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I Am American Business

Tommy Hilfiger

Producer Notes

Perhaps no designer better defines the word ubiquitous. As I began to research Tommy Hilfiger's background, it became increasingly clear to me that this fashion icon is everywhere. If not in my own home: a sweater, a raincoat, a suitcase, underwear(!)... I could find his trademark TH or HILFIGER or the red, white and blue logo just about anywhere. His store, the retailers and his staff all ooze fashion-cool and a quiet confidence that is very appealing. During our conversation, Mr. Hilfiger confessed to a different dream: that of playing in the NFL. His high school football coach said, "I think this isn't a great job for you." The young man from Elmira, NY found the right job - and became an All-World designer.

Video Interview

The "I Am" Q&A


What car do you drive?
What car do I drive? Uh, which day? A Cadillac Escalade, at the moment.

[LAUGHS] What’s your favorite place to go?
My favorite place to go? [PAUSE] Hmmm. My favorite…? Home.

[LAUGHS] What Web site do you like to visit?
TellMe.com.

What was your worst moment in business?
Bankruptcy when I was 23 years old.

What’s your favorite drink?
Black coffee.

What’s your favorite food?
Organic food.

What’s your idea of fun?
Uh, with my family.

And what’s your idea of fun—at work?
Everything.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
Lack of style.

What about business weaknesses?
Businesses weaknesses. Um, well, not understanding the world market.

What movie star do you like?
Dead or alive? [LAUGHS] Dustin Hoffman.

Who is a business hero of yours?
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.

What personal qualities do you admire in business?
Honesty.

What personal qualities do you admire—in life?
Living.

What was your greatest moment in business?
When I started my own company.

And what about your greatest moment—in life?
Uh, when I had my children.

What is your dream?
To continue doing what I am doing forever. [CLAPS]

Do you have a motto?
Never give up.

And what is your present state of mind?
Positive, happy, grateful, appreciative.

Transcript

CNBC:
From whom did you inherit your instinct for style?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, my father was very stylish. He loved dressing up. He wore suits every day. He wore tweed blazers and regimental ties. Had a great color sense. So I, I was really unaware of it, but I think I probably adopted a lot of that from my Dad.

CNBC:
And in your family, were others fashion conscious, or did you sort of emerge as the, the talented one in that regard?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I think I emerged as the first one in the family to, to engage in fashion. And I really wasn’t even interested in fashion. I wanted to be an NFL player, that was my dream. And my football coach in high school said, “I think this isn’t a great job for you.” The linemen were about 200 pounds and I was about 120 when I was a freshman, so I decided not to do that. And then I became interested in music and cars and all sorts of different things. And while I was very interested in music, I was looking at the album covers of all the rock groups, and I would look at the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, guys like that, and think that, that they looked pretty cool and I wanted to look like them. So my friends and I started dressing like the rock stars in high school. And all the other guys in school wanted to look like us. So we opened a small shop while we were still in high school. Sold bell-bottoms and jeans and candles, incense, all the gear of the, of the time. And it developed into a real business. And that was over 35 years ago.

CNBC:
At what point did you say to yourself, “this is something that I could see myself doing for a long time”?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, I never really had an interest in fashion. I wore more preppy clothes and sort of like… That was the uniform in my high school. Everyone wore either Chinos or Levis or like really classic American clothes. So I was really never interested in that, until later on when the sort of hippie music revolution started, and everyone grew their hair long and started wearing bell-bottoms and looked like hippies and looked really cool. So I thought I want to sort of somehow be in that business. And when I was 18 years old, I opened my first store in upstate New York. In a very short amount of time, it became very successful selling clothes to students and…university students. And within a short time after that, I picked up a pen and a pad and started drawing pictures of clothes I wanted to sell in my stores. So I had them made locally; I put the clothes in my stores, and they were big successes. So I, at that time, decided I wanted to go into the fashion business and compete with some of the big names.

CNBC:
And you started that with $150 and 20 pairs of jeans…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
That’s right.

