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Eye Contact with Tommy

Trendspotters have had an easy time sourcing the current burst of bold and colorful striping infiltrating men’s dress shirts in these last few months.
Quite simply… It’s Tommy.

With a bold stroke last fall Tommy Hilfiger rewrote the current stylebook on men’s dress shirts with an array of color (and craft) details hitherto lost in a sea of solids, blacks and white. And the accompanying advertising campaign delivered the message to both consumers and fellow designers—stripe with color or get off the stage.

With a pace that is at once resourceful, attentive and yet refreshingly carefree, Hilfiger has been striking that same chord of focus and action since the delivery of his very first signature menswear collection in 1984. He clearly calls it his take on “classics with a twist” and the attitude and approach roams the vast Tommy Hilfiger brand range. Since inception, the Tommy Hilfiger Corporation has developed a valuable and highly recognizable brand with a solid consumer base exhibiting expansive demographic appeal. Every product in the Tommy domain can be immediately recognized as a Hilfiger with a timeless and classic appeal. Lodging in the styleosphere of a nearly $2 billion global apparel company the brand is firmly established in a top-tier position within the multi-billion dollar lifestyle market.

Big bucks duly noted we recently donned a spanking new TH dress shirt and shared some (camera and chat) time with Tommy at his New York corporate headquarters. The whole Hilfiger building is a citadel of good taste (highlighted by comfy Tommy Hilfiger Home furnishings, which launched in 1998).
Tommy’s personal office is right up this writer’s alley—a combo of rock-n-roll-heaven and auto racing memorabilia. Iconic black and white photographs of rock stars from the ’60s and ’70s share wall space with a priceless slew of Andy Warhol paintings and custom-collectable guitars. His computer uses tiny Marshall practice amps as speakers. Rock music and race-breed have constantly been a fuel additive to Hilfiger just as he has “fueled” numerous live concert series and the Ferrari Formula One racing team with high-profile sponsorships. See what inspirational input he surrounds himself with at work and all the creative output makes sense, including the main reason for this 20/20 exclusive missive: Hilfiger’s new eyewear and sunwear collections created via a licensing partnership with Viva International.

That stated Tommy dives right in. “Licensing partnerships are essential to building a lifestyle brand because it is predicated on the strengths of two parties with mutual beneficial assets,” he says. “The distribution, production and sales teams at Viva, for instance, have refined their skills and infrastructure, which allows us to build on their solid foundation with our design sensibility and vision. It allows each of us to focus on what we do best and with any successful partnership communication is key.” Viva International chairman Harvey Ross shares those partnership sentiments adding, “There is no question that Tommy Hilfiger is an ‘A’ brand and will be a leading brand in the optical industry.”

As a way of further addressing the increasingly important quality issue as it relates to the new eyewear collections Tommy uses the current shirt success as a signature example. “We stand for quality... signature detailing... and price value. And our products speak to those standards in a direct way. You can see this with our woven men’s shirts. The unique details of the contrast cuffs, the finer hand fabrics, the double-button collars and rich colors.” Hilfiger feels, “The quality is far superior to that of any of our competitors. But we are offering it at the best price. This is what the customer wants from us. This is what we are delivering. We are aggressively supporting this initiative with marketing, advertising and continued improvements in design. There is no mistaking that we are making a bold statement and setting the standard. As with the men’s shirts we are leading the way with the hottest trend in men’s fashion.”

In a near zen-like balance the Hilfiger Company strategy echoes the catch phrase it often uses to describe its mission. It strives to combine classic American styling with unique details and fit to give time-honored basics a fresh and updated look. This “classics with a twist” is the company’s hallmark. By delivering core and basic styles as the principal components of its product offerings it continually enhances a brand philosophy for customers who desire high-quality, designer creations at competitive prices.

Spying Tommy as he tries on a pair of aviator-style shades from his new sunwear collection its easy to see and say that he doesn’t just talk this talk… he walks this walk… very sincerely. The second of nine siblings, Tommy was born and grew up in Elmira, a small town in upstate New York. In 1969, while still in high school, he began his retail career with $150 and 20 pairs of bell-bottom jeans. Soon after, he opened his own small chain of stores called People’s Place. Self taught, he began designing the clothes that his customers wanted but could not find.

