Elmira, N.Y. – Nestled in the quaint campus of Elmira College is a fashion gallery that tells the story of one of the world’s most famous fashion designers.
The life and career of Tommy Hilfiger, who grew up in Elmira, N.Y., and still visits often, is showcased at the recently opened Tommy Hilfiger Gallery at the college’s Hamilton Hall. Tommy’s sister, Betsy Hilfiger, has been the gallery’s curator since its opening in October 2021 and says she is the family historian for the nine Hilfiger children. Though two of their siblings have since passed, Betsy said she, Tommy, and the remaining siblings “are extremely close.”
Tommy’s heart is close to his hometown of Elmira, and the college that helped to get his fashion career started. Tommy always liked clothing, according to Betsy, who still lives in Elmira. “Tommy’s first job was at a Hess gas station, and he really liked the shirts with the patches,” Betsy said.
Tommy’s first brush with fashion happened after he took a trip as a teen to New York City in 1969. “He went to New York City with a friend and his uncle, and he discovered bell bottom jeans were the hottest thing,” Betsy said. A short time later, Tommy and his friend returned to New York City with empty suitcases to pick up bell bottom jeans to bring back to their hometown.
Tommy sold his first pair of jeans to a girl at Elmira College who was there for cheerleading camp, according to Betsy. Soon, Tommy began to sell the jeans to others at the college campus.
The success of selling jeans to the college students led Tommy to open his first store in 1969, People’s Place, on Main Street in Elmira. Tommy, who partnered with friends Larry Stemerman and Jon Allen to open the store, started it in the basement of The Bootery, which was a shoe store owned by Stemerman’s family.
The first display one sees when they enter the gallery are items from the first People’s Place store, including a store poster from opening day and the original cash register. The old-fashioned, metal cash register is something Betsy has had since the beginning. “It weighs a ton,” Betsy said. “But I’ve moved it several times over the years. It’s been with me all these years,” said Betsy, who worked for Tommy at the store.
The People’s Place display area also includes Tommy’s first piece of clothing he designed: a long-sleeve red shirt with a white star and white fringe. “He started designing clothes and having others make it,” said Betsy, who noted that Hilfiger didn’t know how to sew at the time.
Tommy also opened three other People’s Place stores in the Finger Lakes region before moving to New York City in 1979 and meeting someone who would change his life forever. On a flight to India, Hilfiger met fashion mogul Mohan Murjani, who was intrigued enough to eventually offer Tommy a job. A pioneer in fashion merchandising, Murjani had helped to launch prominent brands such as Gloria Vanderbilt. Murjani had wanted to launch a men’s line and gave Hilfiger a chance to design.
Tommy’s Big Break
Tommy’s big break came in 1985 after a hangman-style billboard campaign ran in Times Square in New York. The ad compared Tommy to three prominent men’s fashion designers at the time – Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Ellis – using only their initials. “Everyone was wondering who T.H. was,” Betsy said. Eventually, the initials were filled in with the name Tommy Hilfiger and the brand started to acquire accounts with such retail chains as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s.
The Hilfiger brand eventually went global, and the designs caught the attention of artists and musicians. A sweater that Tommy designed for pop singer Michael Jackson is framed and on display at the gallery. Jackson had asked Tommy to design the sweater for a shoot he had with Vibe Magazine. “When he was done wearing the sweater, he gave it back to Tommy in a bag and said, ‘I only wear things once,’” Betsy said.
Photos of other music artists wearing clothing Tommy designed for them adorn the gallery walls. There’s pictures of R&B artist Usher wearing Tommy gear and one of Aaliyah with jeans and a Tommy top. A denim jumpsuit designed for Jennifer Lopez hangs on one of the walls. A pair of cut off denim shorts with butterfly patches designed for Mariah Carey also hangs at the gallery. There’s a picture of Tommy with the group Destiny’s Child, including Beyonce, all wearing his gear. The group was new then and was getting ready to perform at a fashion show at Macy’s, Betsy said.
Tommy always loved music and rock and roll, according to Betsy, and that love of music is reflected in the gallery not only with the designs for famous artists but also the guitars. There are guitars signed by artists such as one from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. There’s also a Tommy Hilfiger guitar made by Gibson that is on display. “Tommy actually received two of these,” Betsy said. “He gave the other one to JFK Jr. shortly before he died.”
Guitars that were played by Tommy’s brother Andy, who is a musician and designer, also are on display. Pictures of his brothers adorn the walls as well, including one of Tommy’s brother Billy, who also was a musician. Billy played with Pete Townsend, among others, according to Betsy. Billy passed away several years ago from cancer. A framed picture of Billy with the Rolling Stones is part of the rock and roll display area.