CNBC:
If you could tell me just a little bit about that, and is that when we talk about entrepreneurs and doing things with your heart—is that the essence of what it means to, to be an entrepreneur?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I think when you are passionate about something and you have a, an ambition and a drive and you love what you are doing; you obviously will do it well. And I didn’t really realize what I was doing, but I knew I loved what I was doing, so I continued to do it, and I did it well. And it, you know, it’s 24/7. You live it, you eat it, you breathe it, and you just engage in it. And at one point, when I told my family and friends I wanted to be a, a fashion designer, they said you can’t, you know, “You can’t do that. You have to go to design school, you need backing, you need contacts, you need money, and you need all of this.” And I said “No no no, I know I can do it, because I want to do it.” And, it just, you know, drove me even more to think that people doubted me. And at the same time, I was always looking for what wasn’t out there—you know, well, where there was a void. So I looked at it from both a, a, an aesthetic and business standpoint. I wanted to fill a void, I wanted it to be at the right price point, I wanted to build a big business because I didn’t want to put my time and energy into something that was, that wouldn’t be fruitful. I had already had a bankruptcy when I was 23 years old with one of my starts, one of my first stores, and I decided that I never wanted to go that route again. So I decided to not only look at the art of the business as being exciting and, and full of passion, but I also looked at the business part as being very interesting and challenging and at the same time rewarding.

CNBC:
At what point did you decide that “I am gonna have my own line”?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I was buying from vendors in New York. And I used to look at their collections and think that I could always do better, because I thought, you know, if I added a pocket or if I made it look a little more like this or added more color or, you know, changed it around a little bit, it would be better. And I also then started hearing about and learning about other designers in business who were building businesses based upon not only their own collections but licensing other products, stores, wholesale, retail. Then I thought, “You know, this is exactly what I want to do.” And I looked at my competitors and I thought that, “If they could do it, I could do it. And if, they are popular and doing well, I could compete with them.” So I moved to New York with, well, no money—because I sold my stores for break-even—and I started a, a very small company.

CNBC:
You could have worked for any of the top designers, but instead you chose to invest in yourself—took a gamble on your, on yourself.

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, I was fortunate because I met a man by the name of Mohan Murjani, who owned Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans at the time. And he just happened to be looking for a, an American designer to back. So we hit it off right away. He was my first partner/backer with the Tommy Hilfiger brand. And we had success right away, right out of the box.

CNBC:
And how important is it—was it for you to have that type of support?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, I thought it was really important to have that kind of support. But you know, when you have that kind of support, you give up a lot. It’s not like you are just doing it on your own. And I weighed both options out: I am looking for another big name designer, or doing my own. I decided to do my own. Give up a certain ownership and a certain amount of control, but I thought that it would be taking a step backwards to go forwards, which it ended up being.

CNBC:
Was any of that control you were giving up overrated or was it just that, in terms of having to develop a business?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, I think that, you know, when you are partnering with someone, you have—and you do have to give up control. It’s not only business control, because sometimes you have to be flexible in price point, in the type of fabric you are using. And because, well, if you are trying to put it in department stores…like at the time, Saks, Bloomingdales, Macys, Neimans…they needed clothes at a certain price point, where you know, some of these owners don’t care; they just make what they love and it ends up being outrageously expensive, but they end up with smaller businesses. And I wanted a big business.

CNBC:
Well, what or who inspires you?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
You know, I am inspired by a lot. I am inspired by American icons old movies, music. Musicians have incredible style…and they actually influence and inspire fashion people and fashion designers. The rock stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s had their own style. And certainly, if you look at Madonna, or you look at Michael Jackson, or you look at the Rolling Stones, or—even if you look at Prince—they have a certain style, and styles, that are influential. And maybe then it was just in the United States; now it’s worldwide. And at the same time, in looking at Hollywood movies or looking at movie stars or looking at places and… you look at cowboys in America, or look at surfers or look at extreme skiers…there is inspiration you can get from any of these people, any of the places…in any of the cities and regions in America. So I am always inspired by American icons.

CNBC:
And I guess when you say that, you know, you automatically—you think of surfers and something pops into your head, right? In terms of what they might look like.

TOMMY HILFIGER:
When you look at baseball players or you look at football players, you look at lumberjacks…you look at the Wild West or…you look at South Beach…there is a style in South Beach. Or maybe there is a style now in Hollywood or, or Malibu, or a certain style in New York. And they filter into your veins in a, in a sense. And then I was one to conjure up my own style as a result of looking at everything and putting it into a blender. You know, maybe looking—watching an old movie or well, watching a baseball game…or maybe even traveling to the Caribbean or going to Mexico, you know, there is always, um, inspiration to be found.

