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Tommy unplugged

Boby Kurian

In India recently to open his stores, Tommy Hilfiger gave Catalyst an exclusive interview. Read on to learn more about a man who's right there up among the all-time great American designers.

Tommy Hilfiger exploded on the New York scene with a billboard proclaiming him one of the four great American designers alongside Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Perry Ellis. The large billboard on Times Square went up even before his new company hadsold a single piece of clothing at the time. Call it brashness or what you will but this is just another anecdote from the eventful journey of the `all American' designer who built a multi-billion dollar business from his eponymous line of clothing.

Hilfiger was in India to unveil the first set of stores in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and renew his ties with the country which date back to 1978, when he was still a rookie. He feels "very positive" about building a wonderful lifestyle business in India along with Arvind Brands Ltd and the family of Mohan Murjani, who had faith in the designer's potential and played a significant role in his success. In an expansive interview - he largely shied away from the media during his recent visit to India - Tommy Hilfiger talks about business, success and the travails that come along with it. And about just how hard he is working to reverse the fortunes of the business that slipped a bit in recent years.

Meet Thomas Jacob Hilfiger, 53, born into a family of five girls and four boys in upstate New York. His father worked in a jewellery store, fixing watches and jewellery; his mother was a nurse. Not for him such modest careers. He set out to be a great American designer and evolved into a fashion powerhouse. He picked up the power of `urban wear' and its emerging influence rather early in his career. The debate on whether he is more of a marketing genius or a great designer continues. The recent downturn in the business may have been a setback, but Tommy's reputation as one of the greatest names in fashion business is intact. Excerpts from an exclusive interview to Catalyst in Bangalore where he had come to launch his new store:

How does Tommy Hilfiger feels as he renews his ties with India?

My relationship with this country goes back to the '70s. I first came here in 1978 and then made frequent visits in the '70s and '80s but not so later. I fell in love with Bombay on my first visit.

You once famously said: "I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to build a brand of clothing around my own attitude and my own lifestyle." As one of the most recognisable names in fashion, how would you like to introduce Brand Tommy Hilfiger here?

I want it the same way as I introduced it to the world. No different. Great quality, great fabrics, classics with a twist, sort of evolving all the time with newness, fun, colourful and with a lot of positive energy in it. I think Indians love fashion. They are up-to-date on anything and everything from electronics to automobiles. They want good fashion. There isn't a lot of really good fashion here other than traditional fashion. I think people like both.

How is the brand currently faring in the world?

We are strongest in the US because of sheer volumes. We are the fastest growing in Europe. We are the No 1 designer brand in Central America, South America and Canada. We are within the top ten in Japan with lot of competition. And our business is strong in South-East Asian markets like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore. We are setting up all over China. But India is a new horizon for us.

You are credited with identifying the power of `urban wear' and the emerging influence of this concept on Generation X and Y. But has the uniqueness of Tommy Hilfiger the brand slipped a bit in recent years?

I will tell you what happened. We were very American classic in the beginning. We then picked up a lot of young people in all different sectors as we increased our presence. The urban street kids made it widely popular as they were wearing the red white and blue logo. Then we reached a plateau. So we added womenswear, which is now a very big force and the largest part of the entire business. We added childrenswear. This way, we added two-thirds volume to the business. And when the competitors started taking the share from us in the urban area, we began to broaden our appeal to both young and old alike. We added a golf wear line, which has been very successful. We became a little bit more sophisticated in our textile and other offerings. As a result of that we introduced recently in US a new line, H Hilfiger, which is much more sophisticated, much more grown up and much more expensive. The urban kids are growing up and they need more sophistication and more quality as well. So they are all coming back.

Critics argue Tommy Hilfiger lost some steam because of "overbranding". Do you agree?

Any power brand has this conflict at times of over-distributing and becoming overly popular. If you look at all the big brands in the world - Nike, McDonald, Coca Cola - where is the line? I think because our logos and our brand became so much in demand in the world there was a point at which people looked at it and said we are over exposing. Having said that, we have done research, and our name is the second-most recognised name in fashion in America and is on the list of the world's top five. So, I don't know whether we would have achieved this if we didn't have so much of branding out there.

The argument is that Tommy Hilfiger is more of a marketing genius than a great designer. They say your success lies in spotting marketing opportunities in niche cultures and fusing it with the mainstream fashion.

