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With Brash Advertising and a $20 Million Boost, Tommy Hilfiger Takes on Seventh Avenue Titans

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It was just last fall when a teaser billboard in Manhattan’s Times Square cryptically declared, “The 4 Great American Designers for Men Are: R—— L——-, P—— E——, C——- K——, T—— H———-.” Months later a blitz of 10-second TV commercials and magazine ads proclaimed, “First there was Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and Stanley Blacker. Then Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren. Today, it’s Tommy….”

In a world where celebrity often has more to do with shameless promotion than sheer talent, the phenomenal rise of Tommy Hilfiger isn’t the puzzlement it might seem. Hilfiger, 35, is the man of the moment in menswear, an upstart whose line of prep-smart sportswear has grossed more than $11 million in 18 months and whose grand plans call for opening six new stores nationwide by the end of this year, including a Rodeo Drive boutique.

Unlike the exalted designers who earned their names in Seventh Avenue’s fashion trenches, Hilfiger, a bouncy self-promoter with scant design credentials, was propelled into the public consciousness with a $20 million blast-off from Murjani International Ltd. The same company that made Gloria Vanderbilt a jeans queen in the early ’70s was on the prowl for a new designer and latched on to Hilfiger just as he was in search of a benefactor.

What followed was one of the most audacious marketing campaigns in Seventh Avenue memory. “They’re trying to make him into a name designer through promotion,” says Michael Coady, executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily. “In the end, the hype won’t make any difference if his clothes don’t deliver.” Deliver they do, however, in the form of cold cash to the 60 department stores and 25 specialty shops now carrying his men’s line. (Last month he unveiled his first women’s collection.) “Who knows if he’s real?” asks Don Zuidema, owner of L.A.’s Sporting Club boutiques. “All I know is his clothes sell like mad.”

Fashion’s newest prince calls himself “the next great American designer.” Immodest though he may be, Hilfiger is also a congenial flesh-presser who can often be found chatting up free-spending customers (his clothes sell from $25 for a cotton T-shirt to $160 for a blazer) in his New York boutique. Says onetime partner Larry Ste-merman: “Tommy is no overnight sensation. He’s been in the business 17 years and really paid his dues.”

The second of nine children, Hilfiger grew up in Elmira, N.Y., where father Richard is a jeweler and mother Virginia a nurse. As a high school senior he raised $300 with Stemerman and another friend, bought 15 pairs of jeans retail and peddled them in an Elmira basement, hardly making a profit. They tried it again, this time buying the jeans for $2 and selling them for $10. By 1972 their business had blossomed into a chain of seven Upstate New York jeans stores known as the People’s Place. The pals made “a lot of money,” Hilfiger says, and couldn’t spend it fast enough. “I was wild,” he remembers. “I used to go to London for weekends…I had a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Jaguar and a Jeep.”

At 28, Hilfiger gave in to his raging desire to become the next Bill Blass: “I decided that becoming a designer would really be a very nice life.” Conveniently, perhaps, the stores turned sour—partly by neglect. He and Stemerman filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws in 1977. Hilfiger prefers to gloss over that part of his story: “It’s embarrassing.”

In 1979 Hilfiger moved to Manhattan and picked up free-lance design jobs for companies like Jordache, which fired him for reasons neither side will discuss. With friends, he pooled $50,000 and started a sportswear company called, ironically, Twentieth Century Survival; it folded after a year. Not until he met apparel mogul Mohan Murjani, 39, two years ago did his career take its warp-speed turn. “He was exactly what I had envisioned a designer to be,” says Murjani.

Hilfiger does not take Murjani’s investment lightly. He rises at 5:30 a.m., dons gym clothes, settles into his 1986 black Jaguar and heads from his Connecticut home to a Manhattan health club. By 9, he is in his airy midtown office, talking shop with his eight design assistants; four each for his own line and Murjani’s Coca-Cola fashions, which he oversees. Hilfiger and his wife of six years, Susan, 27, are also busily redecorating the eight-bedroom French Country house in moneyed Greenwich which they bought last year. Susan, who met Tommy while working as creative director in his Ithaca, N.Y. store, has abandoned her career to raise daughter Alexandria, 15 months, and to savor the serene splendor of their four and a half acres. “If Tommy feels under pressure, he likes to give the baby a bath,” says Susan. “It just takes the weight off his shoulders.”

Hilfiger’s peers are piqued by his gadfly debut. But Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene have maintained a dignified silence. Only designer Stanley Blacker dares to offer an appraisal of their newest rival: “If he’s got the kind of staying power that Ralph and Calvin have, then great,” says Blacker. “Otherwise, he’s going to look foolish.”