CNBC:
You talked about price points and things like that. And I have a couple of quotes here: “And that’s why I make my fashion affordable,” and “affordable luxury.” Why did you choose this route predominantly for your brand?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I wanted to sell my clothes to a very broad audience. I wanted to actually dress America in the beginning. And I wanted it to be affordable, but still premium—and premium from a quality standpoint. I wanted the clothes to last. I wanted to build the styles, so that there would be here today and here tomorrow. I wanted to offer a price point that was affordable—not cheap, but affordable—and therefore I, I knew I would reach a lot of people.

CNBC:
There might be something that lots of us take for granted, which is you, you have a shirt, but there is a lot that goes into deciding if it’s gonna be a short lasting shirt or a long lasting shirt. It’s the stitching, it’s the fabric, and how much is man-made versus natural. And how complicated is that business?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, I am a detail fanatic, so when I started designing my clothes in the very beginning, I looked at every single detail, and I wanted to build a better mousetrap, so to speak. So I looked at the, the lining in the collar. I looked at the buttons, I looked at the thread. I looked at the fit. I looked at every pocket and every lining and every stitch. I wanted to make sure that I was building a product that was better than the competition. And I wanted to give someone a shirt for under $100 that would feel like a $150 shirt. And I accomplished that through great sourcing. I have surrounded myself with an amazing team. And I have been very successful and, and fortunate to be able to reach the global market.

CNBC:
Who among your competitors do you admire?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Listen, I really feel that my competitors—who are successful—like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein—are big businesses that I, I have to contend with. And I know how hard it is to stay on top and to continually come out with new collections, new ideas, new advertising, new marketing every season, so I admire all of those who are in business doing that. But I would say, um, Ralph and Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld—who does Chanel and a number of other lines—is a, I think, a design genius. But there are quite a few of them out there, and we are watching them every day.

CNBC:
I just had this thought about four or five of you sitting at a diner…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
[LAUGHS]

CNBC:
…and coffee, talking over just…war stories. Do you ever do anything like that?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
You know, we are friendly—and we are, I think, I would say, polite to one another—but we don’t exchange ideas. We don’t exchange ideas.

CNBC:
At what point did you decide “I want to do even more than design clothing, I want to…” But you had started to get into the accessories—with fragrances and jewelry and, and luggage.

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I had a dream a long time ago to not only design clothing, but to design a lifestyle brand. And within the lifestyle brand, I wanted to make anything and everything related to apparel that would make sense from a style standpoint, and from a needs standpoint for the consumer. Bedding, towels, furnishings, neckwear, dress shirts, eyewear, belts, socks, gloves, underwear, fragrance, body lotions, you know, anything and everything that, that you would want in your wardrobe or want in your home that would have a sense of style to it.

CNBC:
Anything that you decided you didn’t want to get into?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Certainly I wouldn’t want to venture into designing products that I, I am not familiar with. Like, I would never be in the food business; I would leave that to the experts. There are a lot of businesses that I wouldn’t, I would not venture into. I love the fact that we have this lifestyle brand—with everything connected. And I think certain products are, are a disconnect.

CNBC:
What is the best innovation in fashion that you have seen recently?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
The best innovation in fashion I have seen recently… That’s, that’s a hard one, because I don’t think anything is an “innovation” any longer. I think if you were to look at fibers and fabric—you know, there are people making recycled fabrics now. And I believe very strongly in the green movement, going forward. And if we could buy enough fabric and find textiles with sustainability, I would lean very much towards that. So we are searching the world for that now. A lot of people are making it. And they are cost prohibitive at this moment in time, but they have got scientists and geniuses working on bringing the prices down. I believe that will be a thing of the future… But right… At this moment in time, I don’t, I don’t think there is anything terribly innovative because, at the end of the day, you know, we are talking about jeans and trousers with two legs and nothing is sort of totally “innovative.”

CNBC:
And how much of what you do now is the art of business, versus the art of design?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
What I love about my job and what I do is that I have the opportunity to mix both business and aesthetic together. And I think that a lot of people, you know, go one way or the other. And I, and I love the fact that I can do both. And I do both with the help of a great team around me. I have great business leaders around me, and I have great creative people around me. It’s corralling everyone together and keeping consistent with what we are doing, and keeping passionate about what we are doing—which is really the easy part.

