Tommy - then & now

"If you ever dream an idea or a goal, you can achieve it by working hard and staying on course ," Tommy tells Grazia
Tommy - then & now

TOMMY STARTED SHAKING UP the status quo as an ambitious upstart in 1986 – long before Hilfiger was a name the fashion world could even pronounce – thanks to a controversial billboard campaign in New York’s Times Square awarding himself equal billing with the great American menswear designers such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, just one year after he launched his brand.

Fast-forward 30-odd years and little has changed, as Grazia Luxury find ourselves in Milan as he prepares to debut his Spring/ Summer 2018 collection.

“It’s one of the fashion capitals of the world; it’s a great city. Also, if it’s good enough for Gucci and Prada and Armani and Versace, I’m here,” he declares with a glint in his eye and every bit of the bravado he’s shown since day one.

Milan is the latest stop on the world tour that’s seen him leave New York Fashion Week behind for Venice Beach in LA, then take over The Roundhouse in Camden during London Fashion Week last September, and now results in the fash pack pitching up at Milano Congressi for TOMMYNOW DRIVE, touted as a “high-energy experiential event built around fashion, innovation, and the adrenaline-fuelled world of Formula One,” all with his newfound creative collaborator Gigi Hadid in tow.

Tommy explains, “I want to evolve the brand on a continuous basis, to make it new and fresh. So every single season, every single show, we try to push to a new height.” This, we would come to discover, turned out to be somewhat of an understatement.

With a racetrack for a runway, and in surroundings that have more in common with a stadium than a show space, guests, VIPs, celebrities, influencers and friends and fans of the brand could take an F1 Race Simulator for a spin, or give the F1 Pitstop Challenge a whirl. And even before Gigi Hadid hit the catwalk in the first look, on-site pop-up boutiques were fully stocked, poised to bring the concept of see-now-buy-now to life after Tommy ripped up with fashion calendar following Burberry, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren’s lead in September 2016.

“You have to please the consumer,” he maintains. “And I’m listening to the consumer at all times. And I know she wants immediate gratification and great experiences. So here we are!”

Tommy’s fashion career got off to an unlikely start in 1969 in a small town in upstate New York, when he began selling bell-bottom jeans he’d bought in the big city – worn at the time by his musical heroes Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger – from the back of his Volkswagen Beetle. Rock star to retail, if you will. He soon upgraded his Beetle to his first boutique, People’s Place, before moving to the bright lights of New York City and starting his eponymous brand in 1985.

So how did a designer with no formal training manage to succeed in revolutionising the fashion calendar, where the likes of Tom Ford – who quietly slipped back on schedule – have failed? “Because we did it the right way,” he insists.

“We made sure that 100 per cent of the clothing on the runway became available immediately. And a lot of brands said, ‘Oh, this isn’t available, but this is,’ or they didn’t deliver it the next day or the same day. We really followed through the whole plan.” However, he concedes the decision to show on-season is the biggest risk he’s taken – although with global sales reported at US$6.5 billion (Dhs24bn) at the last count, it was arguably one Tommy could afford to take.

“I took a chance with our see-now-buy-now fashion show because we have to own all of the inventory upfront. Fortunately, we sell everything on the runway.”

Not content with ripping up the show schedule, Tommy also took his September 2016 show as an opportunity to unleash Tommy x Gigi, his four-season collaboration with the model of the moment, who was joined on the TOMMY NOW DRIVE circuit for her swansong collection by her sister and fellow Insta models sister Bella, Hailey Baldwin, Winnie Harlow, and Lucky Blue Smith.

“They are global superstars, and they happen to be models as well,” he acknowledges, explaining why he chose to harness the power of Gigi Hadid to amplify the Tommy Hilfiger message. “There is a whole new generation of social media stars and influencers coming up who have a voice to the audience.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that in the 30-plus years of the brand, Tommy’s design icons devolved from the Hendrixes of this world to the Hadids, but you’d be wrong.

Today, Tommy counts SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and the late Apple Co-Founder, Chairman and COO Steve Jobs, among his modern-day heroes. “In business and technology, they are moving the needle in society.” So Bill Gates is the new Jimi Hendrix, Tommy? “In a way,” he chuckles. “If you think about what many of these people in the tech world have done – Kevin Systrom from Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook – I mean, these guys are geniuses, and they’ve really changed the world. Fashion has not changed the world, technology has.”

And for his part, Tommy’s taking notes. “Music and pop culture have driven the brand, but at this point in time, it’s technology and digital that are now driving the brand. The way we propel the brand forward has changed. It used to be billboard advertising but now it’s social media and technology,” explaining why you could shop SS18 straight from the catwalk online, on Snapchat and Instagram.

Refusing to be pinned down to one Fashion Week and one fashion calendar is another way Tommy’s keeping us guessing – rather than a political move to distance his brand from Trump’s administration. “It’s not about just showing somewhere else,” he argues. “It’s about reinvention and it’s about evolving. Milan is part of a world tour, because now we are a global brand. That’s part of it, but it’s also looking at new ways to do things. Just stay relevant.”

So in 1986, when he released that billboard campaign, did he ever imagine showing his first collection in Milan alongside the likes of Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana? “No, but I was going to try,” he admits. “I thought I was going to be an American designer in America, but then, in the early ’90s, we opened a store in London and then we started expanding in Europe, and Asia; now we are a global brand.”

The next stop on Tommy’s world tour will be China this September – so has his shoot-for-the-moon strategy has paid off? Tommy pauses for a moment. “It’s paying off…”