple: exactly what Hilfiger did in the first place. The European branch were making subtler pieces of high quality, something which the US branch had seemingly forgotten they were about in the first place. But to make these changes you need time, time without any foreseeable profit for a few years, which is not something stockholders like. The only viable option would be to become a private company again.
Luckily a private company came in for the takeover at a staggering $1.6bn, giving Hilfiger that much needed time to get back to those subtle, luxury fashions that he was originally known for. They were once again able to offer quality at higher prices and, within 4 years, another firm came knocking this time offering a buyout of £3bn. In an ironic twist the company who bought Tommy were PVH who also owned Calvin Klein - one of the designers on that debut billboard so many years before. They were now outselling at least one of those ‘great American designers’.
Tommy Hilfiger’s story is one of perseverance but the main take away for me is those 90s pieces that went out of fashion so quickly: that cycle of fashion we see so much means that they’re back. Maybe not for Hilfiger - I think they learned their lesson - but for the vintage buyer there’s loads to be found and had. Plus I think Hilfiger is making enough money now, don’t you?