LAUDER ENLISTS HILFIGER FOR NEW FRAGRANCE

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Tommy Hilfiger knows clothes and this spring he'll find out if he knows the nose.

Come May, the men's fashion designer, whose Tommy Hilfiger Corp. is now the No. 1 publicly traded apparel stock, will follow the likes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein into fragrances through a licensing venture with Aramis Inc., an Estee Lauder company.

For nearly 48 years, Lauder has eschewed linkups with designers or any other licensing agreement, instead developing its own brands and building an image around Estee Lauder herself. Among the legions of designers Lauder is supposed to have spurned: Ralph Lauren, who ultimately found the sweet smell of success at Lauder archrival L'Oreal.

"Many more were at the altar before me," quipped Mr. Hilfiger, whose affordable classic clothes "with a twist" are worn by everyone from hip-hoppers to retired golfers.

The designer presides over a $300 million business that is expected to grow as much as 25% this year. He has become something of a cult figure, attracting up to 2,000 fans when he pops into stores to promote his wares. The attraction: a style that's a bit on the edge but not too much so, and a designer who's user friendly, as easy to talk with as his clothes are to wear.

"I'm positioned in a unique way. There's a 12-lane highway between The Gap at the low end and Ralph Lauren at the higher end. And that's where I am: affordable, but the same quality as the best," Mr. Hilfiger said.

Though some rivals have scorned Mr. Hilfiger as more of a marketer than a designer, the Lauder family sees it as a good match in the never abating battle among designer men's fragrances.

"The whole Lauder family is behind this," said Jeanne Chinard, the Aramis senior VP-executive creative director who worked closely with Mr. Hilfiger and his agency Toth Design & Advertising, Concord, Mass., to develop a marketing program for the scent called Tommy. "We were all waiting for him. He is the perfect match for us."

And a timely one. Aramis, a blockbuster in the 1970s when it claimed roughly half the market, has been under pressure from stiff competition by designer fragrance powerhouses such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Industry estimates now put Aramis sales at $118 million for a 13.5% share of the $500 million men's department store fragrance business.

What Aramis sees in Mr. Hilfiger is a chance to increase sales and expand its pool of consumers beyond those who have aged along with the Aramis brand. And it will spend heavily for that chance.

While spending wasn't disclosed, the first year marketing budget for Tommy is estimated at more than $20 million. A whopping 750,000 1-ounce samples will be handed out at stores, supported by national print, spot TV and outdoor ads using the theme "a new American fragrance."

Print advertising reflects an ethnic mix of five young men and one woman sitting on a fence up at Moosehead Lake, Maine. No sex, just plenty of smiles and the idea of having a good time. The same theme will be used in TV, which hasn't been finalized.

Mr. Hilfiger, expected to spend $20 million this year on marketing his men's clothes, also will tie the fragrance imagery into his clothes. The Tommy Jeans collection will be introduced along with the scent and the same models also will appear in his sportswear advertising. And in the works are plans for a women's sportswear line and fragrance.

"On the men's apparel side, Hilfiger is a strong middle-of-the-road department store name," said cosmetics industry consultant Allan Mottus. "If they can recreate what he's done in fashion, Tommy should be a very big success. With Aramis a mature brand and its sales declining, Hilfiger could put them back in the race with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren."

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