At twelve noon on Friday 21 November the GMB was graced with a visit by designer and business icon Tommy Hilfiger, 57, who arrived with his entourage in a convoy of black Mercedes.
Mr Hilfiger – in Dublin for the opening of his flagship store on Grafton Street – was interviewed by DU Philosophical Society president Barry Devlin. Mr Hilfiger then answered questions from the 150 members of the audience.
A TV3 camera crew and paparazzi added to the atmosphere of excitement. Phil committee members worked meticulously to move all jackets and bags into the adjacent room on instructions from Hilfiger security. Gleaming rows of Hilfiger gift bags were glimpsed awaiting distribution, prompting much speculation as to their contents. A glossy promotional video was screened to the assembled audience, which expounded the Tommy Hilfiger rags-to-riches story as “the proof that dreams can come true.” Images of Americana – Betty Boop, Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, hamburgers and Cadillacs – beat down on the audience like a strobe, as a growling voiceover urged the brand’s latest descriptives; “ironic, iconic, unapologetically original and confidently optimistic.”
Mr Hilfiger entered the debating chamber to loud applause, sporting deep blue jeans, a navy Harvard Cardigan, cream canvas sneakers and a necktie which, he noted, had been his father’s.
Mr Hilfiger outlined the story of his success, recounting his initial ventures at the age of 18, bankruptcy at 25, and the lesson thus learned that creative energy must be wedded to business sense. Commenting on the possible repercussions of the current economic climate on his campaign, Hilfiger stressed that he did not encourage disposable fashion, and that the high prices of his products were bolstered by their quality and lasting style. He would hope, but never expect, he noted graciously, that the students present would invest in his clothes. Mr Hilfiger spoke about his future hopes for his company. He sees Europe as a gateway to the rest of the world, and hopes to expand his lifestyle brand into everything from socks to furniture.
Tommy Hilfiger the brand is still struggling to reconcile its association with two contrasting Americas; the collegiate and the urban. An email hoax which accused Hilfiger of making racist remarks on the Oprah Winfrey Show sparked a misguided boycott of his clothes. The company rode a fickle wave of profit in the 1990s when black American rappers adopted the gigantic Hilfiger logo as a badge of cool, a trend which lost the brand its preppy core market. 2008 marketing initiatives include the newly launched Tommy TV, which offers backstage videos of artists like Kelly Rowland and Wyclef Jean. Hilfiger told the audience that he had always been inspired by music and rock and roll. He recounted how he first became aware of his own image on seeing the cover of a Beatles album, and was inspired to emulate the pinnacles of cool depicted thereon. The gift bags were distributed to the audience containing a USB stick loaded with a promotional Tommy Hilfiger video. Ireland is Hilfiger’s latest conquest in the European campaign which has been the brand’s engine for growth of its $1.8 billion annual sales, while the US market has, at best, stagnated. Mr Hilfiger has conducted a whistlestop tour to court the Irish public, stressing his Irish roots and meeting with luminaries such as Jim Sheridan. The campaign has taken him as far as Galway for autograph signings, and he has been greeted with much enthusiasm by the Irish public. Scenes at his Shop Street store in Galway saw him hugged and kissed by female admirers, one of whom placed a sprig of Irish heather in his pocket. Devlin said of the Fashion guru’s Trinity visit “It‘s really nice that someone so successful has been so thankful and appreciative to us.”