Fashion designer and businessman Tommy Hilfiger was in New Orleans on Oct. 24, 2008, for the grand opening of Macy's at Lakeside Mall, and he took the opportunity to visit the Freeman School for a wide-ranging Q&A session with students.
Hilfiger, who serves as principal designer of the Tommy Hilfiger Group, started a retail clothing store, People's Place, when he was 18 years old, but he eventually enrolled in college to satisfy his father.
"After two weeks I dropped out," Hilfiger told the audience of business students. "I always said the business was my college degree, but if I had had a business degree, maybe I wouldn't have fallen into some of the potholes along the way."
One of those potholes was bankruptcy. Hilfiger expanded People's Place into a small chain in upstate New York, but when he was 23 years old his accountant told him he owed more money than he had.
"My dream was to be creative, so I wasn't watching the numbers," Hilfiger said. "From that day onward, I decided to become a businessman/designer. A lot of people have criticized me for it, but every successful designer has to have business acumen."
In 1985, after building a reputation within the industry as a designer to keep an eye on, Hilfiger launched his own label with a sportswear collection based largely on the clothes in his closet-button-down Oxfords, chinos, blue jeans and cotton sweaters.
"I was looking at other designer brands and I didn't want (mine) to be sullen and dark and unhappy and too cool for anyone," Hilfiger said. "I wanted to create a brand that stood for positive feelings."
After a long period of growth, Hilfiger hit another pothole in the late '90s when his trademark baggy jeans and oversized logos-which had been embraced by the hip-hop crowd-fell out of favor with consumers.
"It's very easy to get pulled into a trend," Hilfiger said. "When we were doing the big red, white and blue logos, the demand was big, so I filled the demand. I overfilled the pipeline and our business came down a bit in the '90s. Any brand you see too much of you don't want to wear anymore."
Since then the designer has worked to rebrand Tommy Hilfiger as a more upscale label along the lines of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Despite the recent economic downturn, Hilfiger said he believes his brand-an affordable premium label-is in a good place to be.
"When the going gets tough, you're not going to buy a car or a house or a TV, but you can afford a shirt," Hilfiger said. "You could go to a mall and buy one item to put on, and when you go out tonight you'll feel better about yourself."
Hilfiger told students the biggest obstacle he's had to overcome in his career has been money, or rather the lack of it. "I've run out of money so many times," he said. "I had my first designs prepared to ship to Macy's and Bloomingdale's, but I couldn't afford the zippers. So I've had many obstacles and many challenges, but I've always found a way around them."
And how did he find his way around the zipper obstacle?
"I used Velcro."