Metropolitan Life: 'tommy hill': the clubbing person's Ralph Lauren

Tommy Hilfiger, the USA's trendiest designer, comes to Britain next month. Lucy O'Brien reports
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British clubbers love him. To the US hip hop contingent he is a hero. President Clinton wears his ties, and Fergie sat next to him at a recent New York School of Fashion dinner. At the end of September Tommy Hilfiger, one of the hottest designers in the US, will be launching his first collection in Britain at London Fashion Week. He is also planning to open a flagship shop in Bond Street or Sloane Street early next year.

He's been dubbed a casual Ralph Lauren, with clothing that is relaxed, comfortable yet perfectly tailored. "Mod, hip and fresh," is how he describes his cotton hipsters, chinos, corduroy jackets and button-down shirts. "We take Mod and make it more fun. We can take trends and make them important to the fashion world." He sells to everyone from high school students to 60-year-old golfers, and, more surprisingly for a white fortysomething, has become the designer favourite for rap stars such as Salt 'N' Pepa, Snoop Doggy-Dogg and TLC.

"The fact that he is white is irrelevant," says Karen Binns, fashion editor of True, a black "street culture" magazine based in north London. "I'm from New York, and when I first saw his name in the 1980s I thought his stuff was for Preps - suburban, middle-class college kids. But then he really looked at his customers, and began to use people of colour in his advertising. American designers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ignore the urban market that keeps them going; Hilfiger involves the people who buy his clothes in his advertising and his shows."

While the average college boy in the US may buy one Hilfiger shirt and wear it for two years, a boy from working-class Brooklyn would buy five and wear them for a season. According to US rapper Chef Raekwon "Tommy Hill" is "fly shit ... witty unpredictable live shit". Some would say that Hilfiger's use of black models is nothing more than a savvy marketing exercise, but in the context of corporate America, to feature them at all means taking the risk of alienating his white, middle-class customers. Despite his clean-cut image, 44-year-old Hilfiger has always kept an eye on street style. A keen fan of rap and rock 'n' roll, his shows feature the sound of bands he grew up on - the Rolling Stones, the Doors - rather than the by now generic thumping House beat of the catwalk. Born in Elmira, New York, the second oldest of nine children in a large Jewish family, his first business venture was in fashion. In 1969 he cashed in life savings of $150 and drove to New York City to buy trendy bell bottom jeans that were unavailable in his home town. He sold the jeans to local teenagers, and made enough profit to open his own store, People's Place, which catered to the college campus crowd, selling "Body Things for guys and chicks". By the time he was 26, Hilfiger owned 10 shops throughout upstate New York, and was designing clothes.

By 1979 Hilfiger had sold the People's Place and moved with his wife Susie, a fashion school graduate, to Manhattan, where he pursued design full-time. With the financial support of Asian textile mogul Mohan Murjani, who at the time was also backing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, he introduced his signature line of classic American-style sportswear in 1984. His appeal quickly spread from Preps and retirees to upwardly mobile hip hop fans. "I want people to feel comfortable yet unique. It's new age funk combined with traditional style that gives my clothing an edge," he said, introducing exploding logos and bright colours to woo even more homeboys.

Within five years he and several partners had bought out Murjani, and in 1992 Tommy Hilfiger USA Inc went public. The company has been a phenomenal success. With an estimated $400m in revenue for 1995-6, it is currently the highest-valued clothing stock on the exchange. Hilfiger has been enjoying his share of the profits, with a home in Connecticut and one next door to Mick Jagger in Mustique. Vanity Fair described him as "a Zelig of the fashion world, everywhere and for everyone."

Hilfiger's approach has not endeared him to fashion critics who prefer the unpredictable flair of a Gaultier or a Mizrahi. His strength lies, however, in his very accessibility. "He has well-priced, good, popular products," says Cal Ruttenstein, fashion director at Bloomingdales, the New York department store. "People feel groovy when they wear his clothes, they feel very young, very hip hop. His colours stand out, when a lot of designers have gone neutral." Hilfiger, who has reputedly felt snubbed by the cognoscenti in the past, was vindicated last December when he won the "From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk" Award at the VH-1 Fashion & Music awards, and was voted 1995 Menswear Designer of the Year by his peers in the fashion industry.

But will he succeed in Britain? Ashley Heath, senior editor at The Face, thinks that Hilfiger cannot fail. "It's bound to take off, people are desperate to get the stuff. He'll sell to young people who're already buying import and counterfeit clothes, 15-35-year-olds who see New York as the pinnacle of slick, urban sophistication. Face readers and their dads, basically."

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