TOMMY, WE CAN HEAR YOU

From bankrupt to king of fashion, entrepreneur Tommy Hilfiger is the American dream. And this year he plans to conquer Britain. Welcome to his world ...

Aliens Landed in Lisbon last summer. They arrived on a billboard: to the bemusement of the locals, tousled Wasps who must have bleached their locks in lemon juice, preened and romped, with the Stars and Stripes flapping behind them. Dusky, grizzled gypsies and stooped widows lugging lengths of salted cod stared up at this fantasy of eugenic American affluence. The placard had a title: "TOMMY HILFIGER," it enigmatically announced, which left the gypsies and the widows none the wiser.

Tommy, however, likes to announce his advent in this way. A decade ago, his advertising copywriter commandeered a billboard above Times Square in New York, on which he inscribed a nonentity's innocuous name among the immortals. "The four great designers for men," the sign announced, "are R**** L*****, P**** E****, C***** K**** and T**** H*******." Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein bristled, and made urgent enquiries throughout the garment district about the anonymous owner of the initials.

At the time, Tommy Hilfiger was (as Oprah Winfrey might put it) a recovering bankrupt, a former trader in flared jeans, which he had scavenged in the hippy dens of the East Village and resold to college students in upstate New York. Now, everyone knows his name. Plenty of Americans wear it, and pay for the privilege of being billboards on legs. President Clinton sports his ties, Hugh Grant wore one of his baseball caps while receiving the ministrations of Divine Brown, and black rappers incite riots while grooving inside what one, Chef Raekwon, calls "Tommy Hill fly shit". The designer has nationalised and incorporated himself as Tommy Hilfiger USA Inc, and those who own shares in him possess the most valuable apparel stock on the American market.

In search of new worlds to conquer, he is currently scoping out Europe. Hence the Lisbon campaign. He decided that the Portuguese needed deodorising, and sent those blonde yuppies on ahead to launch his "effervescent woodsy" fragrance. The gypsies,I am sorry to say, still smell garlicky and uneffervescent. Tommy, after this false start, is on his way north, and will open shops in Chelsea and Bond Street in the next year.

The whole world, if he keeps it up, will sooner or later be Tommyfied. A mission statement - printed on plastic so that his employees can carry it in their wallets along with their organ-donor cards - enjoins them to "Live the Tommy spirit". "I believe," says the spiritual source himself, fantasising about a venture into home furnishings, "in doing lifestyle."

The Man is somewhat smaller than the myth: a dapper elf, with a floppily adolescent page- boy haircut which is rather too young for a man in his mid-forties, and teeth like a row of polished alabaster tombstones. On the day we met at his office in New York, he was gamely struggling inside a Napoleonic great-coat of camel hair. "Oh yes, it's real," avowed one of his attendant publicists. "We go to the desert and find actual camels. No Peter, of course we don't kill them. We shave them, very gently. They feel so much better afterwards." Tommy, tiring of his gigantic, hirsute burden, gave her the coat to carry as her reward.

He lives the spirit named after him in a Connecticut farmhouse, currently being gentrified under his wife's supervision by the sibylline dowagers of Colefax & Fowler. He travels the few miles into Manhattan by helicopter, and tours the shopping malls of the hinterland in his private jet. In April, he begins a self-promoting junket which he calls "The 1997 Tommy Hilfiger World Tour".

Our day together began with him recording an advertisement for Japanese radio, to be broadcast when he arrived in Tokyo a month later. "Hi there," he breathed into the microphone, "I'm here in your wonderful world of Tokyo." The script in fact said "city"; after several fluffs, Tommy managed to get his tongue around the word. He likes to assert that "I really could have been any kind of creative person - an actor, a musician, an athlete." Frankly, his stumbling recital of his own promo made me

wonder about his qualifications as a performer. But, of course, talent matters less than will, and a fanatical belief in one's manifest destiny: "The TOMMY HILFIGER Corporation," as the donor card avows, "is dedicated to living the spirit of the American dream."

