IT BEGAN with a rumour in July. The reason, so it was said, that the Duchess of York was being lent a private jet by American designer Tommy Hilfiger to fly her on holiday with sister-in-law Princess Diana and their children was as a reward for having agreed to become spokesperson for the fashion label. Like all good rumours, of course it never happened but it certainly served its purpose. Deliberate or not, it was the start of one of the slickest marketing campaigns ever to hit London. And the city, in turn, became the focus of a huge Europe-wide Hilfiger launch. The Independent, The Financial Times, all the glossy magazines - everyone was talking Hilfiger. As it had been in America, so it would be in Britain. There was the advertising blitz for the new Tommy fragrance, the announcements that Hilfiger would open a shop in prestigous New Bond Street. By the time London Fashion Week arrived - to wild excitement about a Hilfiger catwalk show - the celebrities were fighting to get into the 44-year-old designer's party in Dickson Poon's spanking new Oxo Tower. Top black rapper Treach was heard chanting Mr Q-Tip's testimonial to Hilfiger, 'Tommy Hi was my nigga/and others couldn't figga/how me and Hilfigga/used to move through with vigga' while Naomi, Stella, Kate, Kirsty and a host of supermodels dancing to the beat. The setting was appropriate for the man, who has every reason to be grateful for a Hong Kong connection. Behind every successful fashion designer is a backer with knowhow and, as Tommymania gripped Europe, Hilfiger's backer, Hong Kong-based businessman Silas Kei Fong Chou, must have been smiling happily to himself. Not only were the years of quietly nurturing the label paying off yet again, but he could look forward to seeing the same frenzy grip his home territory. This September, the Tommy fragrance arrived in Hong Kong and so did Hilfiger, sourcing for his new womenswear line but also discussing plans to bring his label here. For Chou, London must have seemed a mere dress rehearsal for Hong Kong. Both men are keeping plans close to their chests. They don't want the competition to get wind. But Hilfiger stopped being coy long enough to say, 'The Asians have a very keen sense of fashion. They love status brands. We are looking at Asia as an incredible development in the future. I will never say it's easy but it is comfortable moving into a market that is so accepting of our concept. It's really a tremendous compliment to us.' Whether Hilfiger's concept - a sportswear collection that appeals very much at street level and uses marketing to give the label cache - proves such a hit in chic sleek Hong Kong remains to be seen. Almost everything in the collection seems too big or too colourful. It's the twist Hilfiger gives to a classic preppy look. Today, you can't walk down the streets of a major American city without seeing well-turned out black kids wearing Hilfiger's designs. He was dragged over the racial divide when his musician brother Andy, en route for home from Hong Kong, spotted the rapper Grand Puba at Kennedy airport in a Hilfiger shirt. Never one to let such an endorsement go to waste, Hilfiger's clothes have since been worn by everyone from Michael Jackson to Snoop Doggy Dog. 'Black hip-hop kids have great style, wearing clothes exaggeratedly over-sized. White suburban kids are now setting the trend with snowboarding gear, which is being taken up in poorer urban areas. It's like ping-pong,' says Hilfiger, who lists Asian-Americans in California as some of his best customers. 'Tommy's look transcends racial barriers. It's not a WASP [White Anglo Saxon Protestant] label like Ralph Lauren,' says Avril Graham, executive fashion editor of American Marie Claire. 'Tommy has street cred among the young black generation, as well as the traditional American sportswear buyers. It's an instantly recognisable name. The look is classic preppy, it's sporty, but it's cleverly marketed to a whole range of groups, who wear it in a way that makes it particular to their age and lifestyle.' US President Bill Clinton wears his ties. David Bowie, John Kennedy, even the Prince of Wales have Hilfiger in their wardrobes. Hanging up in Hilfiger's Connecticut home is a framed letter from the Prince's valet complimenting the designer on the way he takes a traditional design and adds a novel angle. Hilfiger is a man of the people, despite those validations and his personal wealth, insists Chou. 'We've become a designer brand name because the image is accessible. Tommy designs clothes at affordable prices. He inspires freedom. He doesn't have the arrogance of a designer. He is an ordinary person. While Ralph Lauren is aristocratic, Tommy is an ordinary person. He is good-natured, very easy-going and a little shy.' The populist approach has reaped rewards for the label. Hilfiger is the biggest selling menswear designer in America, a fact noted by his peers who awarded him 1995 Menswear Designer Of The Year. Today, there are over 900 boutiques in the US. From US$25 million (HK$193 million) sales in the first year, the company has grown into a $450 million empire. Listed on the New York stock exchange since 1992, last year's profits had risen by 51 per cent on the previous year. For Hilfiger - who started in the business buying 20 pairs of bellbottoms in New York to sell on to friends then moved on to own a small store selling jeans and incense then shops on campuses across the country - the turnaround is a very long way from the bankruptcy which followed such instant success. After the crash there were two disastrous business partnerships. And then there was Chou. Chou hails from one of Hong Kong's oldest textile and garment families. His grandfather ran a small tailoring shop in Shanghai in the early 1930s. His son joined the thriving business. But then, when Silas was three, the family fled Shanghai, hidden on a boat, as the communists descended on the city. The Chou clan landed on their feet in Hong Kong. 'Hong Kong was a fishing village at the time,' recalls Chou, 'and it was Shanghainese know-how that turned it into a industrial city during the 1950s-1970s and an export dynamo in the garment and textile industry.' Chou's father started his new life with nothing. Today his textile company, Novel Enterprises, is one of the most successful and influential in Hong Kong. Unlike his four brothers and five sisters, Silas Chou spurned further education. His brothers went to universities in Tokyo and Illinois, while his sisters went to China and France. Silas, however, told his father he didn't want to waste time at school. 'My father agreed to let me leave. I did say to him I was worried that so many people nowadays have MBAs and PhDs but, well, what about me? My father replied: 'It doesn't matter. If you work hard, you will have loads of MBAs and PhDs working for you.' And today I do have a lot . . .' He discovered Hilfiger selling from a tiny little shop in Rodeo Drive and immediately set out in pursuit of the designer. At the time, Hilfiger was licensed to design a collection manufactured by Murjani, the company which had built the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans label in the 1970s. Chou, who owned Polo Ralph Lauren in Europe, bombarded the Murjani office with telephone calls, offering to manufacture Hilfiger's sweaters. He got the contract and when the bottom fell out of the Murjani empire in 1988, Chou came to Hilfiger's rescue. 'In those days, I was making and distributing Ralph Lauren Polo so I knew that look very well, but with Tommy there was something different. My son was about 10 years old at the time and I had already noticed that his way of wearing clothes was very relaxed. Tommy's look is similar to Polo, but Polo's polo shirts grab your body. Polo's Oxford shirt is very tight, so are the sweaters. With Tommy, everything is oversized and relaxed.' Chou may have been Hilfiger's white knight but there was a price to be paid. He wanted to own the brand. Hilfiger would have to relinquish the rights to his own name, a concession that deeply worried him at first. In exchange, he would receive 22.5 per cent of the new company. Chou cornered him and made clear his intentions. 'I said, 'Tommy, what do you really want? Do you want to be a pea or an elephant? Do you want to be a small part of a big elephant, or a big part of a small pea?''' Hilfiger answered, 'I want to be a small part of an elephant.' So the empire was launched, Hilfiger with his share, Chou with 35 per cent (he sold Polo Ralph Lauren Europe), his Canadian partner Lawrence Stroll with another 35 per cent and Joel Horowitz, the CEO and president of Tommy Hilfiger USA, with 7.5 per cent. From the outset, Hilfiger felt a sense of destiny about his latest partnership: 'I thought I could think big until I met Silas. Then he taught me to think gigantic. We've hit it off really well. I have such a respect for him as a businessmen and beyond that as a human being.' 'He is good-natured, very easy-going and a little shy,' says Chou of a man who is the antithesis of the elitist designer image although Hilfiger does sport all the trappings of success, from houses in Connecticut to Mustique - next to Mick Jagger's - which he shares with wife Susie and four children, a Gulfstream II jet and an annual personal income of $6 million. 'Today, we are so busy but we share common values,' says Chou. 'Whenever we can, Tommy and I go home for dinner. Tommy puts his children to bed and in the morning he takes them to school. Although he can afford to take a helicopter to work, he chooses to take the children to school. I talk to my children [two sons and a daughter] every day, for instance, and we share this kind of value.' The rise and rise of Tommy Hilfiger has been good to Chou. He pushed hard for expansion, backing it up with sophisticated marketing focused directly on the charming boyish designer and creating a nostalgic aura of good, clean living and fresh-faced youth. The timing was perfect, catching the big loosening up in fashion at the end of the 1980s. The designer look was losing its grip as consumers switched to lifestyle dressing. Comfort and leisure were the new buzzwords. Gap, Banana Republic, designer second lines such as DKNY and CK, sports labels such as Nike and Adidas all saw their sales jump. Hilfiger offered the best of both worlds: designer and casualwear merged into one. When Chou first backed Hilfiger, he eliminated all but the core menswear sportswear collection from the business. 'I told him to think big but act small,' says Chou. Slowly gaining confidence, they built the portfolio of the collection including the new women's sportswear line - 20 per cent of the menswear items sell to women - which debuted recently in London. 'Black urban youth is the just eye of the hurricane. There is the fragrance, the eyewear, the athletic sportswear, women's and the preppy look. However, Hilfiger has not nailed the waspish urban thing like Ralph Lauren yet, but he has acknowledged that he hasn't and he is working on it,' explains Ashley Heath, senior editor of Britain's highly influential magazine The Face. As the portfolio of Hilfiger collections grew, so did rapid retail expansion. To finance this, the label went public in 1992. Chou, Hilfiger and their partners sold equity again in 1994, taking advantage of the company's surging stock price. Chou and Hilfiger's shareholdings are reportedly now down to single figures. Chou and Stroll have used their profits to buy Pepe Jeans - the world's fourth largest jeans brand - which holds the licences for some of the Hilfiger lines. Then, in 1993, Chou bought out Novel Enterprises' public shareholders, regaining control of his family's manufacturing company. His family was not only returning to its business roots, but also returning to Shanghai, opening the Novel Plaza. A $60 million 22-storey joint venture in which the family will have a 75 per cent stake, it includes a shopping mall, restaurants, clubs and an office tower - a total of 25,000 square metres. 'