Tommy Hilfiger: In Conversation

By Emma Baker

I n New York in 1985, Tommy Hilfiger established a clothing label that defined an era. At the very same time Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat began working together on collaborative paintings; works that united two of the most influential artistic voices of the second half of the 20th Century. Created between 1984 and 1985 and being offered from the Tommy Hilfiger Collection, Sweet Pungent and New Flame exude the creative spirit of New York in the mid-1980s – an exhilarating moment in cultural history that brought forth a unique cross-pollination of music, fashion, and art.

Having been a part of this creative vanguard – a moment that witnessed the birth of hip-hop and the rise of graffiti-street culture – Hilfiger talks about his memories of Warhol and Basquiat and discusses the artistic potential of creative collaboration with Sotheby's Contemporary art specialist, Emma Baker.


Emma Baker: You've mentioned in the past that Warhol and Basquiat have been very inspirational to you – what is it about these artists that inspires you?

Tommy Hilfiger: First of all, I love their creativity. Basquiat was more of a street artist, and Warhol really brought all different walks of life together, from music stars, sports stars, Hollywood stars and ordinary people,and really coined 'fifteen minutes of fame' before Instagram or anything else. They were both very influential, and Andy really made a big impression on me — he was very interested in fashion, and what really impressed me was that he was the purveyor of Pop culture, and what I call FAME: fashion, art, music, entertainment, and he really inspired and influenced me tremendously.

EB: When did you first meet Warhol? What were you doing at that point?

TH: I was just starting Tommy Hilfiger, the company, and in 1985, my business partner, Mohan Murjani, who was friends with Andy, introduced us and we went to lunch at a restaurant in New York called La Grenouille. And he brought along a friend of his, by the name of Stephen Sprouse. Stephen was a punk rock artist and also he wanted to design his own range of clothing, and eventually he came up with this fluorescent coloured punk rock Spandex collection that was shocking to the fashion industry. That was with Andy's help, so Andy was really behind the scenes and at the time. He was doing all of his silkscreen portraits in neon, so a lot of those colours were ending up in Stephen Sprouse's collection.

EB: So at the time there was a real dialogue between fine art and fashion.

TH: That's right, and when Andy took me to his studio, people were making movies down in the basement, they were painting all over and there were people coming in and out. He’d just recently started Interview magazine, and he was always carrying a number of copies around that he would hand out to certain people. He would always feature certain people on the cover of the magazine; either stars, or people he felt were going to be stars. So he was really ahead of the whole celebrity Pop culture movement.


EB: Did Warhol influence your own work at all?

TH: Well, I was working in that environment and creating my own collection – that was the beginning of, I guess you could call it, dysfunctional preppy wear. Because I wanted to really make it way offbeat and unusual so I made everything way oversized and I used a lot of colour and detail.

EB: Did you also meet Basquiat around the same time?

TH: Basquiat was always around in the different clubs in New York – Area, Studio 54 – so I would see him around, he didn’t have quite the entourage Andy had, but he was present, on the scene, at the scene.

EB: It’s obviously documented and written about, but it sounds like it’s this creative moment in New York in the mid-1980s brought people like you, Warhol, Basquiat; and art, fashion and music, together.

TH: We’d go to Studio 54 at night, and on any given night, you would see Mick and Bianca [Jagger], Halston, Calvin Klein was around quite a bit, you’d certainly see Clemente, Keith Haring, Basquiat, you’d see the whole crowd of people who were either in fashion, music, entertainment or art.

EB: By the time you got to know Warhol had he already begun his collaborations with Basquiat?

TH: He had done some already, and when I bought my collaboration from Bruno Bischofberger, Bruno told me the story of introducing Andy and Jean-Michel in New York at the very beginning of the ‘80s, about how after they met Basquiat went straight back to his studio and painted a portrait of Andy and himself and then delivered it to Andy’s Factory later on that afternoon while the painting was still wet. That painting was called Dos Cabezas, which I bought at auction but later resold.


EB: Did you ever see them together as friends and what were your impressions of them as collaborators?