Tommy went on, during the ad, to promise autographs to his Japanese customers. "Thank you," he alliteratively smarmed, "for my warm, wonderful welcome." The welcome, of course, had not yet happened, and he was still in the equally wonderful world (or city) of New York. But this is the image business. Tommy sells a feeling as much as a look. To wear one of his creations - the Vintage Classics golfing knits for creaky seniors, the baggy swimming trunks affected by prep boys, or the lurid threads in which the customers Tommy euphemistically calls "ethnic urbans" like to strut and swagger - is to impersonate Tommy himself.

"Great!" choired his cheerleaders when he finally got the radio spot right.

"Tommy," purred the publicist who had been deputed to carry his whiskery coat, "that was just purr-fect."

"Please excuse these chairs for being so low," said Tommy, ushering me into his office. The chair in question, a winged contraption of gleaming leather, swallowed me whole. I peered up, inches from the floor. I am not sure that he should have blamedthe furniture, but rather who positioned it, ensuring that visitors virtually squat, while tiny Tommy - enthroned on the other side of a despot-sized, empty desk - seems to levitate. Behind him, the Empire State building impertinently prodded the clouds. Skyscrapers are clearly bad for the ego.

Tommy's office, where the chairs compel you to genuflect, is a shrine to the synthetic persona with which he has branded his merchandise. Looming behind his head are blow-ups of John Lennon in granny glasses and a pouting Mick Jagger, the heroes of his long-haired, bell- bottomed adolescence. Yet on a shelf beside him is a pile of unbreached books, testifying to his newly rich patrician identity: volumes on country houses, and an inspirational text entitled The Healing Power of Doing Good. In a corner, a mahogany dresser contains a rainbow of expensive shirts which might have come from the wardrobe of Jay Gatsby. Beside it on the floor, items favoured by another of Tommy's constituencies tumble from unkempt cartons: fluorescent lime trainers, which have zip flies as well as laces.

Tommy offered me one of the trainers to try on. My foot disappeared straight into it, followed by most of my leg. Was the zip - I lamely enquired, as the trainer turned into a wader and gobbled up more of me - worn up or down? "It depends," said Tommy with a knowing grin, "on what neighbourhood you're frequenting."

How, soaring above the ghettos in his chopper, did Tommy keep up with the semiotic secrets of the asphalt?

"I make in-store appearances, I sign autographs for the homeboys. Peter, I converse with my fans through my clothes."

Extricating my limb from the yawning shoe, I lowered myself once more into that obsequious chair. Tommy returned to his hydraulic perch, and expatiated on the Tommy spirit.

"Our philosophy is affordable fashion. We're very positive thinking. That billboard you saw in Portugal - it's relaxed, it's fun, it's young. It portrays the American spirit. We're fresh, we're clean. I don't use models who look like they're strung out on heroin. They have to be clean and fresh and healthy, I won't let them scowl. Spend-ing family time with my kids is very comforting for me. We have a Lab and a Westie in Connecti- cut, and chickens and hamsters and turtles.

"No, I don't live a snobby, uppity lifestyle. I donate money to charities. Peter, I care about people. Of course, the bankruptcy in those early years was a bad time for me. But it was a learning experience, too, and we apply the lesson to today's voyage. If you have the right core image, you can parlay that into related products - eyewear, underwear, sleepwear, jewellery, handbags, accessories, shoes. Home furnishings are definitely part of the strategy. We're connected to a pricing structure and a taste level. I want," he concluded, beaming down on me, "to get into things that touch one's emotions."

The business, depending on imagery, owes everything to its manipulation of signs and symbols. Tommy used to fret about the marketability of his name. He was disconcerted when people, imagining him to be Jewish or else a cognate of the James Bond villain, called him Hilfinger. He even patented a more unequivocally Anglo-Saxon version of himself, and planned to call his line Tommy Hill. More recently, his black admirers have wished negritude on him. As the rapper Mobb Deep ineffably puts it, "Tommy was my nigga / And couldn't figure / How me and Hilfiger / Used to move through with vigour." In Tommy's logo, the name has been translated into semaphore, as international as Morse code. The spirit inhabits the letter: the company's signature compresses T and H from the alphabet of maritime flags, and patriotically colours the result red, white and blue.

"I like the nautical flavour," said Tommy. "I love sailing, boats, the sea. No, I don't sail myself. But I like the image - so clean and fresh. And it makes a strong statement. It serves America well."