CNBC:
“Fashion is fleeting; style is forever.” Tell me what that means, and how it should shape the way people view the Hilfiger brand…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Fashion is fleeting; style is forever. Style is how you put yourself together. You don’t necessarily need fashion to put yourself together well. Fashion is sometimes trendy; sometimes temporary; sometimes here today, gone tomorrow. And we are all in the fashion business, but I believe we are in the style business as well. And as I said, style is really forever. Style is about putting yourself together in a stylish way. And you can do that with not spending a lot of money, and with classics and with what you have in your existing wardrobe. You know, it’s how you wear it, and how you take care of yourself and how it’s put together.

CNBC:
Do you ever do anything that you know is deliberately trendy and will be here today and gone tomorrow, but it’s just too good to pass up and it’s a great idea?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, we are always on top of the trends. And we are always, I would say, an inch ahead of the competition when it comes to that. However, we don’t want to be 10 steps ahead. We don’t want to be a year ahead. Because once you are, you are in risky territory. And it’s my opinion that, if you are in the style business, the style business is calling upon a designer to, hmmm, create a certain look that is very wearable, very affordable, accessible and something you would have in your closet for many years to come. [SNAPS FINGERS]

CNBC:
Why did you make the Iconic America book? And are you…? I want to ask you something about the, the forward… where you write, “It is a time of self-inflicted anti-Americanism.” And I am wondering if you could just tell me if you are optimistic.

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Yeah. We have a global business. And in my travels worldwide, I felt some negativity. So I thought I should put all of my inspirations and ideas of how great and interesting America is into a book. So while planning that, I called on George Lois—who is an advertising genius—to really author the book and put it together from not only an aesthetic standpoint but from an intelligence standpoint. And George, in the meantime, taught me a tremendous amount about American history. So we blended pop culture which is my love—with American history in the book, to show the world that America not only gave birth to incredible inventions from, you know, Hollywood movies to M&Ms…but to lots of, I think, great theories that have advanced the world. So it was really a reaction to how I felt people were looking at America… I think going forward I would like to hope that we can pull out of these difficult times. And I think that it’s everyone’s hope. However, I believe that we have a lot of complications in the world today. And if I had one dream, I would dream of peace in the world, with a great economy.

CNBC:
And style…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Style goes without saying.

CNBC:
[LAUGHS]

TOMMY HILFIGER:
And that comes along with the program. [CLAPS]

CNBC:
The classic American core, all-American values. Your corporate colors are red, white and blue. You just spoke of having been impressed upon by people around the world. Do you consider yourself an ambassador of sorts for the U.S.?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I think our brand is an ambassador to the world, because we are in 1,000 retail lo, locations. And I think promoting or displaying our attitude which is positive, fun, youthful, classic, upbeat, colorful, patriotic, strong and those are sort of the, the words that we surround ourselves with while we are doing anything and everything we are doing. Whether we are doing our fashion show, or designing, or designing a new collection, or coming out with a new fragrance, you know, what is it? And we are saying, first of all, it has to be positive and fun and youthful. And it has to be full of vibrancy. And we love color. We love this bright, clear, crisp, clean attitude. And that’s really packaged into everything we do…that we then transport worldwide.

CNBC:
And how does that enthusiasm filter its way through your company, to the people who work there?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I think the people in my company understand the philosophy very well. And I think that they are joyous when we are showing them figures where we are doing better than last year and we are increasing and growing and opening new stores and coming out with new products and new collections. It’s really like winning the Super Bowl. It’s like, “OK, we have done this, now let’s do that. You know, we have come to this goal, now let’s put another goal in front of us.” And I have to credit Fred Gehring, our CEO, with rallying our troops to make all this happen, because he is the day-to-day leader, and his philosophy has filtered down through the ranks in a very positive way in building this family of, of people who are so hard-working and driven to, to make our company a success.

CNBC:
Do you have a favorite image, or a favorite icon in your book?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I love pop culture. I love fashion, art, music, entertainment. I really believe that fame—fashion, art, music, and entertainment—makes the world go around. So if it’s rock and roll music with Bruce Springsteen or if it’s a Hollywood movie with Elizabeth Taylor or it’s going to Disney World, or skiing in Aspen or watching a Yankees game—you know, it’s all about pop culture of today. And if I were to pick one image in that book that reminds of, of anything and everything? It’s the American flag.