TH: When I saw them together it was usually at night, and Andy wasn’t terribly talkative in the club. He would just sit and observe, and Jean-Michel was also, I would say, in his own world. Andy would turn to somebody and say two words and then stare off into the crowd. He would really be observing.

EB: Like a real Baudelairean character then, a sort of flâneur?

TH: I think so in a way, because he was just always observing and then he would go back to his studio and produce incredible art.

EB: The music scene also seemed to play a big part for both artists…

TH: Well, Warhol loved the Velvet Underground, because he was really the man behind the band in the late ‘70s and early '80s, and he also was, I think, obsessed with Mick and the Stones. Basquiat was more into the very early days of hip-hop with Fab 5 Freddy, who was always around – this was from the very beginning of hip-hop.

EB: That obviously has been quite an important part of your history with the Hilfiger brand and how your clothes were adopted by this burgeoning hip-hop scene and culture. Is that something that connected you to Basquiat’s art?

TH: It was more the influence of street art or graffiti; I thought that was incredibly rebellious and very cool at the time. And because he really didn't care what people thought about his work, he just did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it and in the way he wanted to do it. This is when New York was a very different place. SoHo was quite desolate, it wasn’t commercial and it wasn't active. There were warehouses still manufacturing different products, so it was like an industrial neighbourhood, and that’s where a lot of the work was coming from, a lot of the arts.


EB: Is that where you would have been based at that time as well?

TH: I moved over to SoHo in 1982. In the '70s, I was living in the East Village, but SoHo was, at that time in the late '70s, just beginning to blossom. CBGBs was one of the rock clubs that was really more punk, with The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, a lot of punk bands played every night, and then Max's Kansas City in the '70s was where you might see David Bowie, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and any number of music artists and artists on any given night.

EB: In your work you’ve paired up with iconic musicians like the Rolling Stones; these two paintings are great collaborations between two of the twentieth-century's greatest artists. What do you see as the value of creative collaboration?

TH: I think when you have the opportunity to work with another creative force, and sometimes if you add one and one it makes three. I think sometimes two heads are better than one in any case, and I think it’s fun and interesting to collaborate. I mean, recently we've just collaborated with Gigi Hadid, and Gigi is a model and social media star, who has incredible style, so we decided to collaborate with her on collections, and it really gave new, useful energy to our whole line, our whole vibe.

EB: Having been created in 1985, which was obviously a major year for you and your work – this being the year Tommy Hilfiger was established as a brand – do these works remind you of that time?

TH: Yes, and I was thinking that at the time to have two great American Pop artists, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, painting on the same canvas was really exciting because I was thinking, could you imagine if Monet and Degas, or Picasso and Manet had painted together? Or if you think of maybe Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns painting on the same canvas, I think we’re talking about the same level of creativity and authority.


EB: It's remarkable, really that they created these works together; there is a real back and forth dialogue between their two visual styles, which are ostensibly quite different. There are even parts by Warhol in these paintings that Basquiat has just completely gone over and erased; how do you see that kind of tussle and the competitiveness come across between those two artists?

TH: Well, Basquiat was obsessed with Warhol and he wanted to be everything Andy was, and Andy was impressed with Basquiat because Basquiat was so irreverent, a part of the next generation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the poster of them with boxing gloves on? That was Bruno's idea to sort of pit them against each other in a way, with a sense of humour behind it. It was a time when a lot of music stars were also beginning to collaborate, like David Bowie and Mick Jagger with Dancing In The Street. A lot of people were talking about collaborations at that point in time, but not in fashion, more in art and music.

EB: Looking at the photos of your house in Miami, both works just fitted seamlessly into your home there. Were they instrumental in how you came up with the interior design?

TH: Yes, we worked with Martyn Lawrence Bullard, and the whole idea was to design the home around the art. So now we’re selling the home and moving to another part of Florida, Palm Beach.

EB: It must be hard to let go of these works, obviously having lived with them for so long and being so central to your home.

TH: We've enjoyed them for a number of years, now it's time for someone else to enjoy them.

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