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Tommy Hilfiger, 71, recently spoke about false comments which have followed him off the runway and out the department stores nearly three decades after they mysteriously surfaced.
“It was when the internet was just starting,” Hilfiger told The Guardian of that moment. “It was devastating, that people would think that I would really think that way. And I think people who know me knew that it wasn’t true. But there are so many millions of people out there who didn’t know me but had heard. You didn’t have social media then – these days if something blows up on [the fashion watchdog] Diet Prada there are so many comments. It couldn’t happen now.”
A 1996 article circulated on the still embryonic world wide web that Hilfiger had appeared on Oprah and said, or agreed with, some version of the statement: “If I’d known African Americans, Hispanics, Jewish people and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice. I wish these people would not buy my clothes, as they are made for upper class White people.”
According to the article, Oprah then threw him off set and the episode never aired. The story, however, is reportedly a complete fabrication.
Hilfiger had never appeared on Oprah or made any similar remarks at that point. But this was at a time before internet literacy, and despite repeated denials from Hilfiger and Oprah, the rumor would continue.
On May 2, 2007, Hilfiger went on Oprah’s program to directly address it.
The LA Times reported Hilfiger supposedly told style reporter Elsa Klensch of CNN that he didn’t think Asians looked good in his clothes, which was also later debunked.
Tommy Hilfiger was tricked, fans were trolled
High Snobiety reports the 1996 email subject headline read, “FWD: Tommy Hilfiger hates us…” and shortly after Hilfiger would draw swift and sustained backlash.
An email encouraging a boycott of Tommy Hilfiger was subsequently distributed and, for many, the damning word-of-mouth became a permanent stain on the posh brand.
“Did you see the recent Oprah Winfrey show on which Tommy Hilfiger was a guest?,” the email started. “Oprah asked Hilfiger if his alleged statements about people of color were true – he’s been accused of saying things such as ‘If I had known that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice,’ and ‘I wish those people would not buy my clothes – they were made for upper-class whites.’ What did he say when Oprah asked him if he said these things? He said ‘Yes.’ Oprah immediately asked Hilfiger to leave her show. Now, let’s give Hilfiger what he’s asked for – let’s not buy his clothes. Boycott! Please – pass this message along.”
In response, the company released a statement shortly after: “Tommy Hilfiger did not make the alleged inappropriate racial comments. Hilfiger wants his clothing to be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds and his collections are put together with the broadest cross-section of individuals in mind. To reinforce this, he features models of all ethnic backgrounds in his fashion shows and advertisements.”
Black musicians have long embraced Hilfiger
Two moments in particular – a Tommy Jeans photoshoot with Aaliyah and a young Mark Ronson on a rooftop and a Snoop Dogg performance on Saturday Night Live in 1994, where he wore a Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt – saw demand for the brand soar.
According to Forbes, by the mid-1990s Tommy Hilfiger’s oversize jeans and puffer jackets became the teen uniform of the era.
The email rumors were revived in 2014, when he told Bloomberg News that aligning with the hip-hop community in the ’90s “fueled growth but took us away from our roots.”
He later clarified to Billboard that the brand “shouldn’t just be one thing. It’s all about pop culture. It’s hip-hop, rock, Hollywood, the entertainment world. I wouldn’t want only to be known for [rock style] either.”
”Having the music puts a certain image over the brand,” Hilfiger told The New York Times. ”If you don’t have the music, you don’t have the cool.”
A 16-year-old Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, wore his denim overalls over logo bikini tops to a 1998 photo call.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Tommy Hilfiger Corp.’s quarterly report showed $178.9 million in revenue, with earnings up 32% at the time of the email controversy.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Hilfiger launched the People’s Place, a program designed to amplify the brand’s efforts and dedication to increasing opportunities in fashion for underrepresented communities.
“What is happening to Black communities in the US and around the world has no place in our society,” Hilfiger said. “The fact that it has continued to exist in our industry – overtly and systemically – is unacceptable.”
Named after the store he founded in the 1970s in upstate New York as a space for people to enjoy art, music, fashion and pop culture, the initiative aims to continue to bring more people of color into the creative industry.
“It’s always been a place for the people, it was all about creating and offering fashion to people from all different walks of life,” he told HypeBeast.
In 2015, rap artist Fabolous posted an old photo of himself with Hilfiger and quickly received backlash.
He responded to the critics, “I remember this rumor as well & also felt like I wouldn’t support TH anymore,” Fab continued via Twitter. “But when u research it, it’s nothin more than a rumor. … even if u google it, there’s no root to it. … Funny thing is TH supported & embraced Hip Hop a lot in the 90s. Had rappers in there fashion shows, Aaliyah as a model, … Many different ethnicities in the promo ads.. I even met TH myself & spoke with him.”
Though rumors of racism may never completely be free from Tommy, it hasn’t stopped the past, present, and future of Black musicians from aligning themselves with Hilfiger.
As misinformation blurred the line between fact and fiction long ago, many to this day remain split on whether or not to financially support Hilfiger after decades of a reputation rooted in racist innuendo.