For Tommy Hilfiger and Dee Ocleppo, there really is no distinction between their work and their personal lives – it all merges.
The duo detailed their careers as designers, the underlying changes in the fashion industry and outlined what’s to come in a Q&A with Fern Mallis on Wednesday night at 92Y. Hilfiger opened the program with a business-focused discussion before his wife joined him on stage for the second half of the 90-minute “Fashion Icons” talk.
Rather than rehash the story, Hilfiger, whose company is owned by PVH, highlighted the many changes that have been made to the business, largely due to technology, COVID-19 and the international expansion.
“It’s a different ball game, but I’ve been through a lot of iterations over the years,” he said. The self-taught Hilfiger continues to be the main creator of the brand. Fascinated by innovation, he was the first designer to step off the calendar to show current collections and offer see now, buy now on catwalks virtually and in pop-ups. This tactic changed the company and was born out of his dream of opening fashion shows to the public. It also required changing the brand’s design timeline, manufacturing, and shaking everything up to provide consumers with styles to see now, buy now. This strategy has worked well so far and will continue, Hilfiger said.
Earlier this year, the company started selling NFTs, ventured into gaming, and participated in the first Metaverse Fashion Week on Decentraland. Always looking to the future and aiming to anticipate what will happen next, Hilfiger’s goal is to “put something in front of consumers that they might not even know they want until they see it”.
During the pandemic, he immersed himself in the metaverse, studying hard, meeting dozens of digitally-minded professionals, partnering with a company to create avatars, and he even invested in and built a video game with a Silicon Valley company. “Hundreds of millions” of consumers in China play every day, he said, dressing their avatars in branded digital skins and if their friends approve of those selections, they’ll buy the real thing. Players buy, sell, trade and also get rewarded for how they dress their avatars, he noted. “It’s the future.”
In business for 37 years, Hilfiger acknowledged that in the beginning Zara and H&M didn’t exist, Nike was a small sneaker brand and Gucci sold wallets, handbags and shoes. It’s essential to always be innovative and put the product first, as well as presenting an image that “cuts through the noise”, he said.
However, the designer almost didn’t cut through the noise as noted by Mallis, citing Hilfiger’s fondness for Studio 54 and almost losing his business because of it.
“We were distracted. My partner and I spent many, many nights at Studio 54. It taught us a great lesson,” he said. “Luckily we got back on our feet and started again.”
Hilfiger’s eye for spotting new talent and his prowess in collaborations can be seen in his ’90s commercials featuring future stars like teenage Kate Hudson. Before magazines splashed celebrities on their covers, society wanted to convey a cool vibe even if it couldn’t afford A-listers, Hilfiger said. One solution was to give musicians, and even Mick Jagger’s children, clothes to wear in MTV videos.
Now, the company has no shortage of access to A-listers, though it still tends to nab some early in their ascent.
In 2016, Hilfiger aligned himself with Gigi Hadid, who he said didn’t look like many other models. During fittings and casting that a production team was handling, he said, “Gigi came in that day and I said she’d be awesome on the runway.” Later, he suggested that she design “with us and for us”.
Hadid had 300,000 subscribers then, and now she has 180 million subscribers, the designer said. By the end of the three-year run with Hilfiger, she had 50 million followers. Another celebrity collaboration – a four-season run with Zendaya – was “historic and incredible”, he said, adding that the actress now has 138 million followers.
Before the pandemic was spurred on by virtual runway shows, Hilfiger was one of the first to broadcast them live – whether they were blockbuster runway shows in Shanghai or Harlem, NY. The designer credited “a lot of really smart people around me” for taking a seed of an idea and turning it into something he didn’t even dream could happen. Her favorite was the Paris show with Zendaya which, at her suggestion, featured all black models, and Grace Jones closed the show.
Ocleppo joined Hilfiger on stage, recalling her early modeling days when she was asked to model in a Rhode Island School of Design fashion show. She was later discovered by photographer Jean Renard and began modeling, although her father was not on board.
Before meeting Hilfiger in Saint-Tropez in 2005, Ocleppo said he and two friends invited her and a friend to a party, but without a nanny she had no intention of going. Hilfiger later phoned her to suggest she bring her kids to the party and offered to make them chicken fingers. “‘Good idea?'” Hilfiger asked the audience dryly. “It works every time.” And he did, Ocleppo said.
In 2010, Ocleppo began designing, after suggesting that Hilfiger create a bermuda handbag for his new collection. A meeting with Mindy Grossman led to the official launch of the Dee Ocleppo brand, which gained momentum when Beyoncé began wearing pieces by the brand. Having since taken the business direct to the consumer, Ocleppo dreams of having a global lifestyle brand and has added shoes, silk scarves, pajamas and cashmere styles to its handbag assortment to expand. the brand.
In 2017, the couple invested in Judith Lieber, with Ocleppo becoming creative director. Labor-intensive bags require molding, hand painting, and each stone glued by hand. Judith Lieber handbags feature more evening accessories, while Ocleppo’s signature collection is more suited to daytime.
As for keeping their work life and family life together, they agreed that it was all connected and laughed knowingly. In addition to being an autism advocate like his wife, as they both have children on the spectrum, Hilfiger developed clothing suitable first for children and then for people of different ages. On May 20, there will be a benefit fashion show in Los Angeles featuring models with special needs to benefit Race to Erase MS. Ocleppo said: “Of all the things Tommy has done in the fashion business over the years, the thing I’m most proud of for my husband is the fact that he’s doing this adaptive line.”
“We’re the only designer brand to do that,” Hilfiger said.
Ocleppo added: “I don’t know why nobody thought of these people who also need clothes. It should be a full-fledged business.
Asked who catches his eye when it comes to the field of young designers, Hilfiger singled out Romeo Hunte, Brandon Maxwell and Prabal Gurung. And as for the advice he would give to those just starting out: “Pick a path. Decide what you want to defend. And secure it first before expanding into other categories. Ralph Lauren started with ties. Those who become specialists in a certain category succeed in that category and then move on to another category and master it if they have talent and vision,” he said.
Hilfiger, whose work is now featured in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” was also candid when asked if the Metropolitan Museum of Art is “finally devoting an exhibition to American fashion.”
“I think it was about time,” he said. “I’m glad they did. I’m happy for the design community that it finally got done. The exhibits I have seen have been amazing. Didn’t get to see the exhibit the other night because the traffic was so bad getting there…we have to go back and see what they did. We hear it’s great.