The term "fashion icon" gets used a lot but in Tommy Hilfiger's case it's entirely deserved. The 68-year-old mogul was in Australia for the first time this week surrounded by flashbulbs and influencers keen to get his take on style and success.
Sitting down with him in a plush suite at Melbourne's Crown Towers, Hilfiger is calm, direct and very careful with his words – indeed careful enough to deflect any questions on American politics.
"Everything is so complicated now," Hilfiger says, when asked for his opinion. "Anything anyone says would maybe be contradicted next week … I just want peace in the world," he adds. "I want the economy to be good, I want people to become more sustainable. I want great healthcare for everyone. I would love to wave a magic wand and make it all happen but it's not reality."
Hilfiger is dressed in a smart casual ensemble with a hint of a corporate golf day: cargo pants, neat trainers, and a zippered jumper with Mercedes branding in a nod to major collaborator Lewis Hamilton. His silver hair is combed with precision, and he has absolutely splendid teeth – blindingly white and perfectly straight. His compact frame is just a shade over 5 foot 5 inches tall.
When it comes to style, he thinks we're all speaking the same global language. "I don't see any difference in Australian style, American style, European style – they all seem pretty much the same to me."
It's a vastly more casual world to the one where Hilfiger started out selling bell-bottom jeans in upstate New York in 1985. "Everyone in the world is becoming more casual," he says. "People aren't wearing ties that much anymore, they're wearing pants and trainers. If you look at what happened years ago in Silicon Valley, the theory is the more comfortable you are, the better you perform."
Hilfiger says he saw the 'athleisure' trend coming 35 years ago but never imagined it would permeate cultures and countries the way that it has. Sustainability is front of mind for the designer, who is still very hands on despite the company being sold to Phillips-Van Heusen for US$3 billion in 2010. "We're leaders in the industry in terms of sustainability," he says. "We figured out how to wash our denims without using water - it's a laser that breaks down the cloth."
For years Hilfiger denim was washed in indigo which would pollute waterways, but the company stopped using this method five years ago. "We use recycled denim, and we use cloth made from recycled plastic bottles, so we're really taking big steps forward. We have one earth, we have to protect it."
The challenge is keeping the brand on the cutting edge of youth culture, which Hilfiger has done by enlisting millennial stars such as Gigi Hadid and Zendaya to front his glossy campaigns. Yet he never wants to become "unreachable, or too expensive," he says.
Hilfiger used his visit to announce that his Adaptive range will now be sold in Australia for the first time. The line – inspired by his 24-year-old daughter, Kathleen, who has autism – features magnets and velcro to better suit customers with disabilities. "Overall the brand is inclusive and democratic," he adds. "I like to think we're making clothes for everyone– all different sizes, shapes and age groups, but at the same time keeping the spirit of the brand youthful."
The brand has become synonymous with hip hop, which would have surprised the young entrepreneur at the beginning of his career. "I grew up being obsessed with rock music and then in the late '80s the hip hop street kids embraced the brand," he says. "I didn't really know what hip hop was back then. Over time I've come to be an expert. I was just listening to [20-year-old US rapper] Juice Wrld."
Hilfiger is constantly on the move – "every other week I'm somewhere else" – but has one golden travel rule. He always packs his own bag. "I know exactly what I want," he says. "I would never want somebody to pack or unpack for me. I have to know what I have at all times."