Report: Tommy Hilfiger still doesn’t know where those racism rumors started

The founder of the American legacy brand reflects on the impact of those rumors and his brand’s rise as a staple of streetwear.

If you’re of a certain age, you may recall a rumor that began in the late ‘90s about Tommy Hilfiger — specfically, that the designer appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and claimed he didn’t make his clothes for Black, Jewish, or Asian people.

This rumor has repeatedly been proved to be absolutely false, but what is true is how much Hilfiger appreciates that his brand has come to represent the intersection between aspirational luxury and streetwear in American culture. 

As he launches his new Classics Reborn line, the legendary American designer reflects on the legacy of his brand, including the impact of that racist urban legend, in a recent interview with The Guardian. Hilfiger discusses his brand’s start in the late ‘80s and how times may have changed in the decades since, but what his brand represents has not. 

Tommy Hilfiger, racism, American fashion, racism rumors,
Tommy Hilfiger attends the 2022 WWD Honors on Oct. 25, 2022 at Cipriani South Street in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

As a brand, Tommy Hilfiger simultaneously evokes youthful American preppydom and hip-hop culture. The brand began in earnest competition with fellow legacy brand Ralph Lauren, synonymous with American luxury, until it blossomed into streetwear. Hilfiger credits his brand’s rise to the most popular American brand of the ‘90s with its ability to hold space between those two seemingly disparate aesthetics that buzzy campaigns starring the late singer Aaliyah and other hip-hop and R&B icons of the era best exemplify.

“It was a perfect storm. I was dressing Puff Daddy for his tours. I was dressing Biggie Smalls. I was dressing Tupac,” he says, adding that famous rappers donning his clothes only made the preppy kids of America want his duds more.  

At the same time, with the internet just emerging, the pervasive rumor of Hilfiger’s alleged racism was being spun and popularized through chainmail. The truth of the matter is not only did Hilfiger never say such a thing, but he hadn’t even been on ”The Oprah Winfrey Show” at the time. In fact, the two moguls did not know even know each other. Hilfiger wouldn’t make his first appearance on the then-rebranded “Oprah” show until nearly 10 years later, in 2007. Hilfiger says he did everything he could to find the source of the rumor, including enlisting the help of the FBI, to no avail. 

“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,” says Hilfiger. 

That was then. Hilfiger acknowledges that if such a claim were to be made now, things would most likely go down a lot differently.  

“You didn’t have social media then — these days, if something blows up on [the fashion watchdog platform] Diet Prada, there are so many comments. It couldn’t happen now,” he says. 

Then and now, Hilfiger says his brand continues to represent everyone. The Hilfiger brand’s Peoples’ Place program offers opportunity to youth of color and Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive remains an anomaly in the industry, offering luxury-level options to clientele with special needs. And since the early aughts, Hilfiger campaigns and runway shows have featured models of diverse ethnicities and sizes. 

“We dress the real world. We don’t just dress cool people who make between this amount and this amount of money and live in this specific area,” Hilfiger tells the Guardian. “We’re very broad as a brand, and we want to celebrate our communities.”

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