Designer Profiles: Tommy Hilfiger


The man behind the famous red, white and blue

The bold red, white and blue that has become symbolic with the name Tommy Hilfiger. The1970s served as a testing ground for his enormously popular brand before it became widely available. It wasn't until 1984, when he was persuaded to develop a men's sportswear line under his name, that he shot into the stratosphere of international acclaim and fashion success.

Early childhood and adolescence

On March 24, 1951, Tommy Hilfiger was born in Elmira, New York, to a working-class Irish-American family. He was the second of nine children. His father, Richard, worked as a watchmaker at a local jewelry shop, and Virginia, his mother, was a registered nurse. As a high school student at Elmira Free Academy, Tommy Hilfiger did not excel as an athlete (he was so little that he had to smuggle 15-pound weights into his pockets to be allowed to play football) or as a student (he had undiagnosed dyslexia).

His first entrepreneurial endeavour

Hilfiger's entrepreneurial spirit, on the other hand, was apparent from an early age. He started purchasing jeans in New York City during his adolescence, which he then refurbished and resold in Elmira for a profit. Hilfiger launched The People's Place, his first business venture, when he was 18 years old. He sold hippie style items like bell-bottoms, incense, and music to the residents of Elmira. Hilfiger's store initially was wildly successful—he quickly had a network of shops and a six-figure income—until a downturn in the economy took a toll on his operations, and he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1977.

Susie Carona, an employee at one of Hilfiger's businesses, became the object of his affections in 1976. Immediately after the bankruptcy, the pair married and relocated to Manhattan. Their employment as a husband-and-wife design team with Jordache's fashion firm was short-lived and they were sacked after just one year on the job. Hilfiger had a reputation as a hardworking young designer and sought positions at Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, among other companies. But his ultimate goal was to design for his own label.

Affluence and prosperity

Tommy Hilfiger in a Fur Coat

After being contacted by Indian entrepreneur Mohan Murjani, who was seeking a designer to head up his men's sportswear business, Hilfiger agreed to work with him. Murjani agreed to let Hilfiger create the label under his name. An aggressive marketing effort, which featured a large billboard in New York City's Times Square declaring Hilfiger as the "next great thing in American fashion," was launched by the duo to herald Hilfiger's debut on the scene. As Hilfiger said to a reporter in 1986, "I believe that I am the next great American designer." "The next Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein".

Hilfiger's brazen self-promotion was derided by the fashion elite. This even led to a yelling match between the billboard’s developer and Tommy Hilfiger himself in a bustling New York restaurant. Even though Hilfiger was embarrassed by the reception of his own proclamation, this bold and aggressive approach worked. Hilfiger's line of preppy garments, which included his characteristic red, white, and blue logo, became enormously popular. The fledgling brand courted rappers and celebrities to promote and endorse Tommy Hilfiger. The culmination of all this work was Snoop Dogg’s 1994 Saturday Night Live performance where he wore a Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt, leading to record sales for the designer.

Snoop Dogg 1994 SNL Performance

Despite Hilfiger's financial success, he was still shunned by the fashion establishment. The Council of Fashion Designers of America opted not to award the honor in 1994 when Hilfiger was the frontrunner for the coveted Designer of the Year Award since his commercial and minimalistic designs were deemed unworthy.

Hard times

Hilfiger and his wife, after 20 years of marriage and with whom he had four children, divorced in 2000. Alongside this his self-titled brand were experiencing a downturn. The popularity amongst youth and hip-hop culture had cooled off and sales declined by as much as 75%. Tommy Hilfiger had lost its perception as the ‘cool new brand’. In his own words “the enormous logos and the big red, white, and blue motif were everywhere”. The massive oversupply created a generic brand image that people wanted to separate themselves from. Realizing his mistake, Hilfiger altered his business model and decided to limit accessibility to his most popular collections by exclusively selling them through Macy’s.

Personal and professional rejuvenation

After marrying his second wife, Dee Ocleppo, in December 2008, Hilfiger and his wife welcomed their son Sebastian into the world in August 2009. He sold his once-profitable firm to the clothes behemoth, Phillips-Van Heusen, for a stunning $3 billion in May of that year. In 2012, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) presented him with the Geoffrey Beane Lifetime Achievement Award.

Today, Hilfiger remains the brand's chief designer, and you can find Tommy Hilfiger stores in more than 1,400 locations across 90 countries.

Designer profiles

Can't get enough of these designer profiles and learning about the iconic figures who shaped fashion over the years? The click here to check out our collection of designer profiles.


For more fashion news and updates, stay tuned to OneOff Vintage.

Also, we stock rarest vintage Tommy Hilfiger from the last 4 decades. So whether it's a block colour polo or a Tommy Jeans pair of jeans that you're looking for, you should checkout our full range. We usually stock a mix of Nike, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and much much more.

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing
The cookie settings on this website are set to 'allow all cookies' to give you the very best experience. Please click Accept Cookies to continue to use the site.
You have successfully subscribed!
This email has been registered