Tommy Hilfiger, this year’s recipient of the Harvard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award, spoke in Memorial Church last night about his trials and successes as a fashion designer and philanthropist.
The Foundation’s award recognizes individuals who have made significant humanitarian contributions, such as past recipients actress Sharon Stone and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The man behind a multi-billion dollar fashion line, Hilfiger drew the Foundation’s attention for his support of education and health programs, such as “Camp Tommy,” a summer program for disadvantaged urban youth, and the Race to Erase Multiple Sclerosis, which funds research into a cure for the disease.
But Hilfiger did not always have money to give away, as he told the story of his teenage dream to found his own fashion business.
“When I was 18, I knew there was no way I was going to college,” said Hilfiger. “My parents were really disappointed, but my college was going to be operating and running my own business.”
Starting with 150 dollars in his pocket, he said, he weathered several business failures before launching the company that became a multi-billion dollar global brand.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” said Hilfiger. “If there is an obstacle in front of you, find a way to go through it.”
Hilfiger added that he had always regarded humanitarian efforts as part of his life-long dream.
“The idea was to be flamboyant and write a check and give it to someone in need,” he said.
One audience member, though, questioned the selection of Tommy Hilfiger as this year’s award recipient.
“What kind of humanitarian work have you done that might not benefit the name ‘Tommy?’” asked Erinn M. Wattie ’06.
In response, Hilfiger mentioned his concerns for India and commercialization in Peru. President of the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation, Guy Vickers, then stood up to cite Hilfiger’s personal donations, such as a $1 million donation to a school in his hometown of Elmira, N.Y.
“Relative to peers in the fashion industry, Hilfiger’s admirable. But on a global level, there are many people who don’t wait to make millions before giving back,” Wattie told The Crimson after the speech.
But Baruch Shemtov ’09, a designer of his own line of ties, called Hilfiger’s speech “captivating” and said that he was impressed by Hilfiger’s personal contributions.
Hilfiger also joined members of the Foundation and select students for lunch yesterday in Lowell House.
One of the student speakers at the luncheon, Joseph K. Lee ’07, opened his speech saying that he felt nervous about speaking and had been advised “to imagine everyone in their underwear—Tommy Hilfiger underwear, of course.”
Hilfiger then discussed the philosophy behind his brand.
“I’d rather have fewer pairs of jeans to have better quality,” he said. “Quality is king.”
He also encouraged Harvard students to enter the fashion world.
“Fashion has endless sophistication, creativity, and excitement,” said Hilfiger. Afterward, Hilfiger stayed behind to answer student questions and sign autographs.
Asked for a single piece of advice for Harvard students, he said, “never give up” and “don’t believe rumors.”
False rumors have circulated online, claiming Hilfiger made disparaging comments about African-Americans on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show.
Winfrey has denied the rumors and said on her show, “Read my lips. Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on this show.”
—Staff writer Kathleen Pond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.