“My love for fashion started when I was a teenager. Elmira was a great place to be a kid in the ’50s. It was very ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ But it was not such a great place to be a fashion-conscious teenager in the late 1960s. There was a fashion revolution going on in London, New York and San Francisco. In Elmira you couldn't even find a pair of bell-bottom jeans.

“I wanted to offer designs that people wanted but couldn’t find so two of my high school buddies and I put together 50 dollars apiece and drove to Ithaca, N.Y. There we bought 10 pairs of bell-bottoms to sell to our friends. I started selling jeans out of the trunk of my Volkswagen when I was in high school and then eventually opened up my own store called People’s Place. It was a store where I could offer unique designs to people in a fresh and interesting way and was passionate about starting my own fashion company.

“Our heritage is classic casual clothing for everyday life. When I first started designing, my aim was to take the great classic clothing icons like chinos, the button down shirt and the polo shirt, and modernize them—to create contemporary classics. I made chinos in modern fits, took button down shirts and gave them soft washes and added twists to classic polo shirts like a contrast lining inside the collar. I have always focused on the details, making sure that the finest fabrics are used, that the fit is perfected and the tailoring is top quality. My products have always been about modern classics updated to complement a casual lifestyle. I knew I had a vision and worked hard to make my dreams a reality.”

And those dreams had a soundtrack. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been in love with and inspired by classic rock,” continues the designer. “The Rolling Stones. The Who. Jimi Hendrix. These musicians represent creativity and innovation at its best and their sound and style has always had a profound effect on me.” When asked to respond to the increasingly important question of naming an eyewear icon, Tommy replies with no hesitation. “John Lennon had an incredible sense of style and I think that his eyewear choices reflected that. He was unique, creative and inspiring. He is truly one of the greatest style icons our time.”

It takes one to know one. Hilfiger has certainly racked up his own catalog of accolades and awards these last few years. In 1998, Parsons School of Design honored him with its Designer of the Year award, as did GQ magazine for its annual “Men of the Year” issue. In 1995, Tommy was named Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). That same year, he received VH1’s “From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk” award at their annual Fashion and Music Awards. He has also won several FiFi Awards, the fragrance industry’s highest honor. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) organization presented Hilfiger with the Future of America Award, D.A.R.E.’s highest honor.

Hilfiger launched the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation in 1995, to enrich the physical and intellectual well being of youth with a major emphasis on education and cultural programs that impact a diverse population. He is also actively involved in a number of charities and causes, including the Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League;  The Fresh Air Fund and the Race to Erase MS (Multiple Sclerosis) since 1994. Driving “home” the whole role of honors was an extraordinary trophy from the Boy Scouts of Elmira we noted occupying center stage in a display case at the doorway of his office. This is a guy in control of his past roots AND his future routes.

As a means of bringing our casual chat with Tommy back down to some everyday personal basics we decide to ask him about his own personal picks for eyewear (see our “Hilfiger Sighting” sidebar) and his own daily dress code. For that we close with a straight Q&A finale.

20/20: It’s a totally relaxing holiday. What is Tommy wearing?
TH: “Jeans, untucked button-down shirts and sneakers.”

20/20: It’s an intense workday. Again…What is Tommy wearing?
TH: “Jeans, striped shirt and sports coat with loafers.”

20/20: It’s time to dress up for an important night. Describe your style from head to toe?
TH: “Pin striped suit, a button down shirt and a bold tie with black leather dress shoes.”

Whew. That’s exactly what we were wearing. Good to know and good to go as far as Tommy is concerned.
Hilfiger Sighting
Getting right down to basics and in his own words this is the eyewear Tommy Hilfiger is currently wearing from his new collections licensed by Viva International. “I wear glasses for reading. Right now, I love the TH 3012 rimless plastic oval glasses with double injected plastic temples. I have always loved eyewear. I think that eyewear can be a very important part of a person’s wardrobe. You can express your sense of style and personality through the frames you wear.

“I also wear all different kinds of sunglasses depending on my mood and activity. I love the TH 7000 semi-rimless metal pilot sunglasses for outdoor activities, because they have good coverage. I also love the TH 7006 narrow three-piece pin mount metal sunglasses for the city and the TH 7005 full rim metal sunglasses with double bridge for hanging out.”