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Tommy Hilfiger: Classics Reborn
Courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger

‘It’s like baking a casserole’: Tommy Hilfiger gives his recipe for success

We sit down with the designer to discuss nostalgia, subculture, and how the keys to the future are hidden within his 50-year archive

Fashion’s in the midst of a 90s and Y2K revival that shows no signs of slowing down. Though plenty of labels have been resurrected across the course of the last few years, there are very few brands that were hot in the noughties that still resonate today. Not so Tommy Hilfiger, whose Tommy Jeans ads featuring a young Aaliyah, complete with sweeping fringe and American flag-inspired boob-tube, and a baby-faced Usher in signature red, white, and blue are still inspiring a whole new generation right now. In 2023, they’re as fresh now as they were back then. 

With one eye on the past and another on the future, Tommy himself often dips into his namesake label’s archive for inspiration. Just 15 minutes drive from Midtown Manhattan, the sprawling, temperature-controlled unit in Long Island takes up 20,000 square feet, employs a fleet of dedicated archivists, and acts as a sort of museum for all things Tommy. The first logo shirt a young Tommy made circa 1970 for his original brand People’s Place sits alongside pieces with a bonafide place in pop culture – like the snakeskin suit Zendaya designed when she collaborated with the brand back in 2019.

Dipping into that near 50-year archive became the genesis of Tommy Hilfiger’s Classics Reborn, which sees classic preppy pieces reimagined for a new audience, with the ethos that what you have should endure the test of time. Heavy on classic, comfy Oxford shirts, perfectly faded denim jackets bearing big monograms and embroidered Varsity jackets, the designer also debuted a 28-piece collaboration with Shawn Mendes, which gets its debut this week at a red carpet event in London’s Camden. 

Before that though, after a tour of the Tommy Hilfiger archive, we sat down with the man himself to talk 90s and 00s nostalgia, his inimitable influence, and where he’s heading next. 

Do you like to indulge in nostalgia? Does looking back help you to come up with future designs?

Tommy Hilfiger: Looking back is really important to me because that’s where my roots are. Every time I think of where the brand is going, I’m thinking of how it connects to the DNA. It’s not about letting go of the DNA, but expanding upon it. My design team will come into the archive and get inspired. A lot of design teams don’t have that and they have to go out and look in vintage stores or dream up what’s going to be next. All we have to do is continually make it fresh and new – but always hold onto that heritage.

And does looking at your archive evoke certain memories? Is there a piece that everyone said wouldn’t work when you had an innate sense that it would? 

Tommy Hilfiger: I really believe that part of the success of Tommy has to do with predicting what people might like in the future before they know it themselves. When I first came up with oversized clothes, there were naysayers. ’Who is ever gonna wear that?’ When I started coming out with logos, department store buyers would say, ’Oh, we don’t sell logos. People don’t want logos!’

 I just felt so strongly that it was the right thing to do. It does take a certain amount of vision. I’m always asking my team and even younger people, like my children, ’what’s next?’ And it’s all cyclical. It goes in cycles. We were wearing skinny jeans and very slim-cut everything for a long time. Now we’re back to oversized. I think that if we keep our fingers on the pulse and stay aware of what’s going on in culture – by that I mean fashion, art, music, entertainment, and sports – then the answer is there.

Mick Jagger was quoted in your American Dreamer book, saying that you were designing for the rockers and the hip-hoppers when you first came out. Not many designers can traverse through lots of different subcultures. How do you do that now with social media? 

Tommy Hilfiger: It’s almost like baking a casserole. You have to have certain ingredients that the kids will like and that the grandparents will like. For me, there are certain pieces within the collection that are really focused on surfers, skaters, athletes, and the kind of people who go to work in an office. So we have to have a collection that is all-encompassing but still connected. It can’t be disparate because then it looks discombobulated and it just looks like stuff. It all has to be connected somehow. If you put too much spice in, it’s gonna be too spicy. It’s always a challenge…

When you started out in the 70s, did you ever think the brand would become this huge behemoth? 

Tommy Hilfiger: No, never. I was in business in 1985. By 1990 I wanted to go into womenswear and from there it went to childrenswear, perfume, and everything else. I then wanted to be a lifestyle brand and I wanted to spread all over the world. We opened a store in London and it was a smash success. And then we dropped another store in Germany. Then Barcelona, Japan, India, and before I knew it, we were building a lifestyle brand for the globe.

We’re in this kind of peak of Y2K revival. And I think you have a huge story within that. Were you conscious of what you were doing?

Tommy Hilfiger: I was doing it and I was hoping I would get respect for it and I wasn’t getting respect from the fashion industry. They thought I was just selling jeans. They thought the designers were Oscar de la Renta and Halston. My partner at the time told me that the respect you’re getting from the public is embracing it. And that’s the respect you really want. Then when I won the CFDA award for menswear designer of the year, it was a great honour but it didn’t change the business at all. So getting awards and getting respect from your peers and from people in the fashion world didn’t really mean as much as I thought. It matters what the consumer wants. If the consumer embraces it, you’re cool.

You’ve never been afraid to infuse new ideas within the brand. Like with Martine Rose, Romeo Hunte, and Richard Quinn. How important is it for you to bring in those different perspectives and what do you learn from them? 

Tommy Hilfiger: Well, I’m the OG. When Zendaya and Law Roach came to me to do a collaboration, they had these big boards and I said, you can do whatever you want today. They were clothes I had never made before in my life. Diana Ross from the 70s. Bianca Jagger from Studio 54. We leaned in and it was dynamic and incredible. I learned more from them than I ever expected. And that is why I allowed them to just do it. I had to find new factories and we had to find new ways of making patterns but we did it and it was one of the best collaborations we ever did. I have to give credit to the younger generation here – they understand the culture and always bring me something that is brand new.

So the brand is 38 years young. How do you want it to continue to grow and what messages do you hope to evoke 38 years from now?

Tommy Hilfiger: I would like the brand to go on forever. Yeah. But I would like to involve the times. Sustainability is important. I think we should continue to be diverse and celebrate diversity. I think with our People’s Place programme (the brand’s initiative to support to everyone who has been left out by fashion), we have provided for people who wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to create. I want to be generous with what we have to offer, but at the same time, I want to keep the DNA intact because 38 years from now, I want somebody to look at something and just say, ‘Oh, that’s Tommy’.