Life
Life beyond style

Chances are that you’ve not only ‘heard’ the rumor, but you also passed it along. How did Tommy Hilfiger go from being a champion of diversity to outed racist in a span of only a few years? We dig deeper…

The email probably came into your AOL account and was punctuated by the calming voice of Elwood Edwards proclaiming, “You’ve got mail.” The subject headline read, “FWD: Tommy Hilfiger hates us…” A simple click of your mouse and they had you. The “who,” still remains a mystery to this day. The “what,” is what threatened to derail the fashion juggernaut known as Tommy Hilfiger after the World Wide Web latched onto the notion that their brand’s nameshake was a racist, elitist, hatemonger.

The text inside the message itself was jarring, but seemed real. Did you see the recent Oprah Winfrey show on which Tommy Hilfiger was a guest?,” it started. “Oprah asked Hilfiger if his alleged statements about people of color were true – he’s been accused of saying things such as ‘If I had known that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice,’ and ‘I wish those people would not buy my clothes – they were made for upper-class whites.’ What did he say when Oprah asked him if he said these things? He said ‘Yes.’ Oprah immediately asked Hilfiger to leave her show. Now, let’s give Hilfiger what he’s asked for – let’s not buy his clothes. Boycott! Please – pass this message along.”

While his name in a contemporary context evokes thoughts of exclusivity which was re-purposed during hip-hop’s bum-rush on popular culture, Tommy Hilfiger wasn’t born into privilege. As the second of nine children in a working class Irish-American family in Elmira, New York, he was so undersized for his age that he allegedly had to hide 15 pound weights in his pockets in order to make weight to play high school football.

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In 1969, when he was just 17 years old, Hilfiger forged his first sartorial venture when he opened a small store called People’s Place on North Main and West Gray Street in his hometown with just $150 USD he made from pumping gas. His goal was to bring “cool big city styles” from New York to his friends in their small town in upstate New York.

“There wasn’t even a proper sign; it was handwritten,” Hilfiger recalled in 2011. “We started out on a shoestring but it became very successful and we subsequently opened a number of People’s Place shops around college campuses in upstate New York.”

As fate would have it, musicians who were passing through the area to perform in New York City quickly became patrons of the store. “We dressed musicians and rock stars, including Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC,” Hilfiger remembers. “When bands toured the area they would come to People’s Place for the leather jackets and gear that we sourced in New York, California, London, Turkey and Greece. We stocked all the trends.”

Like so many other movements that catch fire, the sizzle was soon replaced by the hollow thud of bankruptcy after one People’s Palace had explored into 10 retail locations by the mid 1970s and Hilfiger realized that he had bitten off way more than he could chew. “It was a rude awakening,” he told New York Magazine.

After the closures, Hilfiger and his wife, Susie, began pitching themselves as a design team. At the time, the designer jeans trend was a full-blown phenomenon – a sort of Beatlemania without the music, and with more acid-wash. They landed a position at Jordache, but were fired after only one month. Despite the short stay, Hilfiger’s name began popping up on the radar of more prominent brands at the time like Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. The latter actually offered him a position, but Hilfiger declined. He was ready for his own brand.

Tommy Hilfiger’s initial entry into the world of fashion in 1985 as a brand owner rather than just a purveyor of cool came with the support of Mohan Murjani – an Indian entrepreneur from a family of textile barons – who also owned lucrative licenses which included Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and  Coca-Cola clothes, the latter which was a half-billion-dollar venture.

“The plan was to be a younger Ralph Lauren,” Murjani told New York Magazine.

With the seedlings of a business and a shared desire for an aesthetic favored by the top one percent, Hilfiger powered forward with wind in his sails – creating crisp, all-American designs with small details which set his brand apart like contrasting thread in the buttonholes and bold contrasts inside collared shirts.

image: appliedresearch2.blogspot.com

Soon after, Hilfiger’s trademark red, white and blue logo was positioning itself to become as recognizable as Ralph Lauren’s polo player thanks to a little help from legendary ad-man, George Lois, who is perhaps best known for over 92 covers he designed for Esquire magazine from 1962 to 1972 – including the cover of Muhammad Ali riddled with arrows.

