(AllHipHop Feature) This past Tuesday (April 22nd), Questlove began a six-part essay series with Vulture explaining how “Hip Hop” had been misappropriated and failed Black America. Less than a week before Questlove’s stirring essay, Tommy Hilfiger informed Bloomberg Businessweek of the impact Hip Hop had on his brand in the 1990s:
Look, it fueled a lot of growth, but it took us away from our roots. We came back to our roots 10 years ago; that’s when our business started to really stabilize and grow again. When people ask me advice, I say stick to who you are. Stick to your guns. There is an image and attitude to most brands and that’s really important. I like to stick to my heritage and not chase trends and at that point we were chasing trends. Chasing trends was easy but it was dangerous. It’s more important to me now to be consistent.
In this feature, Questlove’s essay is used to explain the motives and truths of Tommy Hilfiger’s current feelings on his brand’s history with Hip Hop.
“Look, it fueled a lot of growth, but it took us away from our roots.”
“It” and “trend”. Those are the only words Tommy Hilfiger used when speaking of the musical movement of the 90s that helped his clothing brand achieve a valuation of $1.9 billion by the end of that very decade. Hilfiger’s involvement with Hip Hop in the 90’s began with a chance encounter with Grand Puba at John F. Kennedy Airport in the early 90s. Fascinated by the manner in which Puba wore the clothing, he began working with styling Hip Hop artists.
So, why would he refrain from even mentioning one of the most influential aspects in its rise, by name? Hilfiger’s inability to identify Hip Hop by name derives from the oversaturation of the term “Hip Hop” diluting the uniqueness of its identity. This is an idea Questlove proposed in his essay:
The two biggest stars, Beyoncé and Rihanna, are considered pop (or is that pop-soul), but what does that mean anymore? In their case, it means that they’re offering a variation on hip-hop that’s reinforced by their associations with the genre’s biggest stars: Beyoncé with Jay Z, of course, and Rihanna with everyone from Drake to A$AP Rocky to Eminem.
Hilfiger’s introduction to Hip Hop is analogous of his overall attitude towards the genre: an accidental goldmine discovery instead of a partnership predicated on genuine cultural intrigue. He even told The Guardian in a 2011 interview that he initially viewed “the rap community like street kids wanting their own brand”:
I looked at the rap community like street kids wanting their own brand. But now I look at that period with the rappers in the 90s as a trend of the moment. What it taught me was never to follow a trend, because trends move on.
“We came back to our roots 10 years ago; that’s when our business started to really stabilize and grow again.”
By May 2006, the landscape of “Hip Hop clothing” was dramatically changing. Phat Farm was sold to Kellenwood, FUBU had moved their operations to Europe and Tommy Hilfger had sold his company to Apax Partners. In 2010, weeks after Phillips-Van Heusen (owner of Calvin Klein) had purchased Hilfiger’s company, Hilfiger explained to the The New York Times that oversaturation and oversupply caused its decline as “It got to the point where the urban kids didn’t want to wear it and the preppy kids didn’t want to wear it”.
When you factor in Questlove’s view on Hip Hop’s growing popularity, it is safe to assume that while its ascension commercially helped Tommy Hilfiger become an global brand, its ubiquity also contributed to its irrelevance:
Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it’s everywhere, it is nowhere. What once offered resistance to mainstream culture (it was part of the larger tapestry, spooky-action style, but it pulled at the fabric) is now an integral part of the sullen dominant.
Russell Simmons echoed similar thoughts during a 1996 interview with the The New York Times and helps elucidate the connection between Questlove’s quote and Tommy Hilfiger’s love lost with Hip Hop:
When you use the word ‘hip-hop’ in fashion, you’re looking at it as a trendy thing. ‘When you use the word ‘hip-hop’ in music, it’s now a mainstream concept. At the end of the day, what you want to be is American sportswear.
“When people ask me advice, I say stick to who you are. Stick to your guns. There is an image and attitude to most brands and that’s really important.”
For the past decade, Tommy Hilfiger has been making a concerted effort to let it be known that Hip Hop was no more than a very successful clothing line campaign from the thousands his company has produced over the past 30 years.
“Hip-hop fashion” makes a little sense, but even that is confusing: Does it refer to fashions popularized by hip-hop musicians, like my Lego heart pin, or to fashions that participate in the same vague cool that defines hip-hop music
Carl Williams, owner and creator of Karl Kani told The New York Times in September 1996 “just saying you’re hip-hop clothing, you’re cutting yourself off from a whole other area of the business.” In December 1998, Usher Raymond sued Tommy Hilfiger for using his image in an advertisement without compensation:
“I like to stick to my heritage and not chase trends and at that point we were chasing trends. Chasing trends was easy but it was dangerous. It’s more important to me now to be consistent.”
Tommy Hilfiger was born in Elmira, New York on Mach 24, 1951, 28 years before Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap song to enter the US Top 40. By the time Def Jam released its first rap album, LL Cool J’s Radio on November 18th 1985, Hilfiger had started a company, filed for bankruptcy, sold the company and started Tommy Hilfiger Corporation.
His “heritage” and “roots” are as far from Hip Hop as East New York, Brooklyn is from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Tommy Hilfiger’s relationship with Hip Hop was purely a business arrangement predicated on Hip Hop’s continual growth as a counterculture. Once that growth led to Hip Hop becoming mainstream, as Questlove explains, it became stagnant by virtue of its own progression:
There are patterns, of course, boom and bust and ways in which certain resources are exhausted. There are foundational truths that are stitched into the human DNA. But the art forms used to express those truths change without recurring. They go away and don’t come back.