Tommy Hilfiger Then and Now—Is There A Difference?
2018 has been the unofficial year of the comeback kid, offering a second chance to brands of the late 90’s that have since faded into irrelevance, such as Dickies, Fila and Reebok. Cultural circumstances such as the turbulent political climate, unpredictable economic policies and escalating social unrest, alongside our rapid technological and industrial advancements have induced wistful nostalgia for simpler times; times when our heritage brands were at the peak of success. Through adaptation and reinvention, iconic American merchants are drawing on their past in order to solidify a more profitable future.
While it is undeniable that the youth of today feverishly adorn the signature red, white and blue “global stripe” of American heritage brand, Tommy Hilfiger, few understand the rich history of the company’s past. From the catwalks to the racks of Gen-Z geared retailers such as Urban Outfitters, the “classic with a twist” fashion house is once again influential within the marketplace. Returning to their brand’s roots and original DNA, Hilfiger’s success must be met with skepticism: will Tommy Hilfiger maintain their exponential growth, or will they oversaturate the market and become yesterday’s news, just as they did in the early 2000’s?
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Rewind back to 1969: Tommy Hilfiger was a self-proclaimed “dreamer” who opened his first store, People’s Place, in Upstate New York at the age of eighteen. Selling counterculture staples of the late 60’s and early 70’s, People’s Place marked the birth of his appreciation for denim and retail, an admiration that he maintains today. Traveling several hours south to New York City, Tommy and his business partners/friends would shop for products that were unique to the melting pot culture of the East Village, bringing back their purchases to the counterculture hippies of Upstate. By filling a demand for a product that consumers previously had no access to, People’s Place flourished. Over time, People’s Place opened two other locations, establishing itself as a dominant retailer in the counterculture market of the Woodstock era. Eventually, People’s Place filed for bankruptcy in 1977 following an economic downturn that affected the smaller working towns of Upstate dramatically. Some would say this would foreshadow the imminent downturn of Tommy’s namesake brand twenty years down the road.
Tommy desired a bigger future than his small Upstate town could offer him and dreamt of the streets of MacDougal and Waverly. When he found himself falling for a store employee named Susie, Tommy decided it was time to follow his dreams, and with the bankruptcy of People’s Place, there was no better time. The couple partnered together in both work and in life and was hired as a design duo for Jordache, a designer denim brand that was highly coveted in the 70’s and 80’s.
Only one year after their move, the couple found themselves fired from the position, living in New York City without a job or source of income. Although Tommy and Susie were in a place of desperation, Tommy refused to compromise his dreams. Maintaining his “dreamer” attitude, he pursued the creation of his own namesake brand. Out of struggle and out of desperation, Tommy Hilfiger was born.
Partnering with an entrepreneur named Muran Murjani, Hilfiger explored his design talents in sportswear and denim, his two first loves. With his troublemaker spirit and business mindset, Hilfiger returned to his roots in Upstate New York for inspiration on the direction of his brand. The iconic “global stripe” was inspired by his 1960’s high school uniforms, worn in a time period fueled by romantic disillusions of peace, love and American pride. The red, white and blue motif contrasted the doubt felt in the country during the war, a similar feeling of questionable despair felt similarly in Tommy’s own life at the time. His childhood era helped define the roots of Hilfiger’s namesake brand, instilling a sense of rebellion within the classic preppy DNA. This energy gave the Tommy Hilfiger brand a sense of unpredictably that rocked the marketplace of the 1980’s.
From his past experience as a business owner, Tommy understood the significance of marketing, and decided to bring this emphasis on attitude and integrity to his brand. Boldly, the business partners, Tommy and Muran, bought a Times Square advertisement stating...
“The 4 Great American Designs are R____ L_____ P____ E_____ C_______ K______ T_____ H_______.”
This advertisement stunned consumers and industry executives alike. In a time where Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein ruled the marketplace in American Heritage brands, it was almost forbidden to compare a new designer to their legacy. Shattering this unwritten rule, Hilfiger’s publicity stunt caused drama, attention, but it also drove sales. Practically overnight, Hilfiger’s line was flying off the shelves of retailers and onto the backs of celebrities.
In 1994, Snoop Dogg appeared on Saturday Night Live in a Tommy Hilfiger polo, and, just like that, the deal had been sealed: Tommy Hilfiger became a household name, despite the fashion executives who refused to acknowledge his fame and growing success. At height of his fame, Tommy dressed Usher, Raekwon, TLC and—most famously—the late Aaliyah. He became entrenched in Hip-Hop culture, a staple within music industry leaders’ wardrobes. Tommy Hilfiger grew too fast, too quickly, and eventually, this led to their own demise.