“He’s a Rolling Stones freak. He loves the Rolling Stones,” Betsy said of Tommy. “He has a home on the island of Mustique and Mick Jagger is his neighbor,” Betsy said. The island of Mustique is near the Barbados, Betsy explained.
Items from Tommy’s many collaborations also are part of the gallery. Tommy has designed racing jackets for Formula One Racing for driver Lewis Hamilton. Tommy also has collaborated with Timberland boot company to design shoes and the NFL to design apparel.
Tommy also teamed up with actress and singer Zendaya for her collection, of which pieces also are on display at the gallery. Tommy helped Zendaya with a fashion show she did a few years ago in Harlem, Betsy said. Tommy also designed clothing as part of merchandise for the Space Jam movies. Those pieces also hang on racks in the gallery.
The gallery also outlines how Hilfiger’s fashion empire has been a family affair. His love for family is captured in the displays with the many photographs of Tommy with his siblings. Andy previously worked in public relations for Tommy’s brand and some of his items are in the gallery as well. Tommy’s younger sister, Ginny, has her own line called Ginny H. There are images of her designs on a board in the gallery.
Images of Michael Fredo, Betsy’s son who also modeled for the brand, are on display. Fredo also is a musician who has toured with Britney Spears and photos from tours are included. There is a wall dedicated to childhood photos of Tommy and his family, including a portrait of his mother who was a nurse.
Tommy’s sister Susie (nee Dorothy), who recently passed away, had multiple sclerosis. Tommy had contributed in the past to MS fundraisers and had done a huge show in Los Angeles which Susie attended, according to Betsy.
Tommy has been involved in many other charities as well, some of which is part of the memorabilia on display at the gallery. There are plaques recognizing his donations to autism charities. Tommy even designed an adaptive clothing line in 2017 for kids with autism and special needs.
He also has made contributions to the local community, including providing contributions to help launch the Ernie Davis Community Center in Elmira. Davis was a football player who Tommy grew up with and looked up to. Davis, a football player, was the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. “He was Tommy’s idol growing up,” Betsy said. There’s several pictures and Davis related memorabilia items in the gallery as well.
When Tommy visited Elmira in October, he also made a sizable contribution to the Southern Tier Food Bank. “He’s just so willing and anxious to share. He’s very giving and caring,” Betsy said.
Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Business School
Perhaps one of Tommy’s greatest contributions to Elmira is his assistance to the college in starting the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Business School. Though most fashion schools focus on design, the program at Elmira College is part of the business administration major and emphasizes the business side of fashion. Concentrations and minors in fashion merchandising and fashion marketing are offered as part of the business curriculum.
The first students in the program began in fall 2021, according to Dr. Alison Wolfe, business and economics chair at the college and director of the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Business School.
By fall 2022, incoming students will have the opportunity to do a three-year accelerated program, Wolfe said. “And the students will have the opportunity to network with professionals in New York.” Betsy, who has known Wolfe since her days of working at the Hilfiger brand offices in New York City, also helped launch the program along with brother Andy.
Though the program is brand-new, it’s already influenced a new generation to aspire to work in fashion. Senior Rashaad Nurse, an intern for the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Business School, said he’s had the opportunity to network and learn a lot about the fashion industry in the past few months. When the Hilfiger brand’s design team arrived last fall to set up the gallery, Nurse was there. “They took me under their wing and guided me for the four to five days they were here,” Nurse said. “I had the opportunity to ask questions about how to start in the industry.”
Rashaad also was in charge of planning the welcoming of the Hilfiger family for the press conference at the gallery’s opening in October. Rashaad, who is on Elmira College’s basketball team, arranged to have the sports players on campus stand in a lineup to greet the Hilfigers as they arrived. The cheerleaders were in the front, cheering them on.
“It was basically more like a welcoming party for the family,” Nurse said. “Tommy loved the welcoming party,” Betsy added. Items from the press conference at the opening of the gallery, including basketballs that the sports teams held, are now on display on a table in the middle of the gallery.
Nurse grew up in Queens, New York, and started making his own clothes in high school. When he came to Elmira College, he began as a pre-med student but soon realized it was not for him. He talked with Dr. Wolfe and eventually went into business administration with a concentration in marketing.
“I’ve been wanting to be in fashion for quite a while now,” Nurse said. Upon graduation, Nurse hopes to work in the fashion industry. His biggest takeaway from his college experience? “Putting yourself out there and networking.”
This will probably not be Tommy’s last contribution to Elmira. Though he lives in Florida now, the small city of Elmira will always be home. “He’s very willing to come back here, especially with the school,” Betsy said. “He recently called me to ask when his class reunion is. It’s so nice of him to still care about doing that.”