The result was a Times Square billboard inspired by the classic children’s game, hangman. If Hilfiger and Murjani had set out to be like Ralph Lauren, the ad itself was a bold assertion that they were right on their heels despite their freshman status.

“The whole concept was to make Tommy famous with the first ad,” explains Lois. “The hubris was beyond belief. Here we were saying that somebody who hadn’t sold one item of clothing yet was a great American designer.”

image: tommyhilfiger.tumblr.com

In the first 18 months, Tommy Hilfiger grossed more than $11 million USD. In 1989, the brand jumped from $28 million USD a year in retail sales to $50 million USD. The second year, from $50 million USD to $100 million USD. There was no denying that the consumers were hooked on “prep.”

It was around this same time that Hilfiger first noticed that his nautical silhouettes were being favored by hip-hop enthusiasts who had latched onto his designs – albeit in a much ‘baggier’ iteration.

image: complex.com

While strolling through Kennedy Airport with his brother, Andy, his sibling recognized that Brand Nubian rapper, Grand Puba, was decked out in Hilfiger gear. As New York Magazine noted, “Hilfiger immediately understood the money to be made if he could align himself with popular rap stars. Andy Hilfiger began giving trunks of clothes away to any rapper with a recording contract. Soon icons in the ‘hood like Raekwon and Coolio began wearing Tommy Hilfiger on their concert tours and in their videos.”

”Having the music puts a certain image over the brand,” Hilfiger told The New York Times. ”If you don’t have the music, you don’t have the cool. You don’t have the young people. Every designer has a certain type of cool they’re trying to put in operation.”

image: tommyhilfiger.tumblr.com

”A lot of these musicians who now wear Tommy Hilfiger take it seriously as fashion because hip-hop gave it an edge,” said Russell Simmons. “Hip-hop showed that you can develop a brand with artists. I have a $20-million-a-year company built completely on artists wearing my clothes.”

image: bet.com

If the billboard in Times Square had ruffled feathers, Hilfiger’s competitors were surely put on high alert in 1994 when Snoop Dogg appeared alongside actress, Helen Hunt, during the 16th episode of the 19th season of Saturday Night Live while decked out in a Tommy Hilfiger rugby.

Hilfiger had found an unlikely partnership in hip-hop. He soon learned that those entrenched in the culture would protect it at any cost.

In 1996, the emails began. No one is quite sure about the precise origins, or where they began to gain momentum. But they were spreading like wildfire – aided not only by Tommy Hilfiger’s name recognition – but also that the alleged statements were made while seated across from who many believed to be a national treasure; Oprah Winfrey.

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While it’s true that Tommy Hilfiger did appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it only occurred after the controversy had started when Winfrey opened her May 2, 2007 program by directly addressing it.

“Tommy, in the 21 years that we’ve been on the air, have you ever been on the show?,” Winfrey asked Hilfiger. “Unfortunately, not,” he says back with a sheepish grin on his face.

As Winfrey and Hilfiger dove deeper into the pervasive rumor that had followed him for more than a decade, he admitted, “It’s contrary to what my business motive was at the beginning. I wanted to sell a lot of clothes to a lot of people.”

“Big fat lie,” Winfrey barked out to her audience. “It’s a big, fat lie!”

image: Tommy Hilfiger

The secondary source where Hilfiger purportedly used a national platform to spew his “hateful diatribe” was on CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch – specifically targeting Asians. A spotty paraphrase of the allegations appeared in a November 13, 1996 article in the Philippine newspaper Isyu which was written by Cristina Peczon. Titled “Eat Your Clothes, Mr. Racist Designer,” the piece is no longer viewable but archived thanks to Slate who reported about it in 1997.

“Could someone please correct me if I heard wrong,” Peczon wrote. “Because if what I heard is right, I am never ever going to buy another piece of clothing that has anything to do with American designer Tommy Hilfiger again. In fact, if this up and coming designer really did insult my people, you can bet that I will do every single thing I can in my power to make sure that his label never makes it here.”