I have two answers to that. One, every successful mega designer brand has a leader who is a business person and a creative person. They are businesspeople who are marketing-savvy and also creative. Armani is perhaps the most successful. He is an incredible marketer and an incredible creative genius. Ralph Lauren is another one. So is Calvin Klein. None of these guys would have been able to do what they have done had they been not marketing people. Secondly, what I wanted to point out is the marketing of Tommy Hilfiger. Music, and involving musicians, has been a great inspiration for the brand. Like sort of putting rock n' roll or hip-hop into the brand, and that was something I started my business with, in 1969. So it is not an opportunity I picked up along the way. It is something I believed in from the beginning and something that virtually blossomed in the '90s as a result of our great success and others taking that marketing lead and becoming involved with musicians and dressing them. So it has always been my philosophy. It has worked for me since I was 18 when I started business. Along the way, Hollywood joined in. It became not only musically fused but it was fused with pop culture.

How involved are you with the brand now?

I am totally involved. My real focus is on the product and the image. The image includes marketing, advertising, labelling and what it looks like and what the perception is. In picking designs, fabrics, colours, buttons, guiding and directing.

They say `coolness' is the key attribute of Tommy Hilfiger? After such a long journey, is Tommy still cool?

Cool with a 17-year-old is certainly different from what it is with 45-year-old. Cool is sexy, cool is about using a set of different people from different backgrounds through my entire career. There are different definitions to the word and we are behind all these definitions in a real way because of the fact that when we are developing the product we are doing the real thing - the authentic clothes they actually wear.

Perhaps one of the lows in your life was caused by a vicious Internet rumour that suggested Tommy Hilfiger was a racist and had made some comments against African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians during an Oprah show. How did it hurt you and the brand?

I would say it affected me personally much more than anything else. It was so untrue. I was never on the Oprah show. Oprah herself said Tommy was never on the show and I know he would never do it. But you know in America where the competition is very, very strong there are envious people who would do almost anything to create some havoc for the opposite team. We have to live with that. Smart people know the difference. Our business grew dramatically during that time. We went from $1 billion wholesale sales to $2 billion. So, if it did hurt us we can't calculate it.

Tommy Hilfiger the brand has had some setbacks in recent years, and is making a comeback now. Are you able to take the different consumer segments along with you?

The business always has ebbs and flows. You really can't have reasons for these. Any tough company should be strong enough to sustain all that. It's wonderful to have all the businesses doing consistently well. But that is not the way the world is.

Tommy Hilfiger is happy to be in India. Can you explain it a bit?

The Indian economy is soaring. I think Indian people love brands. We have a partnership with Arvind and the Murjani family and it doesn't get better than that. We are also powerful enough as a brand to move into a country and do well. There isn't another American designer on this soil. Maybe because they don't know it, maybe because they don't understand it, maybe because they don't care. I understand it, I care about it, I am excited about it and I feel very positive that we are going to build a wonderful lifestyle business here.

In many ways you have lived your passion. How do you see Tommy Hilfiger the brand panning out?

Tommy the brand is a phenomenon to me. I never expected it to grow so fast. I have a duty to my customers and to myself to make sure that this is a great brand. The way to do it is to work really hard. It is all about being passionate. There was a time when I wasn't working as hard. I was in a quandary whether to go on with the business. It plateaued and I was thinking, maybe it is over. I really did some soul-searching. One morning I woke up and decided I was never going to sell the business. I had to do what I love and what I do the best. So I hired a CEO to handle the business part of the business. I could spend more time on the creative. As a result of that we have seen dramatic growth in our product line and in our growth.

You are talking about the troubled late '90s, aren't you?

Yes. The late '90s is when the business began to slow. The discounters came in and started selling copies and all other things at terribly low prices. The chains like Gap and Banana Republic were doing very well. We hadn't yet seen success in Europe. My partners sold out. Then God told me to go back to work, focus on creative and said it will all come back. And he has done that. The European business kicked in, the women's business kicked in, the South American business came back. We closed some bad real estate in the US but replaced them with new stores in the Europe and throughout South-East Asia. We decided to hold our reins a bit. In fact, the foray into India is our first international venture since 1999. We decided to cut on some distribution and upgrade all of the product, all of the fabric, all of the detail and all the advertising. Everything was a bit more expensive also. The customers didn't care. They wanted a great product. And, we put our heart and soul in it.

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