CNBC:
How much of your optimism is rooted in your being a member of being the guru of the generation?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
You know, I have always been optimistic. I came from a family of nine children. And the idea was that you thought positively about everything. It was a can-do attitude, because we all started working. My brothers and sisters and I started working at young ages. So it was always that, you know, “You can do it. You think positive. And if you have got a bad day with some bad luck, your positive thinking will bring you through it.” And I really believe that that attitude has prevailed in my company. And even with the economic downturn of late, we have plowed through with, I would say, remarkable success. I am very proud of it and I am proud of what we have done. And we have made some adjustments, but not dramatic adjustments because we felt we were on the right road anyway in positioning, where we are as a brand.

CNBC:
Style says, “His brand is built on the American Dream. So that’s always been about clean-cut sportswear, with a knowing twist and wink.” Do you agree with that? And then, what would you say is a “knowing twist and wink”? What do they mean when they say that?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I agree with what Style says. But we have always been a clean-cut sportswear brand from the very, very beginning. But we have always put a wink or twist into it. In the lining, in the trim, we have done something different to set ourselves apart from the competition. Even in color. And even in sometimes a surprise, where you’ll look inside the lining and find a little bit of a wink.

CNBC:
Tell me a little bit about philanthropy and your desire to give back. You have the young people building community centers. Tell me how important that is—to you personally.

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Many years ago, it was my dream to make enough money to be able to write a check to my hometown community center to help rebuild it and give young children with, you know, with needs…a place to go, a place to learn, a safe haven. And that spilled over into my love for the Fresh Air Fund and building a summer camp outside of New York City. To take children out of the ghettos of New York City every summer and put them into this summer camp, in this program. Well, health is also a big issue. My sister has MS. I have been very involved with Nancy Davis’ Race to Erase MS. I am involved with Evelyn Lauder’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation. And we are involved in AIDS charities. We are involved in different cancer groups. We are involved in—of course now—a big push to give Haiti some relief with the CFDA and with some other groups. We feel very strongly in giving back. We put a substantial amount of money into helping build the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C. We are, we are the first U.S. corporation to step up and, and write a check. But our new motive in the beginning—or in the, in the future—is to put money into the Millennium Promise, where we are adopting a village in Africa—in Uganda. And we are reaching out to help build schools and bring water to these people and to bring medicine and to actually help these people find a better life. CRIME INC: COUNTERFEIT GOODS. It’s a global effort for us. We have been involved with UNICEF globally. We believe, as a company, that it is not only the right thing to do but it’s incredibly satisfying.

CNBC:
Do you think giving back is a corporate responsibility that every company should, should be involved somehow?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I think every person has a duty to give back something – as little or as much as they possibly can…but to do something. And the, the feeling of satisfaction you derive from it is, I think, well, something you can’t even imagine; something you can’t even describe. Because when you see, well, the faces of these young children light up in sending them to a summer camp, or when you see a breakthrough in medicine take place, it’s amazing how that actually makes you feel.

CNBC:
Fashion Week. It is your big yearly event. Tell me a little bit about how exciting that still is for you…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, Fashion Week is always exciting. It’s where we have the opportunity to show the world what we are designing for next year, next fall. So we are busy working on all the details. The music, the lighting, the staging, the casting of the models getting the clothes made properly…on time from the factories. The shoes, the accessories… It’s really sort of our Super Bowl if you—if, if you could say that.

CNBC:
Do you still get a thrill from being very popular among the celebrity set and seeing celebrities wearing your clothing?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
I get a thrill out of what I do every day. Whether it’s watching the school teacher wear my clothes on the street, or whether it’s watching someone like Hillary Swank wear my clothes, it’s very exciting to me to think that, well, we could actually make clothes people love. And I think as exciting as when I travel to China or, um, Turkey and, and seeing people on the streets wearing my clothes, and when I see my stores in Poland and Germany and Yugoslavia and Rio de Janeiro busy selling product to locals and… When I am in an airport watching someone wear my clothes, it’s a very self-satisfying feeling… But I always think we can do better.

CNBC:
Great. Anything else?

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, this is our 25th anniversary, this next year. And it seems like yesterday we started this company.

CNBC:
That’s quite a, quite an accomplishment, 25 years…

TOMMY HILFIGER:
Well, when I look at others, we are spring chickens, because there are competitors who have been in business 40-some years—or more—and they are still alive and well, so we got a long way to go.

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