Growing up as one of nine children in Elmira, New York, clothing maker Tommy Hilfiger got an early lesson in wardrobes and sharing.
“My clothes were never my clothes,” Hilfiger said during an interview in his Manhattan office overlooking the Hudson River. “Whichever of my brothers got to a shirt fastest got to wear it. We shared everything.”
Now he shares the wealth gained from the success of his preppy-with-a-twist clothing, which generated $4.6 billion in global retail sales last year (Hilfiger sold the company in 2006). One beneficiary is a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr.
The Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation gave $6.25 million to the King Memorial project. Foundation President Guy Vickers, who serves as vice chairman of the memorial’s board, helped recruit donors to the $120 million undertaking. He and Hilfiger organized a 2007 benefit concert headlined by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder that raised $2 million. Hilfiger’s charity will serve as co-chairman at the Aug. 28 dedication of the Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
The memorial on the Washington Mall features a 28.5-foot granite sculpture of the civil-rights leader slain in 1968. It is surrounded by a wall inscribed with 14 of his most notable quotes.
The King project represents the largest philanthropic act from the designer, who launched his empire with a $150 investment and a line of bell-bottomed jeans in 1969. Hilfiger’s foundation was started in 1995 and has funded causes ranging from children’s issues to multiple sclerosis and cancer.
In 2009, Hilfiger and Vickers pledged $2 million to Millennium Promise, an international campaign to aid Africa and cut extreme poverty in half by the year 2015. The Hilfiger Foundation supports a community in Ruhiira, Uganda, by aiding its food production, schools, health care and economic-development programs.
“We went to this village, and the people didn’t have running water or electricity,” Hilfiger said. “They don’t have wood to burn to cook the food.”
The son of a watchmaker, Hilfiger opened his first clothing shop, People’s Place, at age 18. He soon began donating slightly defective clothing to the needy.
After reconnecting in 1999 with Vickers, a former high-school classmate at the Elmira Free Academy, Hilfiger tapped him to lead the foundation.
“When I reconnected with Tommy and asked him what it was like being successful, I thought he was going to give me the juice about the private jets and the women,” Vickers said. “He looked at me and said, ‘The best thing about it is that I can help people.’ That’s when we started talking about building a legacy.”