Mr Hilfiger, you grew up in the small town of Elmira in the state of New York. In 1969 you had the idea to open the fashion boutique People’s Place there, which quickly became the hang-out for a local scene of young like-minded people. What sparked the idea to sell clothes?
1969 was the summer of Woodstock. There was a fashion revolution taking place – and a music revolution as well, of course. I saw fashion and music colliding. What was missing were brands and stores that offered cool clothes for young Americans. Musicians were wearing them but they were coming from England or were being made as custom pieces. So, I decided to find these clothes and offer the look to my customers in my own shop.
People’s Place was the first time you turned your fashion sensibility into a business. Later on, with your own brand, you had many more moments in which you made the right decision at the right time. How do you know that the world is ready for a certain idea?
Back then we were living the lifestyle, we were feeling it. And when you are feeling it, it is much easier to detect what people want, sometimes before they know that they want it. A lot back then had to do with music, art, fashion and TV. But also of course with Hollywood and what was going on in sports. I took all of that inspiration, put it into a mental blender and continued to evolve the look until I started my own brand. With that I decided to focus more on what precisely it was that gave my fashion sensibility a backbone.
The first store he opened in his home town at the age of 20 was called People’s Place.
Tommy and his friends loved the clothes musicians were wearing, but couldn’t buy them anywhere. He closed this gap.
To sense the people’s taste, is that a talent?
I think you need to have drive. You have to have a nose for it. You have to be appreciative of visualisation and you have to understand pop culture. But in order to execute and make something good, you have to be around great people. I always thought I should hire people who are much more intelligent than I am. So, it’s always been my vision, but it was made possible by working with a great team.
That seems more important than ever. Through social media and the internet, fashion has become omnipresent in our culture. Do you have the feeling it is more complicated to sense the zeitgeist today in comparison to when you started out in the ’60s?
I believe fashion has always been part of the pop culture and it’s even more so now as a result of social media. Hollywood stars want to become designers, musicians want to become designers, Hollywood and music want to wear cool clothes. Sport stars want their own brand and more than ever are interested in wearing fashionable clothes. I think we are again really living in the eye of the storm.
Do you find it difficult to balance the particular style of the Tommy Hilfiger brand and the need to react to all these new influences?
I think you need a signature core for everything you are doing, whether you have a restaurant or you are running an automobile company like Mercedes-Benz. But you can’t only rely on that. You also have to evolve and constantly add new ideas.
A very recent move to stay at the centre of the zeitgeist is the collaboration with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton. What makes him a good fit for the brand?
Lewis and I became friends. And while getting to know him, I noticed that Lewis was very fashionable and really passionate not only about racing but music and clothes. I see him as a pop culture icon. In our many conversations, we started to talk about doing something together. He came up with the idea of starting a TommyXLewis line. He was very involved in design, direction, the marketing. Always with tremendous passion.
Can you think of a particular topic where that showed?
Well, we talked about the logo at length and we went back and forth, back and forth with the graphic artist to really perfect it. We really do believe we came up with a perfect solution. Lewis is hard-working, he is humble, grateful, appreciative, but he is very driven!
Yes. Well, that is the excitement we need, otherwise it would be boring. I don’t want a boring life. I don’t want to become too similar to the competition. I always want to stay a step ahead or differentiate from others.
Clothes have never been discussed and appreciated more than today. Still, there are people who say about themselves that they don’t care about fashion. Is that even possible?
It is hard not to care. Because if nothing else, there is still the aspect of comfort, of weather. So, are you really not going to worry about what you are wearing on a sunny day versus a snowy day? I really believe everyone cares on some level.
Numbers, for example, show that men, who were considered fashion sceptics for a long time, do engage more. The menswear market has been growing considerably during the last years.
Yes, it’s growing more than ever before. Men are particularly interested in the quality, the fit, the brand. Women will open their scope and look more for fashion first than the brand and what their friends think. Men are more loyal to a brand or a certain look that is appropriate for them. Women tend to keep changing and moving forward.
To connect with a young, very fashion-forward crowd, Tommy Hilfiger did a collaboration with the avant-garde label Vetements. Was that something unique or are you planning to do collaborations more often that embrace a more daring side of fashion?
Working with a label like Vetements is exciting and important for us. The condition would be that the brand we collaborate with is like-minded. I have tremendous respect for Demna Gvasalia, the designer behind Vetements, and what they do. And I know they have respect for us. Demna grew up wearing Tommy Hilfiger while he was a teen. You have to have mutual respect. For us these collaborations are particularly exciting because they give us a reason to design something that we maybe haven’t done before.
Besides fashion and pop culture, an important inspiration for you has always been cars. What do you appreciate about them?
I have always loved architecture and design, and I think the design of automobiles is intriguing. I think Mercedes-Benz has done an awesome job in creating some of the finest automobiles in the world. I like the design aspect, I like the quality. I like that they are stepping forward with excitement while still maintaining the core. This is how I approach my work as well. There is this similarity where you have a strong foundation but also the excitement to move the consumer forward.
Is there a Mercedes-Benz in your collection that you appreciate most?
I own a 250 SL, which I love. It’s from 1971.
And do you take it out for a drive now and then?
Of course, but only on a beautiful day.
Tommy Hilfiger always had an infallible feel for a style that has its origin in American culture, but a global appeal.