Those multicultural slackers, hipper and less corn-fed than the groups gamboling across the pages of Vogue or the spiffily dressed junior execs who star in ads targeted for Forbes or GQ, will be seen in Vibe, Wired, Details and Rolling Stone. Bus shelters in a number of cities are papered with an unstudly, shirtless guy in Tommy jeans, the FIGER on his underwear waistband peeping out above his slender hip. The irresistible kindergarten-recess portrait used for Tommy Hilfiger boys ads features diverse children dressed in rolled-up khakis and polos bearing the Hilfiger lion crest. They look like they could teach world leaders how to play in the sandbox harmoniously.
Image maintenance is just one crucial element of the strategy that helped make Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A. the No. 1 apparel firm traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Barbara Bates, president of the company, worked at Polo for 10 years before joining Hilfiger in 1991. "Obviously, the product had to be great," she says. "But the presentation, the visual merchandising, having our own shops within the department stores, having our own selling specialists, was all important. That was a formula that had worked very well at Polo. Creating the hype behind it was a formula that had worked very successfully also, so we very aggressively went after that, first in men's, then in boys, we're doing it in denim right now, and we're launching women's wear the same way."
Ralph Lauren, who has just inaugurated two younger, lower-priced lines to combat Hilfiger's encroachment, was an unwitting tutor. "Ralph and I have very similar taste," Hilfiger says. "We both love the classics. I think Ralph has done an incredible job, and if anybody has been an influence in America, he has."
In the 14-person Hilfiger design studio, the major collections and mini-groups that roll out every month are developed. Each is designed around a theme, a location or an activity in which form follows function. The themes impart a look and a palette and conjure visions of a fantasy lifestyle: Expedition, Alpine, Nautical, Tailgate, Bermuda, Back Bay. Lauren began working with themes in the '70s: Sun Valley, Santa Fe, Safari. A genealogical chart of traditional American style would trace a line from Brooks Brothers to Lauren to Hilfiger.
"I take the classic idea and mix it with a lot of different inspirations," Hilfiger says. "I made my shirts oversized and I made them relaxed. I washed the cotton shirts till they were soft. I made my chinos baggy and loose. Now I'm looking at board sports and getting inspiration from what the snowboarders and surfers wear."
"Five minutes to first outfit. Nobody should be eating or drinking anymore."
Backstage, Hilfiger conducts another hair check, and the telephone game resumes: "Tommy says Jeff's hair is perfect. Everyone look at Jeff."
A photographer who has been shadowing Hilfiger for the past two hours observes him thank some of the backstage crew. "You guys really did a great job," Hilfiger says, remembering each of his employees by name.
"There isn't even a touch of irony here, is there?" the photographer says to a visitor. "I mean, he's such a nice guy, the models love him, his staff loves him, the clothes are great, he's making a fortune. It's just a little too good to be true."
Krier, who looks far too nervous considering the number of high-profile shows he's directed, assembles the models and launches into the fashion version of the pregame pep talk. "Remember, you look terrific. Remember, your dresser is your friend. I want it to rock out there. You're out there, you're a happy guy, you're a rock star."
Hilfiger casts a wary eye at a model's Beatleoid hair. "Every season he says he wants the hair more preppy," one of Krier's lieutenants whispers to a hairdresser, rolling his eyes. "Every season."
From the yellow suede surfer pants to the lean 007 suits to the patch-printed bike jerseys that retailers in the audience know fly out of the stores, the show is an explosion of color and energy that is nearly exhausting to watch. "He's cleverly using the runway to build his hip, rock 'n' roll image," a trade paper writes. "Mr. Hilfiger had fresh and funny ideas," the New York Times raves.
Although Hilfiger received two major awards last year--the Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Designer of the Year and VH-1's Catwalk to Sidewalk honor--and swept five categories in the fragrance industry's Fifi Awards this year, he has much at stake. "There's more pressure than before, because we're being looked at under a microscope by everyone," Hilfiger says. "They're wondering what the big deal is."