The Visual Language of Tommy Hilfiger

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Hangman advert by Tommy Hilfiger, 1985
Hangman advert by Tommy Hilfiger, 1985

To celebrate New York fashion week, we highlight key visual aspects of the Tommy Hilfiger archive

To not include models or garments in an advertising camapign is a brave step. Even braver then, to include the names of your competitors. In 1985, Tommy Hilfiger did just that with the debut campaign for his label.

"In most households, the first three names [Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein] are household words. Get ready for another. His name (hint) is Tommy. The second name is not so easy. But in a few short months everybody in America will know ther's a new look", read the campaign.

"When we launched, I teamed up with George Lois to do a series of ads that compared me to all the designers I’d idolised for so long – Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein," Hilfiger reminisces in his 1997 book All-American. "It was a gutsy move, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with it at the time. But Mohan, Joel, and George convinced me to go for it, to leapfrog the competition in marketing. It worked."

Hilfiger's collaboration with legendary American art director, designer and author George Lois was the beginning of a longstanding partnership. The campaign, which first ran on a billboard in New York's Times Square, is now iconic. The game of hangman, believed to have begun in Victorian times, is simple yet graphically compelling and generates a sense of nostalgia in most.

To coincide with Tommy Hilfiger's A/W14 show, here we highlight key visual aspects of the Tommy Hilfiger archives.

The Iconic Logo
The hangman campaign focused on two key aspects of the Hilfiger brand: the importance of America and the brand's logo. The white and red fields in the central part of the logo were borrowed from the International Code of Signals' flag "H" ("Hotel"), which when hoisted alone, means that: "I have a pilot on board." Here, of course, it is the "H" for "Hilfiger".

The logo featured on a number of iconic archival pieces, most notably in the 1997 Tommy Jeans campaign featuring the late singer Aaliyah as well as Kate Hudson, Nicole Richie and Tamia. She modelled for the brand and later became an official spokesperson.

The Guerilla Approach 
In S/S10, Tommy Hilfiger's Miami-themed collection was brought to life in the form of a high profile ambient installation at Nuevos Ministerios in Madrid, Spain. In a celebration of stripes – one of Hilfiger's trademark motifs – the campaign invited target audience members to relax beach style in one of over 100 specially created and positioned Miami deckchairs with parasols, enjoy specially designed bottles of Tommy water, and a taste of Miami’s beach culture against the backdrop of a stunning Tommy Hilfiger billboard.

Introducing The Hilfigers
The Hilfiger family – a clever campaign concept which saw different generations dressed head to toe in the brand having a wonderful time – debuted for A/W10. The all-American tribe are seen in various guises, making trips to the country, taking holidays and on board a boat. The Hilfiger's campaign remains the ultimate personification of the preppy heritage and irreverent spirit of the brand. Family has always been important to the founder – he is one of nine children and had an all-American upbringing. "I played Little League baseball, small fry football, went ice skating and skiing with the family... I was in cub scouts and boy scouts," he says.

The Importance of a Group
The Hilfigers were often photographed in trademark family portrait style; and later, attention focused on the "preppy style" at the heart of the brand, with various school situations. "I've always revisited the basics: the clean-cut Ivy League look of the early 60s. In some very simple yet elegant clothing – blazers and sweaters from the college playing fields, chinos and denims from the blue-collar workforce... I have found a vocabulary of comfortable, easy dressing, the ingredients of the American preppy look and the foundations of popular style," Hilfiger says.

The group formation is a campaign favourite, most recently seen in the S/S14 Prada campaign photographed by Steven Meisel, featuring a large cast of new faces dressed in the vibrant colours of the new collection.

Text by Laura Bradley