I really disliked Eighties fashion – the new wave look, big shoulders – so I decided to base my designs on what I’d grown up wearing as a kid: classic American prep. I made it oversized and colourful and added unique details.
In 1985 we opened our first Tommy Hilfiger store, on the Upper West Side, but we didn’t have a lot of money for advertising. So Mohan Murjani, my backer, introduced me to a man called George Lois¹ who he said was an advertising genius.
I told George what I wanted to do – take a great looking model out to the Hamptons, on the beach, with the wind blowing, wearing my casual, cool, preppy menswear and take a beautiful photograph. He said: “You’re crazy! You’ll never become known unless you spend millions and millions of dollars. You won’t stand out from the competition because they are doing something similar.”
A few days later we met again. He showed us these campaigns from a lot of the big brands. It was hard to tell the difference between them. “This”, he said, “is the problem. Unless you do something different – something disruptive – nobody will notice.”
Then he said he had something to show me. He brought out this poster design – we called it the hangman ad – in which I was compared to the most famous menswear designers in America; Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis. It left in only the initials from our names and featured my logo – based on the nautical sign for H – at the bottom, saying this was the logo of the least known of the four.
When I saw it, I was shocked. I thought it would make me look completely ridiculous, and yes, like someone with a lot of chutzpah! But Joel Horowitz, the company’s president, said, “It’s a risk. But you need your name to become known. So why not?” I thought okay, these guys have my best interests at heart. And we’ve got to do something new. So we tried it.
Straight after the billboards went up the phones started ringing. The press machine kicked into high gear². There was a lot of negativity towards me from the fashion world – a lot of “who does he think he is?” and comments that this was boastful and nonsensical: how could I compare myself with the big league?³ But people were saying my name and going into my new store, and into Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s too, to look at the clothes. And they were buying them.
George taught me that taking risks can be good. Today I take them every chance I can –calculated risks – because every time one pays off it entices you to keep looking.