Tommy Hilfiger garb is seen in the schools, on the streets, in the grocery stores. It's spotted at fitness centers, in the malls, on music videos.
One cannot walk down the street without seeing someone wearing a T-shirt with the familiar red, white and blue flag, a sweater with the Tommy Hilfiger crest or a jacket with a huge Hilfiger logo.

Tommy Hilfiger clothes -- described as preppy with a twist -- are everywhere and on everyone.

As Vanity Fair described it, Hilfiger's audience "ranges from suburban schoolboys and their golfing dads to urban homeboys and their rapper heroes."

Rap star Snoop Doggy Dogg wears the Tommy Hilfiger label. So do his fans. President Clinton wears it. So does Hugh Grant.

Hilfiger, who grew up in Elmira, now creates everything from Tommy Jeans and underwear to fragrance and a brand-new women's line called "tommy" -- with a lower-case "t."

The awards keep rolling in. Hilfiger, who is currently out of the country on business, was honored as the 1995 Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. VH1, the music video cable network, awarded him for his success in taking fashions from the runways to the streets.

How big is he? "With $320 million in sales (fiscal 1995; it was $400 million in fiscal 1996), the 44-year-old designer heads the second-largest menswear company in the United States, second only to his arch-rival, Ralph Lauren," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in February, adding that the clothes became so popular 2 1/2 years ago that street vendors started selling counterfeit versions.

And according to the American Express Retail Index on back-to-school shopping, Tommy Hilfiger ranked No. 6 out of 17 on the list of favorite brands among high school students nationwide, behind Levi's, Nike, the Gap, Reebok and Guess. Calvin Klein was No. 7.

So what's so appealing about Tommy Hilfiger?

Experts and fans have a number of theories:

"One of the main things is his merchandising," said Alfred A. Arena, chairman of the menswear design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

"Originally, he had started mainly through a good merchandising campaign, but he has caught on because of the use of his colors -- especially things like red, white and blue, which people identify with. Currently he is using such bright combinations as red, lime, pink. So I would say it's mainly color and the youthfulness of his line. He gears everything toward a very hip, very trendy type of individual," he said.

Darnell Roberts, 22, said he's attracted to the brand's bright colors -- and more. He also wears Hilfiger's clothes because rappers wear them.

"I like that he marketed it for the hip-hop culture when he found out there was a market for it," said Roberts, a senior majoring in communications with a minor in black family studies at Niagara University.

Rappers even speak about "Tommy Hill" in their lyrics. And in national articles about Hilfiger, one source who has been quoted is hip-hop record mogul Russell Simmons. As the story goes, Simmons sends rappers Hilfiger's way. Hilfiger, in turn, advises Simmons on his own clothing business, Phat Farm.

It's no surprise, then, that young fans dress like their music stars.

"A lot of the city community looks at musicians and rappers pretty much as politicians. We listen to what they say and they direct us on how we live our lives," Roberts said.

For some urban youth, musicians -- like athletes -- even become role models.

"Kids want to do what they do, speak how they speak and wear what they wear," said Roberts, who owns a Tommy Hilfiger backpack, jacket and T-shirts yet continues to support African-American clothing lines such as Karl Kani, Phat Farm and Walker Wear.

In contrast to many other designers who have earned a street following, Hilfiger chose to acknowledge the market -- although it's just one segment of his customer base -- and is playing the hip-hop market for all that it's worth, according to Vanity Fair.

Today, for instance, the Hilfiger line includes plenty of oversize logos, bright colors and preppy looks combined with urban sports gear.

At the same time, Hilfiger continues to update plaids, stripes and other looks the traditional preppy crowd craves.

When Brandweek asked Hilfiger why some people buy into a "brand lifestyle" and wear Tommy Hilfiger from head to toe, the designer responded: "I think it has a lot to do with the confidence they have in either the designer or the product line. . . . Also, we started out being very preppy, so a lot of men throughout the U.S. feel comfortable wearing that look. It's something they were brought up with . . . from the grandfather, to the father, to the son," he said in the February 1996 issue.

"People get locked in these styles and they don't want to change. But maybe they feel that oxford shirt and those chino pants are a little bit cumbersome and they'll try something else. The same chino pants, but they want something new, fresh, relaxed."

And even though the labels inside many garments indicate that the clothing is made abroad, it looks as if it was harvested in the heartland.

Then there's the draw of a designer label.

"It's like a status symbol, too. If you have Tommy Hilfiger apparel, it creates a certain image. It says, 'I have money.' People want to wear nice clothing," Roberts said.

Hilfiger's cotton jersey soccer shirt costs $84. A nylon parka with fleece lining and the Tommy Hilfiger flag on the sleeve is priced at $195. At stores such as Lord & Taylor and Kaufmann's, the Tommy Hilfiger collection is displayed near other popular labels such as Polo Ralph Lauren and Nautica.

Some background: One of nine children, Hilfiger began in the fashion business in 1969 by traveling outside Elmira with $150 in his pocket, buying trendy bell-bottom jeans then bringing them back to his hometown and reselling them to local teens. Eventually he opened a chain of stores called People's Place and dabbled in design.

In 1979, he decided to design full time and moved to New York City with his wife, Susie. With the help of financial supporter Mohan Murjani, who was backing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans at the time, Hilfiger introduced his signature line in 1984. Five years later he and his partners bought the business from Murjani and took Tommy Hilfiger USA Inc. public in 1992.

Today, Hilfiger lives with his wife and their four children in a converted farm in Connecticut. And his world continues to expand.

His new "tommy" collection for women, available locally at the Bon-Ton, Eastern Hills, includes sweaters, short plaid kilts, jeans, chino pants, active athletic sportswear and more.

A white cotton jersey T-shirt is $24. Blue jeans are $48. A yellow slicker with corduroy collar is $136.

And coming soon is another introduction: a women's fragrance called -- what else? -- "tommy girl." It debuts in October.

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