Tangled Web

Dirty Linen

Why are they saying all those mean things about Tommy Hilfiger?

Fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger is in the news–make that “in the newsgroups.” For some months now, the Internet has been abuzz with rumors that Hilfiger made racist remarks in two separate television appearances.

According to various postings on the Net, Hilfiger confessed on Oprah that if he had been able to predict the success of his clothing among “Chinamen and niggers,” he would “never have made it so nice.” A shocked Winfrey allegedly cut to a commercial; when the show continued, she had changed out of her now-tainted Hilfiger outfit, and the designer was gone.

The second story has Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren appearing on CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch. Complimented on his success in selling his goods in the East, Lauren thanked his Asian customers. Enter Hilfiger, voicing his preference that Asians–“these people”–not wear his clothes. A spotty paraphrase of the allegations appeared in a Nov. 13, 1996, article in the Philippine newspaper Isyu. Titled “Eat Your Clothes, Mr. Racist Designer,” the piece has been excerpted on the Official Philippine Anti-Tommy Hilfiger site. The writer tiptoes around the charges, but is markedly less tentative when expressing her outrage. “I am shocked,” she fulminates. “If [Hilfiger] really did insult my people, you can bet I will do every single thing I can in my power to make sure that his label never makes it here.”

Forums ranging from soc.culture.african.american to talk.rumors and Streetsound have been thick with anti-Tommy talk of late. When rumors of the designer’s alleged racist outbursts filtered into the mainstream media, they were debunked by Time magazine, USA Today, and the Washington Post. But that didn’t stem angry calls for a boycott of his products. Nor did the official response of the Hilfiger Corp. Claiming to have become aware of the brouhaha only recently, the company has posted a memo on various anti-Tommy sites detailing the “simple and incontrovertible facts”: Hilfiger has never been on Oprah. Hilfiger has never been on Style. Far from wanting to limit his appeal, Hilfiger is on record about wanting to cross ethnic lines to appeal to everyone everywhere.

This isn’t the first time a fashion designer has been so vilified: Liz Claiborne was the subject of a virtually identical story, promoted by Spike Lee in a 1992 Esquire interview. (An earlier myth had her admitting publicly–again on Oprah–to connections with the church of Satan.) Corporate collisions with racial paranoia have become quite common. In the late 1980s, purported connections with the Ku Klux Klan so damaged the reputation of athletic-wear manufacturer Troop (whose name was rumored to be a Ku Klux Klan acronym for “To Rule Over Oppressed People”) that it was forced into bankruptcy. Talk of the inclusion of sterility-inducing ingredients targeting black men hobbled both Church’s Fried Chicken (1989) and the soft drink Tropical Fantasy (early 1990s). Kentucky Fried Chicken and a host of tobacco companies, including Brown & Williamson, R.J. Reynolds, and Philip Morris, were the subjects of similar Klan/sterility-related canards. Shoe manufacturers Reebok, Converse, Nike, and Puma were accused of supporting apartheid in South Africa. The corporate-conspiracy paradigm was easily extended to include Uncle Sam: AIDS was purportedly a U.S.-government-sponsored tool for black genocide, as was crack. When the San Jose Mercury News recently published its findings linking the CIA and Contra drug-runners, the rumors flared anew.

Tommy Hilfiger entered fashion circles in the mid-1980s. A Lauren clone (read: “khakis”) at the outset, he identified an underserved fashion niche–urban black America, which was drawn to Lauren’s WASPy abstractions but alienated by their overstated inaccessibility. Hilfiger saw potential for symbiosis between hip-hop and the Hamptons. The result: He still does the khakis and the yacht shots and the polo ponies (and the red-white-and-blue-stripe designs that some liken to the Confederate flag), but he mixes them up with punch-bright colors and exploded logos.

Hilfiger knew he had struck gold when he noticed black kids mixing the preppy look with sports gear on the street. As he told Vanity Fair in 1996, “I saw this and I said, ‘Oh my God. What a great opportunity.’ ” The fashion formula worked in both directions: Black urban kids craved the preppy look; white suburban kids wanted to be homeboys. Hilfiger’s creations gained credibility when hip-hop artists like Grand Puba (then of Brand Nubian) started wearing them. Tapping his friend and Def Jam Music Group head Russell Simmons for contacts, the designer pursued the rap crowd aggressively. Snoop Doggy Dogg wore Hilfiger on Saturday Night Live in 1994. The Fugees, TLC, and Doctor Dre have all donned the free threads Tommy has sent their way. The Hilfiger name was featured in the rap lyrics of Q-Tip and Grand Puba. And the corporation has thrived. Its shares have risen sevenfold since it went public in 1992; its sales are expected to rise 40 percent in FY ‘97 and a further 30 percent in FY ‘98.

Who, then, is behind the Tommy tales? As with most contemporary conspiracy stories, the source of this one remains elusive. Urban folk legends are invariably ascribed to a “friend” or, better still, a “friend of a friend” (a “FOAF,” to use folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand’s acronym), who is close enough to stabilize the urban legend but distant enough to escape genuine scrutiny. Predictably, therefore, the Isyu writer takes no responsibility for her information; some versions of the first inflammatory Oprah-related posting–by “Geoff”–thank “a friend from Texas” for the information; a newsgroup respondent claims to have “heard … from someone” that irate Filipinos had razed a Hilfiger factory. Less visible in the Hilfiger threads is the fact that Hong Kong textile baron and businessman Silas Chou owns 35 percent of the Hilfiger Corp. Hilfiger himself owns 22.5 percent.

In theory, the Web should be as good at eradicating legends as it is at cultivating them, but in practice, denials are quickly buried by new messages and updates. A week ago, Hilfiger’s official response clogged newsgroup indexes. Today, it has been swamped by even newer anti-Tommy postings and returning favorites.

Why Tommy? In her pathology of rumor in African-American culture, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Patricia A. Turner suggests that symbolically potent products like athletic gear and flashy clothes–products that tote high price tags but are of dubious utility–invite hostile theorizing. Aware that they are paying a premium for the label rather than the quality, minority consumers are bound to feel exploited. Dissociation with the producer of the offending temptation–a $400 jacket, say–becomes a coping mechanism, and rumor and conspiracy theories are only a step away. “Yo I think White America Is messing up our mind whit all of this bullshit,” claims one protester in a newsgroup. “They … are laughing at us saying if we make it thsese [sic] stupid ass Niggaz Will Buy it.”

As was the case with Reebok, Hilfiger’s pursuit of the minority market has exposed him to a backlash (it’s probably no accident that Lauren, whose turf he invaded, was cast as the good guy in the Klensch Style story). And damage control will prove a challenge. Newsgroupies were questioning the authenticity of Hilfiger’s official response soon after it appeared on the Net. How many times can you kill the phoenix? It’s a tough job–any takers?