He may be the king of a global fashion empire, but there is one dream that Tommy Hilfiger never saw through.
“I thought I should be a professional football player,” Hilfiger said to an audience of Notre Dame faculty and students as he began a presentation in the Eck Auditorium Wednesday afternoon to share his business experiences and successes. Hilfiger entered the auditorium carrying a Notre Dame football helmet while and told the story of his failed football career, which ended, he said, after an unsuccessful tryout for the high school team in his hometown Elmira, N.Y.
“As a result of that failure, I decided to do something else,” Hilfiger said. “I decided to become a businessman.”
Hilfiger began selling jeans out of the trunk of his car in a high school parking lot at age 18. Hilfiger’s parents preferred he go to college and focus on a more practical career than his updated business venture, a newly opened clothing shop called People’s Place, Hilfiger said.
“They said, ‘You’re crazy. There’s no way you’ll ever be able to do that.'” Hilfiger said. “But I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I said, ‘I will do this.’ I took the path of resistance.”
A self-taught businessman at the age of 19, Hilfiger wanted to bring big city fashion from New York City to his local community in upstate New York and began designing his own ideas when the trends of the late ‘60s left him and his customers unsatisfied, Hilfiger said.
“I wanted to build a different mousetrap,” Hilfiger said. “I wanted to reach back into my roots when I wore preppy clothes in grammar and early high school and redesign them. So I took every single one of those items out of my closet and redesigned every detail.”
Looking back, Hilfiger said his biggest regret was skipping out on college.
“I opened up my store and I said, this is my education,” he said. “But if I had been smart enough to go to business school, I would have avoided some major pitfalls.”
Hilfiger said today, he considers hitting bankruptcy at 22 his greatest learning experience.
“That was my master’s degree,” he said.
Hilfiger said his subsequent successes after introducing his trademark red, white and blue logo can be attributed to his first private collection in 1985.
“I was at the right place at the right time, but I had the right product,” he said. “I was studying business myself, trying to figure out what was this role in business that would set us apart from competition. I wanted to understand what it was that would really push the buttons on the consumer and I figured it out.”
Yet while still flourishing overseas, the American base of Hilfiger’s empire appeared to be headed for ruin in the late ‘90s after he seemed to have a monopoly over men’s, women’s and children’s casual fashions for the greater part of the decade, Hilfiger said. He said he blamed his business team’s faux pas of oversupplying the demand — a “business no-no.”
“Boiled down to its simplest form, business is simple arithmetic … really a simple philosophy. It’s about supply and demand,” he said. “That’s something they teach in every business school, but we learned it ourselves and we learned it the hard way.”
Today, Hilfiger said his recipe for success remains true to his original philosophy: right quality, right product, right price, right marketing, right technical fit, right people wearing your clothes and right stores selling them.
“It’s all about finding a niche,” he said. “Many people ask me why I think we’re so successful and I have one standard answer — It’s always about the people. I have been fanatical about surrounding myself with great people. A great team will bring you great success.”
In 1995, he established the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation to help empower America’s youth and as his fashion trends gain global esteem, his charitable endeavors follow. The Foundation recently announced its $2 million donation to Millennium Promise, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 to combat extreme world poverty.
“We’re becoming much more responsible as human beings and that is very meaningful to me,” Hilfiger said.
While Hilfiger’s presentation resonated with business lessons to “be creative … never stop learning, never stop exploring,” in his discussion of the company’s philanthropic successes, a stronger message prevailed.
“If I were to talk about what I’m proudest about as a businessman, I am proudest of the fact that we are a giving, loving company,” and that will probably go down in history as the company’s greatest contribution, Hilfiger said.
“At the end of the day, they’re just clothes really,” Hilfiger said.