Fashion Icon Shares Trials and Triumphs of 25-Year Career with Students at Yeshiva University Event
On March 21, Yeshiva University students learned about the challenge and excitement of starting a business—from iconic American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
At an event hosted by the Sy Syms School of Business Student Council (SSSBC) and the Fashion Marketing Club, students and alumni of all majors filled Yagoda Commons for a frank discussion with the designer about the history and evolution of the brand that bears his name. Hilfiger highlighted key learning experiences in his 25-year career and strategies that had helped him overcome difficulties.
“My story is about reaching obstacles and figuring out how to get to the other side, whether it’s over, under or even straight through,” Hilfiger said. “I think we all run up against these obstacles in our day-to-day lives.”
Among the challenges Hilfiger struggled with were an early bankruptcy and the decision to take his label public. However, he noted that his failures had taught him a critical lesson: to learn as much as he could about everything. “I think you have to gain as much knowledge as possible and put it into your bank because you’ll always use it, whether you’re going into fashion, finance or anything else,” Hilfiger said.
The designer faced a more personal challenge when an internet rumor asserting that Hilfiger had made racist and anti-Semitic comments on Oprah began circulating in 1996. At the YU event, Hilfiger addressed the rumor of the earlier episode—which both he and Oprah denied ever occurred when he went on her show for the first time in 2007.
“It’s devastating to me as a person because it’s so untrue and so ridiculous,” Hilfiger told students. “I wanted to tell you myself how I feel about this.”
During the lively question-and-answer session that followed, the designer encouraged students to ask him about anything from the rumor to international marketing strategies and personal stylistic favorites. He also offered advice to the many aspiring fashion designers and entrepreneurs in the room.
“Pack your mind with knowledge about people,” Hilfiger said. “Work in a retail store, learn how things fit, learn how people shop and what their needs and desires are. I think I learned a lot by having my own stores because I was actually working one-on-one with the customer.”
“He’s a business success who never forgot where he came from,” said YU President Richard M. Joel, who attended the lecture. “As a man of business he is both a thoughtful entrepreneur and a caring philanthropist. As a human being, he works to have his reputation appear as sterling as it truly is.”
For students, Hilfiger’s insight into forging a high-profile career in a tough industry was significant. “He started out just designing and selling jeans but he figured out how to turn his dream into an empire,” said Melanie Pudels, president of SSSBSC. “I think his story offers an important message to any major.”
In at least one important way, the event signaled a new chapter in the relationship between the designer and Orthodox Jews.
“Mr. Hilfiger,” a Stern College for Women student asked, “would you be able to design a longer skirt?”