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Tommy Hilfiger turns to supermodel, carnival party to drum up excitement

The next stop on Tommy Hilfiger's comeback cruise docked in downtown Manhattan Friday.

There, on a pier overlooking the East River, the 31-year-old brand hosted its first fashion show for consumers. Not only were everyday fashionistas invited to the carnival-themed spectacle, but they were able to purchase looks straight from the runway.

Tommy's refreshed approach to fashion week comes as the label is in the midst of a turnaround. Once a harbinger of '90s cool, the brand's widespread popularity — driven by the adoption of consumers outside its typical prepster audience — are what later caused it to flounder.

But the label, still under the creative leadership of its namesake designer, is starting to get its groove back. During the second quarter, owner PVH said Tommy's sales rose 6 percent to $860 million. That followed a 3 percent lift in the first quarter, and reversed a 6 percent sales decline for fiscal year 2015.

Gigi Hadid and Tommy Hilfiger during the Tommy Pier fashion show in New York on Sept. 9th, 2016.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Gigi Hadid and Tommy Hilfiger during the Tommy Pier fashion show in New York on Sept. 9th, 2016.

The brand still has a way to go. In particular, the recovery in its North American and women's businesses is lagging that of its international and men's segments.

While net sales in Tommy's international business increased 11 percent in the second quarter, excluding the impact of currency fluctuations, its domestic sales grew a more tepid 3 percent on that basis. Company-owned stores, which include major flagships in tourist cities, have weighed most heavily on U.S. results.

PVH also sees opportunity to grow Tommy's womenswear business. Through recently signed partnerships with supermodel Gigi Hadid and manufacturer G-III, CEO Manny Chirico has said he sees room for the category's penetration to increase from roughly one-quarter of the brand's sales today, and eventually becoming closer to half.

In particular, Chirico has said Tommy's partnership with G-III could help grow Tommy's U.S. women's wholesale business from less than $200 million and marginally profitable, to $1 billion with a profitable royalty stream, Chirico has said.

"I think it's doable," Cowen & Co. analyst John Kernan said about reaching $1 billion.

Gigi Hadid and Models walk through water at Tommy Hilfiger Women's Spring 2016 during New York Fashion Week
Randy Brooke | Tommy Hilfiger | Getty Images
Gigi Hadid and Models walk through water at Tommy Hilfiger Women's Spring 2016 during New York Fashion Week

G-III already owns the women's fashion licenses for PVH's Calvin Klein label, which it helped cross that $1 billion threshold. It also designs and manufactures Tommy's dresses, men's and women's outwear and luggage. G-III's new contract with PVH pertains to Tommy's women's collections, and will include sportswear and denim. Chirico told investors that this partnership should lead to a more elevated presentation of Tommy in stores, as well as higher selling prices.

Also helping drive the brand's credibility is a tie-up with 21-year-old Hadid, who turned heads at last year's spring show when she walked the runway in a colorful string bikini. Hadid recently signed on as the brand's global ambassador, and will be featured in its fall advertising push. She also collaborated with Tommy on a collection that was shown on Friday's catwalk.

"A major focus of our fall campaign will be our women's business," Chirico told analysts last month.

Tommy Pier carnival setting for the Tommy Hilfiger fashion show in New York on Sept. 9th, 2016.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Tommy Pier carnival setting for the Tommy Hilfiger fashion show in New York on Sept. 9th, 2016.

Still, growing women's to 50 percent of Tommy's revenue is a long way off, Kernan said. The category has been slower to recover than men's, in part because of the brand's heavy penetration at outlet malls. Mass distribution at these centers made the brand less desirable to fashion-savvy women; but as its design and fit continue to improve, Tommy is likely to regain traction among this critical group of shoppers, Kernan said.

As for its overall U.S. business, Chirico said there's big opportunity to capture gross margin gains in the second half of the year. That's because last winter, a spate of unseasonably warm temperatures left retailers' shelves stocked with too many jackets and sweaters, pressuring them into unplanned discounts. But this year, department stores have bought fewer items for the second half.

PVH's U.S. wholesale business has grown and shown improvement this year, and has likely been helped by struggles at Ralph Lauren. Still, Chirico said the U.S. remains the "most volatile market that we operate in." That's particularly true for its stand-alone retail stores.

"International tourist traffic and spending continues to weigh on our U.S. retail business," Chrico said.