Magazine Feature

Tommy Hilfiger's On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With Hip-Hop Is Back In Full Swing

Gigi Hadid & Tommy Hilfiger
Randy Brooke/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger

Gigi Hadid and designer Tommy Hilfiger walk the runway at #TOMMYNOW Women's Fashion Show during New York Fashion Week at Pier 16 on Sept. 9, 2016 in New York City.

In fashion, there are few second acts. But 65-year-old Tommy Hilfiger -- whose eponymous clothing label catapulted him to fame and $1 billion in sales at the end of the 21st century -- is, after a decade of falling sales, once again in the spotlight, fueled by fashion’s nostalgia for the ’90s, as well as ties to digitally savvy influencers.

At New York Fashion Week last September, Hilfiger shelved a private runway show in favor of a live-streamed “fashion carnival” to promote a collaboration with Gigi Hadid, the 21-year-old model with 28.5 million Instagram fans. The nautical-inspired collection, priced from $50, was made immediately available for purchase at the venue, on Tommy.com and at 300 Hilfiger stores and 150 wholesale partners.

Jonathon Kambouris
Clockwise from top right: TOMMY HILFIGER vintage rugby shirt (the same style as the one Snoop Dogg wore during his Saturday Night Live performance in 1994), $1,000; vintage wide-leg women’s pants, $1,000; vintage nylon flag backpack, $150. All from FULL COURT CLASSICS; fullcourtclassics.com.

According to Hilfiger, sales “broke all records,” and traffic to Tommy.com increased 900 percent. “Gigi has sliced 30 years off the brand,” says Teri Agins, author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight From Fashion Designers.

On the back of this success, Hilfiger in January presented his fall 2017 menswear collection on a cast of “teen influencers” like The Atomics’ Lucky Blue Smith (Instagram fans: 2.7 million) in classic ’90s Tommy wear. On Feb. 8, in Venice Beach, Calif., he will host another carnival to fete his second collaboration with Hadid, inviting 3,000 guests (up from 2,000 in September). Music, he says, will be “at the heart.”

For Hilfiger, the man and the brand, music always has been central. Growing up in Elmira, N.Y., Hilfiger played in a rock band and started in fashion as a teen buying bell-bottoms and other rock staples from wholesalers in Manhattan and selling them back home. In the early years of his company, he sponsored tours for The Rolling Stones and Britney Spears, making his one of the first fashion brands to do so. But it was ties with hip-hop that cemented his status.

“Rap at the time was seen as somewhat counterculture,” says Agins. “Tommy wasn’t afraid of it; he thought it was hip.” In the early ’90s, Grand Puba name-dropped Hilfiger in hit tracks and wore his clothes on album covers. In 1994, Snoop Dogg donned a shirt emblazoned with the Tommy name on Saturday Night Live, gifted to him just hours before.

Dave Hogan/MTV 2016/Getty Images for MTV
Bruno Mars performs on stage during the MTV Europe Music Awards 2016 on Nov. 6, 2016 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. 

Eventually, however, Hilfiger fell out with the hip-hop world, dogged by a rumor in the early 2000s that he had told Oprah Winfrey he didn’t want black people wearing his clothes -- a strange accusation, given that Hilfiger featured black artists, including Aaliyah and Usher, in campaigns. He didn’t formally deny the rumor until appearing on her show in 2007. The controversy was revived in 2014, when he told Bloomberg News that aligning with the hip-hop community in the ’90s “fueled growth but took us away from our roots.” He clarifies for Billboard that the brand “shouldn’t just be one thing. It’s all about pop culture. It’s hip-hop, rock, Hollywood, the entertainment world. I wouldn’t want only to be known for [rock style] either.”

TLeopold/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com
Zendaya attends the 20th Annual Dream Halloween at the Barker Hangar Santa Monica Airport on Oct. 26, 2013 in Santa Monica, Calif.

As Hilfiger’s clothes populate the feeds of models and acts like Zendaya, the designer also has been embraced by established music artists. Rihanna approached him about designing a “throwback collection” for her Monster World Tour (and wore one of his looks in her “Work” video in 2016). Bruno Mars, Nicki Minaj and Drake have been photographed in classic or vintage Tommy in recent months.

“Fashion comes in cycles, and the cycle is upon [the Tommy brand] because people who were born in the ’90s, they never had the opportunity to see people wearing Tommy logo merchandise on the streets,” says Hilfiger. “They think it’s cool.” 

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of Billboard.