Back when the internet was in its infancy in 1996, a false e-mail went viral with the subject line: “FWD: Tommy Hilfiger hates us…”
The email stated about the preppy fashion designer: “Did you see the recent Oprah Winfrey show on which Tommy Hilfiger was a guest? Oprah asked Hilfiger if his alleged statements about people of color were true – he’s been accused of saying things such as ‘If I had known that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice,’ and ‘I wish those people would not buy my clothes – they were made for upper-class whites.’ ”
There was not a grain of truth to the statements attributed to Hilfiger who at the time hadn’t even been on Oprah.
Now Hilfiger has revealed the full extent of the damage it did to his fashion brand in his new memoir American Dreamer, published next week.
“I thought it was nonsense, and that anyone who read it would know it was slander,” Hilfiger writes in the book. “For one thing, I’d never said, thought, or felt anything remotely so repugnant. For another, I’d never appeared on Oprah. “If I just ignore this,” I figured, ‘It’ll go away.’
“The opposite happened. It metastasized. Pretty soon the list of people I supposedly hated extended to Indians, Filipinos, gays, and others.”
The smear grew so out of control that Hilfiger hired corporate investigator Julius Kroll in an attempt to trace how it started. He even considered getting the FBI to investigate.
He writes: “After several months, Kroll’s company thought they had it traced to a college campus in the Northwest, but they couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion. We went so far as to try to get the FBI involved.”
The slander affected his bottom line, he reveals: “The rumor cost us money, but it didn’t ruin our business. In fact, between 1997 and 2000, sales continued to increase dramatically. It hurt my heart, though, and my integrity, because at the end of the day, that’s all you have.”
Hilfiger did actually go on Oprah where Winfrey told her audience the story was a “big fat lie”. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying he had done nothing wrong.
But Hilfiger writes the false accusations continue to plague him to this day: “The rumor persists. Friends tell me they still hear at the synagogue that I’m an anti-semite, and at church that I’m a racist. Even though it’s been a decade, the accusations still burn at times.”
On social media, the lie still won’t go away:
— Support at Tommy (@SupportatTommy) October 27, 2016
Is it Tommy Hilfiger or Calvin Klein that’s the racist? I always get them mixed up. https://t.co/Y6lmZPaWGU
— Jeisel TavárezVargas (@jeiseltv04) August 15, 2016
My brother just told me the owner of Tommy Hilfiger is racist asf
— Sensational (@_maryaxo) August 31, 2016
Hilfiger hints in his book a rival in the notoriously nasty fashion industry was behind the smear: “I have my own suspicions about who set this whole thing in motion and why, but without proof I won’t say any more.”