At the beginning of the Millenium, Tommy Hilfiger’s sales began to plummet, as his personal life fell in parallel: He divorced Susie after twenty years, with whom he had four children while his namesake brand was overexposed and had oversaturated the market. The once-aspirational luxury fashion house had made its way into the closets of middle America as the brand was placed on clearance racks and knocked off in stores around the country. The Hip-Hop culture moved on to find the next biggest trend, causing sales to plummet by roughly 75%. Damaging the brand's image to the point of no return, Tommy Hilfiger was no longer cool, relevant, or desired. He was simply ubiquitous.
Six years later, a private equity firm acquired the Tommy Hilfiger name for 1.6 billion dollars. Mr. Hilfiger maintained his position as the lead designer for the brand, encouraging the firm to sign an exclusive deal with Macy’s in 2007. Following this deal, PVH bought the heritage brand in 2010. Fast forward roughly eight years and Tommy Hilfiger is once again a household name.
One would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the booming success facing the heritage brand in the current market. From the runways to the streets, the “global stripe” is emblazoned on the backs of the “raddest” youth, sparked once again by the strategic business decisions of the Hilfiger team to target music and celebrity icons as “brand ambassadors”.
Almost single-handedly, Gigi Hadid resurrected the irrelevant “global stripe” from its grave, partnering with the brand in 2016 as one of the first “ambassadors”. Her devoted following and catwalk dominance helped to translate to the youth that Tommy was once again “cool”. Revisiting some of the past Tommy Hilfiger success stories, Gigi Hadid collaborated to create a Tommy x Gigi Collection, drawing on nautical, western, rock n roll and motorhead themes over the four years of their collaborations. Along with their collection, Gigi led the pack in four interactive and public “see now buy now” runway shows hosted by the brand during fashion month. With icon appearances such as Bella Hadid, Lucky Blue Smith, Winnie Harlow and Hailey Baldwin, Tommy Hilfiger appealed to the youth, showcasing his work on those they idolize.
Directly addressing the nostalgia trend felt throughout the marketplace, Tommy Hilfiger relaunched their denim as Tommy Jeans, following the success of the Tommy x Gigi Collections. The line features 90’s inspired denim and apparel geared towards the youth that is now engaging with heritage brands. Returning to his People’s Place roots, the Tommy Jeans relaunch has been met with measurable success. The diffusion line has been placed within Urban Outfitters, arguably the retail hub for Gen Z and Millennial shoppers. At a more affordable price, the line was addressing those who aspired to purchase pieces from Tommy x Gigi, yet could not afford to do so.
Following the success of the initial Tommy x Gigi Collaboration, the brand has now featured an array of influencers in various fields such as music, athletics, popular culture and self-made success stories. Collaborations include the Chainsmokers, A$AP Rocky, Fergie, Zendaya, Bruno Mars, Jourdan Dunn and Zayn Malik. Similar to the Tommy x Gigi collab, these stars have been involved in several different capsule releases, such as the widely successful Tommy Jeans relaunch.
For those Generation Z and Millennial consumers not attracted to the Americana and varsity-inspired 90’s looks of Tommy Jeans, Hilfiger has also partnered up with streetwear giants in an effort to corner the marketplace on nostalgic youth. Tommy has stepped outside of his usual “classic with a twist” mold in an effort to avoid complacency by releasing a capsule collection with streetwear giant, Vetements. The Vetements collaboration focused on a unisex release sold in Barneys New York and Harrods. Dubbed “luxe streetwear” by creative director Demna Gvasalia, Hilfiger differentiated once again.
And if the hypebeasts have yet to get their fill of the “global stripe”, Tommy Hilfiger paired up to launch a collaboration with KITH come this winter. Ronnie Fieg, the founder of the beloved streetwear retailer, felt that the rich history of Tommy Hilfiger provided the perfect base for a successful collaboration. The first pieces of the anticipated collection released in September, with the following pieces to drop soon. From hoodies to Timberland boots, denim pieces and basics, the Tommy archives are reimaged through the lens of Fieg, pushing the boundaries of the PVH powerhouse. Returning to his roots and source of inspiration seems to be the key to success for the heritage brand.
Eerily similar to the late 1990’s, Tommy Hilfiger seems as if there is no cap in sight for their success. However, sooner or later, everything new is old yet again. There is no doubt that eventually, the exponential growth of Tommy Hilfiger will slow. The question remains of how this plateau will manifest; will Tommy Hilfiger oversaturate the market? Only time will tell.