Tommy Hilfiger on building his brand and realizing his dream

In the world of American fashion, there are names that stand out as icons, like Tommy Hilfiger. The upstart designer took the world by storm more than 30 years ago. Now he’s out with a new memoir, “American Dreamer: My Life in Fashion & Business.”

tommy-hilfiger-book-cover-thumb.jpg

Hilfiger reveals how, with no formal training, he helped grow a brand loved by celebrities. It has about $6.5 billion in global sales.

Hilfiger’s dreams began in the small New York town of Elmira where he grew up the second of nine children in a working-class family.

“I had a dream to build a brand. Build my own brand,” he said.

To him, building a brand meant creating a lasting image and products.

“It would mean that there were products behind the name that were credible, authentic, accessible, affordable and cool,” Hilfiger told “CBS This Morning.” 

“And wholesome. Americana. Red, white and blue. How did you come up with red, white and blue?” asked co-host Gayle King.

“Well, I knew I needed a logo, so I looked at Nike’s swoosh and when Phil Knight took the name Nike off the swoosh, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do someday. I want my flag to be so known that eventually I can take my name off it and people would recognize it,’” he said. 

ctm-1101-tommy-hilfiger-gayle-king.jpg

“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King visits designer Tommy Hilfiger’s Connecticut home. 

CBS News

Long before Hilfiger was a brand, he was a store owner. He began People’s Place in high school, bringing hippie fashions to upstate New York, while he learned important lessons in commerce.

“I had an early bankruptcy with the business before I was 25. And that gave me my MBA — taught me how to focus on the business part of the business,” Hilfiger said.

“When you first started, you weren’t necessarily embraced and praised in the fashion industry,” King said.

“Well, we ran an ad campaign devised by a genius by the name of George Louis,” Hilfiger said. “And it compared me to the other great American designers and I was completely unknown. So when that ad ran, people looked at me and said, ‘Who does he think he is?’”

“Because you’re comparing yourself, in this ad, to Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein,” King said.

“But George Louis had the idea that he would make the name famous overnight and then the audience would come to look, to see, to shop and buy. And it worked!” Hilfiger said.

“So when did you have the moment when you realized, ‘OK, I am good at what I do’?” King asked. 

“Very recently,” Hilfiger said.
 
“Get out of here, Tommy!” King said.

“No, it took me a long time,” Hilfiger replied. “Because I like to look at myself or our business as being the underdog because it makes us work harder, be more motivated, be more aware of the competition around and what’s going on, and it drives us.”  

In 1994, Snoop Dogg wore Tommy Hilfiger shirt on “Saturday Night Live.”

“What did that do for your brand?” King asked.

“It lit the whole street fashion on fire,” Hilfiger said.

“Like immediately,” King said.

“Immediately. I mean, Snoop was performing on SNL, and Monday morning in Bloomingdales, it was selling out,” Hilfiger said.

Just like that, Hilfiger was the hottest thing in hip hop — until rumors circulated claiming that Hilfiger had said his clothes weren’t made for minorities.

“It turned out to be a very vicious rumor, Tommy, and you write in the book that it hurt your heart and it hurt your integrity,” King said.

“It really did. Because at the end of the day, your integrity is all you have. And I didn’t want the public to think that I was that type of person. … Oprah was kind enough to call me up and say, ‘You’ve got to come on the show. Let’s squash the rumor,’” Hilfiger said.

Oprah called it a “big, fat lie.”

“In the book you say you believe you know who’s behind it, but you don’t share who that is,” King said.

“I believe it’s someone who was jealous of our success,” Hilfiger said.

“Have you ever confronted the person who you think is behind it?”

“No. I want to move on and I want to focus on doing the best I can do with my philanthropy, with our brand. With being a great family man.”

Hilfiger has seven children and says being dad is job number one. It’s a role especially important to him after a difficult relationship with his own father. He said he looks back and thanks his dad for “raising the bar.”

“He wanted me to be the best. And at the time, I didn’t realize it,” Hilfiger said, choking up. “Excuse me. You know, I thought he was being too tough on me. But maybe the reason I’m successful today is because I wanted to prove to him that I could be all that he wanted me to be.”
 
“You say that when you filed for bankruptcy, one of the hardest things was telling your dad that it didn’t work out,” King said.

“Yeah, it was a tough day,” Hilfiger said. “But as a positive thinker, I pulled up my boot straps and I said, ‘I’m going to start over and I’m going to realize my dream.’ Which is happening today.”