NEW YORK — His models are no gaunt, pale mannequins. Rap singers, rock stars, and basketball players swagger down his runways.
He makes leather jackets for Puff Daddy and ties for President Clinton. He sells men's cologne with a guy's name on it. (Marketing told him that would never fly.)
He's got a $600 million fashion empire, but Tommy Hilfiger wants more.
"I never wanted to do what everyone else was doing," says the boyish designer with the wide smile, who at $13 million tops Women's Wear Daily's list of highest-paid designers.
"The key is to keep coming back, but in different ways," he said recently at his New York studio.
Hilfiger's name is already emblazoned on sweatshirts and wool blazers across the country - sold at his 55 outlet and specialty stores and 1,046 department-store fixtures.
But he wants his own TV show. He wants a record label. He wants to be a household name. When his Home Collection comes out next year, he'll move beyond clothes to Tommy sheets and Tommy tables.
He's forayed into the literary world with "All American: A Style Book," and has hired the power-publicist William Morris Agency for more projects - including a Super Bowl commercial introducing a new line of athletic wear and cologne.
Still, he is sometimes ribbed as the Madonna of the fashion world. "He's had his ups and downs," says fashion analyst Tom Julian. "He was beat up for being more of a merchandiser than a designer."
Even Hilfiger will tell you: "I'm not a Seventh Avenue designer. I'm not a couture designer in the true sense of the word." Nonetheless, he won Menswear Designer of the Year in 1995 from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Says executive director Fern Mallis: "Call it marketing. Call it whatever you want. The fact is, Tommy Hilfiger talked to customers a lot of other designers ignored...."
His street popularity was confirmed in 1994 when the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg wore a Hilfiger rugby shirt on "Saturday Night Live." Hip-hop wannabes from the 'burbs followed suit in Tommy's baggy jeans and oversized jackets.
He says he's proud of embracing these kids when others said it would finish him. This summer he went online to combat Internet rumors about racist remarks, which threatened to alienate his hip-hop following. "We had to get out there and tell the truth," Hilfiger says. "Just take a look at us and what we are doing."