Was he equating his company with the United States Navy? He meant, I realised, that his logo functioned well - transmitted the correct selling signals - in the American market.

"And, of course, you in Britain can relate to our red, white and blue too, can't you? I am so enamoured of London! I've really got to get myself a townhouse there soon, now we're moving into that market. You know I lived in Chelsea, back in 1973? I had a job in Jean Machine on the King's Road. Yes, I was in retail - but really I was doing research. It was during the denim revolution."

This, unlike the velvet revolution in Prague, was a strictly sartorial event. But for Tommy, politics is a sub-category of fashion. He noted that President Clinton, during a recent press conference to answer questions about the murk of Whitewater and allegations about his campaign finances, had been attired in a Donna Karan suit.

I asked about the ubiquity of his own brand, worn both by weekending merchant bankers and their class enemies in the inner city. Did he, so squeakily clean and effervescently fresh, mind his honorary association with drugs and drive-by violence?

"No, no," said Tommy, gently admonishing me from mid-air. "Rap isn't about anger. It's a fun-loving lifestyle. Let's face it, Peter - doesn't everyone want to be rich? Those kids all want Rolexes, BMWs, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces. That's why my labels and logos are so important to them. They dress like their role models, so they buy into that upscale jet-setting lifestyle through the clothes. And they also," he added with a politically incorrect giggle, "just love bright colours!"

The whole world, in his radiant aerial survey of it, aspires to be Tommy. How could I tell him that it was not my own ambition to commute to the office each morning by helicopter? Overcome by the solemnity of the view, Tommy turned sanctimonious. "These young people, you know, they're trendsetters. They take a brand, and they just bless it. They put a halo over its head. That's what they did with Nike. They blessed it."

Nike, it has to be remembered, was the fleet Greek goddess of victory long before she lent her name to a running shoe. Brands do carry an aura, a whiff of sanctity.

Taking advantage of Tommy's exalted mood, I asked very quietly, "And that's what they've done to you? They've blessed you?"

Tommy, with a reverent hush, said simply, "Yes."

Next, clambering back into his camel pelt to stride across Fifth Avenue, he took me on an abbreviated world tour. The office with the country-sized desk and the elevated chair is in his design studio; a few blocks away he has his corporate headquarters. Several floors are given over to private showrooms where chainstore buyers come every few months to inspect the latest offerings and to order in bulk. The place is a global department store, tiered vertically to exhibit what Tommy calls his "themed

collections".

We began, as the lift doors opened on the 15th floor, in London, among sepia-toned friezes of Big Ben and Tower Bridge. "I call this my Trafalgar Room," said Tommy. "The suits are a cross between Savile Row and Carnaby Street, very classic and very modern. Fresh, don't you think? Feel the quality of that. Fabulous quality!"

I fondled the lapels of a mannequin, shivering at its dead, waxy hands. Its hybrid costume, simultaneously classic and modern, suggested an Athenaeum clubman reading The Face: a pin-striped suit, worn with a virulently green shirt and an electric yellow tie. Like all the models patiently posing in the room, he had no head. Tommy, ducking and diving through the rows of vainglorious torsos, temporarily lent him his own. Here, I realised, was a whole building full of effigies waiting to be turned into Tommy. Was this, now that Tommy is crossing the Atlantic, our collective future?

He caressed a rounded, retro collar. "Now that has somewhat of a Gatsbyesque feeling." Then we were off to another scenic environment: a country club set in autumnal woods, where the accident victims had forgotten to tuck their dress shirts into their pants. In his own private Nantucket, Tommy patted the back of a mannequin who would have had corn-coloured, tangled hair and freckled skin - if, that is, he had owned a head. "He's relaxed, he's living a fun lifestyle," said Tommy. "Very Kennedyesque-looking. Yes," he went on, amazed at how plausible the fantasy sounded, "I'd definitely say he was more Kennedyesque than not."

Another trip in the lift involved some rapid time-travel. "This is Max's Kansas City, the bar on Union Square where I used to hang out with the musicians. It's the glam-rock lifestyle, Peter." A band of guillotine victims, paralysed as they strummed

their guitars, preened in stretch- nylon hipster pants and transparent shantung shirts, purgatorially condemned to remain forever in the Seventies.

