The last session of the last day of NRF 2018 was devoted to an interview of designer Tommy Hilfger, conducted by Michelle Peluso, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of IBM. The session was occasioned by a recently announced joint project among Hilfiger, IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Infor Design and Tech Lab; called Reimagine Retail, the project is intended to show how artificial intelligence tools can give retailers an edge in terms of speed, as well as equip the next generation of retail leaders with new skills using AI in design.
Peluso asked Hilfiger to begin with an overview of his career, beginning at the beginning. “It was 1969,” Hilfiger said. “I was 18 years old, and I was really afraid of going to college, because I wasn’t a great student. But I was a dreamer, and what I dreamed about was opening my own store. So I got together with a couple of friends, we put $150 together, bought 20 pairs of bell-bottom jeans from the streets of New York City, sold them out of a basement and created what we called People’s Place, using candles and incense. It was not only a clothing boutique but a whole experience.”
The lesson Hilfiger drew from this experience was that he could skip college altogether, teach himself to run a business and do what he wanted to do most — build his own brand. He and his associates expended the People’s Place idea through upstate New York and started developing product. “I was focused on creative and image,” he said, “but not the business.”
This initial phase of his career lasted until he was 25, when his accountant informed him that he was broke. “I said, ‘We’ll take out a bank loan,’ and he said, ‘We already did that. You either need to come up with the money for a bailout or declare Chapter 11.’” The bankruptcy, Hilfiger said, was his version of an MBA.
“From that moment on,” he said, “I taught myself how to understand the business, how to read a balance sheet, how to manage inventory. I became a combination of a business person and a creative person twined together.”
And the rest is history. To get a sense of how this more than 40 years of history has unfolded, Peluso asked Hilfiger what fundamental decisions he had made and what kept him inspired.
“I really wanted to become an American classic brand,” Hilfiger said, “but a different American classic brand. I looked at Ralph Lauren, who was very British. I looked at Oscar de la Renta, who was very fancy. I wanted to be cool, American relaxed — and I wanted to take that preppie all-American look and shake it up by giving it a real pop-culture vibe.
“So I came up with this idea that my whole brand should be based on fame and fashion and art, using entertainment. I began using celebrities in my ad campaigns 30 years ago, including a lot of unknowns. When I used Britney Spears, nobody really knew who she was. I used this girl by the name of Beyoncé who was 16, plus non-unknowns like Usher and the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. I was using celebrities thinking that their fans will also come to my brand. We’re still doing it, only channeling more through social media.”
“How do you manage to keep seeming intentional in the public view,” Peluso asked, “with all these different influences and design members?”
“I really believe, whether you’re a retailer, a manufacturer, a designer, a brand, you have to evolve without losing your base,” Hilfiger said. “My fear has always been that we would age out, so I wanted to keep the brand young. I have surrounded myself with young people, young people on the creative team, on the business side, the consumer — I want to continually evolve and look at what is next but always be listening to the consumer. We’re always striving to find the right balance between tradition and innovation, but reinvention and disruption has served us very well.”
One of the hallmarks of the Hilfiger approach, Peluso noted, is “buy it now.” His version of a runway show is basically a combination of a celebrity rally, a nightclub stage show with a lot of guest performers, and a concession stand where you can buy what you see onstage. You don’t have to wait till next spring. You don’t even have to wait till tomorrow.
“See now, buy now works for us with the brand,” Hilfiger said. “It allows us to stay in touch with the youthful consumer, and really, I think, the retailer. If you’re waiting for consumers to come into your stores you may be waiting a very long time, and I’m quite impatient. I don’t want to wait a long time, so I want to bring it to them. I want to bring them the experience, the immediate gratification in the product — the see now, buy now.”
In closing, Hilfiger urged designers — and retailers — to do everything they can to stay current. “If you fall behind,” he said, “catching up may not be an available option.”