How the Iconic American Brand Became an Indispensable part of Street Culture.
Tommy Hilfiger’s is a singular story in the fashion world.
In fact, there are only a few names that stand out in the history of American fashion, and even fewer that have behind them a legacy as important as the one Tommy has given to the Hip Hop Community.
What is most striking is how a designer from the American upper class, white and no longer very young, became the statement brand of the community of young black people who follow Hip Hop music and culture. Paradoxically, that was precisely his good fortune: being white, upper class American, and a symbol of an economic prosperity to which young blacks from the ghettos, and even more so the Hip Hop community, had as an inspirational model.
Tommy Hilfiger began his work in the fashion industry in 1969, opening a store called “People’s Place,” which sold leather jackets, breeches, t-shirts, and posters of concerts taking place in NY, immediately showing a deep interest in music.
The store closed ten years later because of the change in direction that also affected music. Rock was turning into something else, more glam and less folk, a style that did not match the NY designer’s initial style. This, however, did not demotivate him: he spent years perfecting his style and seven years later, this is 1976, he inaugurated his eponymous brand with the goal of:
“Building a brand that was preppy and cool” and still “honest, true to who I am and easy to wear.”
Initially, Tommy Hilfiger was perfectly in tune with the world around him and the designer’s surroundings. What made him eclectic and functional was to understand what immediately would appeal to the American public, to respond to never explicitly expressed but latent needs, made up of statements of economic prosperity achieved through self-made, a distinctively American concept.
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The iconic debut campaign featured a giant billboard in Times Square, designed by one of the most important advertisers of the last century, George Lois: the copy invited the audience to fill in the blanks of the manners of the most famous American brands, from Ralph Lauren to Calvin Klein, ultimately, the two initial letters of Tommy Hilfiger’s first and last name.
As the Zeitgeist of his time, Tommy immediately intercepted the potential of the Hip Hip subculture from the early 1980s, even though the founder had always been a big fan of Rock, as he had already demonstrated in the styling of his “People’s Place” store and his collaboration with artists such as Pete Towsend, sponsoring the “Psychoderelict” tour.
In a little more than 5 years, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Hip Hop went from being a local phenomenon, purely found in the ghettos, to a cultural phenomenon, complete with Kurtis Blow’s first gold record, for the 1980 track “The Breaks,” which sold a whopping 500,000 copies. It was then The RUN-DMC, a rap duo who had a gold disc with their debut album in 1984.
Hip Hop artists emerged from the slums to take on the mantle of artists from international tours and appear on the covers of the music industry’s most influential magazines, such as Rolling Stone or Spin. The ferment of the new movement invested, like lava from an erupting volcano, the fashion world as well.
There was a brief shift from the almost exclusively sporty style of the rappers, who wore famous brands such as adidas and Puma, to the search for something more adherent to hip hop culture, which had to explicate, with the immediacy of an outfit, being moved from rags to riches. And, from this point of view, the Preppy was perfectly corresponding to the American dream of wealth and affluence. So it was that rappers and the Hip-Hop world fell in love with the preppy, Ivy-League inspired style: a style that was the foundation of the new Tommy brand’s philosophy of “Building a preppy and cool brand,” one that was honest and true to who they are and easy to wear.”
Read more about Preppy Style, here: From Ivy to New Prep: a brief history of Preppy Style
Slowly but steadily began the bond between Hip Hop artists and Tommy, exacerbated especially by Mary J Blige & Grand Puba’s 1992 rhymes in the track “What’s the 411?”:
‘The girls hung on the nail.
Tommy Hilfiger top gear.’
The endorsement made by two of the most famous rappers of the time presented Tommy Hilfiger as a brand inextricably linked to the scene, which was not yet the case. The Tommy name reached Hip Hop’s target audience organically and directly, sparking an unprecedented revolution: from this moment on, for a rap artist sporting brightly colored Tommy Hilfiger garments was an inescapable status that indicated success and the attainment of high economic status.
One of the most iconic moments of this union came on March 19, 1994, when Snoop Dogg sported a rugby shirt with “Tommy” branding prominently displayed on the front while performing his cover of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s classic “La Di Da Di” on Saturday Night Live.
The following week, the rugby shirt worn by Dogg were sold out in all stores and to this day, it still stands as a statement of the movement; a few years later, Tommy also launched its denim line, penetrating even deeper into the demand of its target market. The Tommy Jeans line was younger, dynamic, and focused on denim, a fabric that the new generations loved to wear in all its variations, almost like a uniform.
To present the new Tommy Jeans line, the brand organized one of the most iconic fashion shows of the 1990s, featuring the best of the best of that Hip-Hop era, from Raekwon to Method Man, from Naughty by Nature to TLC, Mary J Blige, with key figures from the Hip-Hop world such as Jay-Z, Diddy, and Russell Simmons in the front row.
These shows anticipated what other designers would do only several years later, bringing in Hip-Hop artists as guests at their shows; the launch of Tommy Jeans made 1996 a big year, during which its female also saw the light of day, having the great Aaliyah, one of the brand’s biggest supporters, as muse and testimonial for some of its most iconic ads.
In the early 2000s, the Hip Hop world also changed; icons such as Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent, and many others made their debut, bringing Hip Hop music definitively into the Mainstream market; the change in trend also replaced the once iconic names and brands into different references, with many rappers even creating their own brands.
This, in one respect, changed the way Tommy marketed himself, trying hard to stand out from the sea of brands that, by then, crowded the market and the Hip Hop scene; despite this, in the early 2000s, and until the revolution of the 2010s, teens were still attracted to Tommy Hilfiger logos and garments, thanks to their icons who had grown up wearing their products; remember that teens in the 2000s grew up seeing Snoop Dogg live on Saturday Night Live or Aaliyah’s campaigns.
Over the past decade, the Hilfiger name has proven its relevance in the world of subcultures, continuing to grow, reaching heights like those of the 1990s, also accomplice to collaborations with streetwear brands like Patta and underground brands like Martine Rose. Today the brand lives on the honors of the past, renewing its offerings with garments and collections that renew interest even from the younger generation.
Discover here its collab with Patta Collab: Patta x Tommy Capsule celebrates the Hip Hop Culture.
This constant balance of past, present, and future in TOMMY HILFIGER’s work and accomplishments represents what makes the brand a staple in street fashion.