Tommy Hilfiger on ‘new American classics’ and why fashion is important

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: An iconic American fashion designer tells his story.

Tommy Hilfiger talked with our Jeffrey Brown at the Miami Book Fair about his new book, “American Dreamer: My Life in the Fashion Business.”

It is the latest edition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why write a memoir? Why did you stop life and write this thing?

TOMMY HILFIGER, Author, “American Dreamer: My Life in the Fashion Business”: Look, I had been asked to write it over the years by a few different people. And I kept saying, no, no, no, I think I will wait until I’m much older.

And then it dawned on me that I might forget a lot in my later years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: My mind is very fresh now. I have got a lot of energy, so I thought, you know what, for my children’s sake, I would like to take the reader through my journey chronologically.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about coming of age in the ’60s. Did you know what you wanted to do early, at the beginning?

TOMMY HILFIGER: I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

And what I really didn’t know was that I was dyslexic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: And my grades were very, very poor in school. So, I really thought I was one of the dumb ones.

And I think my teachers also agreed with that, and certainly my father, who held the bar very high for me, agreed with that. And then, when this whole music revolution came about, I was obsessed with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, all of the rock groups and rock stars.

And I thought, well, I want to be a rock star. But I really couldn’t play and I couldn’t sing. But I looked like…

JEFFREY BROWN: So far, you were millions …

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The rest of us, right? We all wanted to be rock stars, yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: But I looked the part. I had long hair, bell bottoms.

And a lot of my friends wanted to know where I got my clothes. And a couple of other buddies and I put together our $150 we had saved from working part-time jobs, bought 20 pairs of jeans and opened a shop, at 18 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? At that moment, was there a plan or a future that you envisioned? Or was this just sort of making it up as you go along?

TOMMY HILFIGER: Making it up as we went along. I thought, if I could build my own brand, I could do whatever I want to do with it. I could design it myself. I could market it the way I want to market it.

I was born in Elmira, New York, a very small town in Upstate New York. So, I thought, if I move to New York City, I could really begin to plant seeds to build my own brand. I wanted to build a brand that that was creative and exciting and unique. But I wanted to make it into a real business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: And I wanted to distinguish my look from everyone else’s.

I decided that I should create new American classics. So, I looked at all of the preppy clothes I had worn as a very young boy. And I thought they were very boring and very tired. So, I said, OK, Well, how do I redesign these?

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you sum up what you didn’t like most of all?

TOMMY HILFIGER: I didn’t like the fit. I didn’t like the feel of the fabric. I didn’t like that it was too mediocre, so to speak.

So, I thought, I’m going to make everything, like, relaxed, colorful, detailed. But I wanted to build it for a broad audience. And I wanted it to be as aspirational, affordable, accessible.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book takes us through a lot of success, but, of course, a lot of problems along the way as well.

TOMMY HILFIGER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there moments where you thought, this isn’t going to work?

TOMMY HILFIGER: A couple of times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: I mean, once in particular, I thought, I should just hang it up, because I was being ridiculed, and I thought I had made this enormous mistake by doing this advertising campaign created by this advertising genius, George Lois.

He said, look, you just need one ad. You need one ad to allow the public to at least learn your name.

So, he created this ad campaign that compared me with all the big names in the business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

TOMMY HILFIGER: And when we ran that, it was very controversial.

But people learned that there was a Tommy Hilfiger fashion designer out there, and they should go look at the clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is fashion important? Or is it important? I mean, what is it, in the end, do you think?

TOMMY HILFIGER: Look, there are many more important things in life than fashion. But fashion, to me, is part of pop culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

TOMMY HILFIGER: And I’m an art collector. I’m obsessed with art and pop culture.

And I say that there is FAME, F-A-M-E, fashion, art, music and entertainment, including celebrity, that really moves the needle in society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Looking back at your whole life, right, and you are remembering, does that young kid seem like you? I mean, do you see a clear thread from when you went back to look up to today?

TOMMY HILFIGER: Yes, because I was always a very positive-thinking person.

I mean, other than a couple of moments in time, I always thought that, some way, I’m going to make it. I’m just going to make it. And I’m not going to give up. And I’m going to realize that dream.

So, I never gave up. And I have realized the dream, and I enjoy every moment of every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, the book is “American Dreamer: My Life in the Fashion Business.”

Tommy Hilfiger, thank you very much.

TOMMY HILFIGER: Thank you very much.

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