In an attempt to squash the rumors, Hilfiger’s PR team began peppering message boards with a response. “We are disturbed to learn that an ugly rumor has been circulating about our company,” they wrote. “Since we understand that you have been the recipient of false information we wanted to set the record straight. The facts are simple and incontrovertible. Tommy Hilfiger did not make the alleged inappropriate racial comments. He has never appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, although the rumor specifically asserts that he made negative remarks in that forum and that Ms. Winfrey asked him to leave. The show’s producer has confirmed the fact that Tommy has never been a guest. Similar rumors have circulated about comments supposedly made on other television shows. All of them are completely false. Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on Larry King Live or on CNN’s ‘Style with Elsa Klensch’ despite persistent misinformation to the contrary.Whether these rumors are part of a misunderstanding or a deliberate act of malice, they have absolutely no basis in fact. Tommy Hilfiger wants his clothing to be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds and his collections are put together with the broadest cross section of individuals in mind. To reinforce this, he features models of all ethnic backgrounds in his fashion shows and advertisements. Tommy Hilfiger and the entire company are extremely pleased that the brand has been received so enthusiastically by individuals of all ethnic backgrounds around the world.”

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Strangely enough, this wasn’t even the first time that a prominent fashion designer and Oprah Winfrey’s name had become intertwined with a racist rumor. According to The Los Angeles Times, “sometime in 1990 or 1991, [Liz] Claiborne had been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she announced –- and here’s the first not-credible moment – that she doesn’t design for black women, because their hips are too big, or because they make her clothes look bad, or because she doesn’t need the money. In the second non-credible moment, Oprah is described in these mass e-mails as wearing a Liz Claiborne dress.”

While doing press for his film Malcolm X in 1992 with Esquire, Spike Lee gave substance to the Liz Claiborne rumors, saying, “Last week, Oprah Winfrey had Liz Claiborne on the show. I guess she wears Liz Claiborne’s clothes all the time. Clairborne got on and said she didn’t make clothes for black people. Oprah stopped the show and told her to get her ass off the set. How you gonna get on Oprah’s show and say you don’t make clothes for black women? It definitely happened. Get the tape. Every black woman in America needs to go to their closet, throw that shit out, and never buy another stitch of clothes from Liz Claiborne.”

According to Psychology Today, there are 8.5 laws of “Rumor Spread.” Two tenets specifically seems to apply to the Tommy Hilfiger situation: one, “the more you hear a rumor, the more you’ll buy it – even if you’re hearing that it’s false.” And two, ” Sticky rumors are simple and concrete” – pointing to easy-to-pass-along misinformation like, “It takes seven years for swallowed gum to pass through the body, “we only use 10 percent of our brains, “The Great Wall of China can be seen from space,” and “people swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep.” These tidbits are all simple and specific, with a vivid detail that sticks in the mind. The same could be said for Tommy Hilfiger being thrown off the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show. That’s something simply and easy to pass along.

image: condenast.co.uk

Hilfiger received one final vote of confidence when the Anti-Defimation League decided to conduct an investigation. In a letter addressed directly to Hilfiger, they reported, “[The] ADL has investigated the matter in response to the requests of constituents and other community members. We have concluded after careful investigation that the malicious rumors circulating about you and your company are without merit and lack any basis in fact.”

In 2012, Hilfiger spoke about the financial ramifications as the featured guest on Fern Mallis’ 92Y Fashion Icons’ series. “It hurt for a long period of time, not from a business standpoint, because our business doubled in that time,” Hilfiger said. “It went from $1 billion to $2 billion in that time. But it hurt here [placing hand on his heart]. It really made me believe someone was out for me. We really never found the source but hope that at some point in time people will realize it was just a nasty rumor.”

With the rumor seemingly lay to rest, Hilfiger couldn’t help but mention, “Some people may still believe it.”

As recently as September 25, 2015, the brand was still attempting to set the record straight when someone tweeted at them that “Tommy Hilfiger is an outed racist.”

featured/main image: forbes.com

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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