As we plummeted to the floor below, Tommy, like a chirpy flight attendant, announced, "And here we are in Gstaad, Switzerland." Decapitated skiers hunched and hurtled against a mural of icy slopes. Tommy fingered the puffed-out tunics of the sportive corpses: "These are breathable, waterproof nylon fabrics. They give a very modern, tech-y feel." Around the corner, we stumbled onto another continent: "This is Pebble Beach, California." Motionless waves mimed on the wall, and the dummies changed into Bermuda shorts. Tommy briskly took inventory. "We're very spirited, our philosophy is sporty - clean and fresh. We make surf boards, snow shoes, skis, athletic equipment. That's our very own mountain bike. See the fixturing over there." He pointed to a mocked-up gym, where a headless hunk strained on the bench press, his muscles erupting through the striped magenta Hilfiger Lycra.

The bodybuilder, despite having left his brain in his locker, was immaculately accessorised. "You see," said Tommy, "even his water bottle is logoed!" Contemplating a world that his designers have made in his name, he knows that God is in the details; the Tommy spirit involves fussing over stitches inside a shirt collar, which no one will ever see. "My name is on all the labels, and I intend to be around for a long time to come. What it's about, Peter, is this: we've got to continually be building a better mousetrap."

Not pausing to repent about this blabber-mouthed metaphor, he turned for confirmation to the woman scuttling along behind him with his camel coat. "Do you agree?" he asked. "Oh, absolutely, Tommy!" she shrilled with evangelical fervour. All over America, I imagined traps, baited and logoed, concussing mice as they queued up with their credit cards.

On the way back to the street, I glanced sideways at a rancid cubbyhole in a corner of Tommy's lobby, where a gruff ogre called Gus sells stale bagels and stewed, scalding coffee. When, I asked, would Gus be branded - dressed in seersucker and given

pain au chocolat and fresh, clean cappuccino to sell?

"I have no plans," said Tommy with a certain asperity, "to get into beverages at this time."

Back In the studio again, he spent the afternoon adopting.

This, to my disappointment, was not a demonstration of how doing good can have a healing power: Tommy was not gathering waifs and strays off the streets and giving them his name to wear. The adoption meeting is a rag-trade rite, which involves the approval of designs for future seasons. The occasion was a march past of swatches, pinned onto boards and pitched by troops of young and puppyishly ardent designers whose job it is to Tommify the world.

Tartans, checks and ginghams sedately paraded by, followed by crested, ivory cricket sweaters and scarlet or orange outfits for bungee jumpers. "I love the palette," murmured Tommy as if he were Tintoretto. "Great themes. The flow is perfect. It's a whole new concept. So fresh! Except for those tie-dyed rugbies. A bit too psychedelic, not clean enough. Which of you guys is dropping acid?" He bared his gleaming funerary teeth at his minions. "And that stripe looks old. Tell a colour story with it. Fresh new patterns. Nice clean white!"

As the hours passed and the boards with the fragmentary samples came and went, I was hypnotised by the lingo of the designers. Every sub-culture has its own private language, but in fashion the play of descriptive adjectives is almost more important

than the product being described. Body parts remain finite, as do the garments which Tommy, Donna and Calvin contrive to cover them with. So how can we be persuaded to buy another slightly different version of the shirt or trousers we bought last year? Only by the intercession of verbal magic: by solemnly repeating those words that invest the nondescript, mass-manufactured item with a soul or spirit, and give it the power to transform and renovate you when you put it on. The Tommy spirit doesn't consist of substantives; it can only be evoked or paraphrased by those talismanic adjectives, which have been worn threadbare by over-use.

"The big doors," said one of Tommy's earnest underlings, "need a constant flow of newness. They want product novelty, they gotta have fresh product before Father's Day. So we'll get a lot of newness out of swim, especially with the cybergraphics. And we're gonna do the logo tonally. We saw some nice polos in Polo yesterday. Polo for fall is heavily logoed, you can totally see it on the floor. We're also going more tonal with the seersucker, manipulating the stripes into tonal. It goes great with

solids too."

"The tonal," intoned Tommy, "looks really fresh. And the curved piecing is very clean and new. Let's go with embroidery. It has the depth and dimension, it looks authentic. Love that diagonal idea! That's a pretty novelty colour. What do we call that? Portofino or Riviera Blue?"

"We theme that one Hawaiian, Tommy. It has more of a Hawaiian feel," said the designer, caressing a fragment of garishly bright cloth as if it were bronzed Polynesian flesh.

"Add up a wind pant," ordered Tommy. "Oh, and put on a flag. Use the underwear elastic."

He then received a report on current turnover at the malls. "The French terry is retailing pretty well, Tommy. Not huge volume - but it gives dimension. The big doors are happy, but we go a step beyond for flagships. These units here are true, true

performance pieces that will be hand-tagged that way. And Tommy, we're gonna double-expose the skis with a mailer. The snowboard is already editorialised."

Tommy nodded sagely, and no doubt converted the jargon into cash. "That board short - now that's a novelty solid. That's a great short."

"Yes Tommy, it has drainage ability. You take a shirting and coat it with acrylic for a trunk. I tell you, Tommy, that board short is bullet- proof. It stands up on its own!" Here, I needed a translation. No, the surfers who wear the shorts do not expect to be shot at while they teeter on the breakers. The heroic diction referred to the item's commercial appeal. Nor do the shorts dispense with a wearer: the designer meant that, meta-phorically, they ask you to buy them. Business has to be conducted in these high, astounding terms. How else can you make the old look new, and provoke another unnecessary purchase?

Tommy meanwhile admonished those who restyle our lives and pin his name on our heads, chests, feet, or the waistband of our underpants. "Go to true inspirations," he said, "and work up to high tech." They all knew what he meant. As I left, he was leading them through a last repetition of the mantra: "Great, just great. I love it. It's clean. It's fresh. Now that's really new."

As the cloudy rhetoric and the roll call of exotic, unvisited places testify, this is a business which trades in the most profitable and irresistible merchandise of all: illusions. Tommy, for his ultimate conjuring trick, has condensed America and poured it into a glass flask. His latest fragrance promises to take you on an olfactory tour of the country. (You are advised to strap on your Hilfiger backpack for the journey, and to take along a Tommy-logoed water bottle.) The scent allegedly distils Kentucky bluegrass and Wyoming cottonwood, blends together Florida grapefruit, Cape Cod cranberries and Vermont red maple, and finds room as well for a whiff of Hawaiian green pineapple. And I should not forget the homey odour of New England

apple pie. In case the thought of all this gives you indigestion before you splash it on, the product can also be imagined symphonically: it has "tangy, citrus accords, wet, fruity accents, and cool, herbal notes." This is no ordinary perfume. It isa genie in a bottle, the Tommy spirit liquefied.

Personally, I could smell none of it. But yes, Tommy did sting when I smeared him on my face, so I suppose he does feel fresh and clean. My face, however, failed to become new when anointed.

On My way back to Greenwich Village, I passed an advertisement for one of Tommy's competitors, which makes him look quite bashful by contrast. Donna Karan has taken over the blank wall of a building and painted her own skyscraping logo across it. The initials DKNY are superimposed on a view of Manhattan, with all those jagged pinnacles which stand for power, riches and the global franchising of the self; inside the DK, the Statue of Liberty - still attired in her demode ball-gown - brandishes her ignited torch. The designer is now the liberator. The poor, tired, huddled masses who yearn to breathe free can do so by stumping up the price of a Donna Karan outfit.

Then, a few blocks on, I noticed a much smaller poster, giving attitude on the side of a phone box. "DKN why?" it cheekily asked. Next to the question mark, a black youth dressed in someone else's cool clothes flexed and glowered. Below him, a caption elaborated on the challenge: "Wilkes- Rodriguez. We want to be Number 1." Tommy, who such a short while ago was a nameless T****, should look over his shoulder. Somewhere in the hinterland, another innocuous ego - or two of them, twinned by that improbable hyphen - is getting ready to go galactic. Fame and fashion are as evanescent and vapid as a fragrance. !

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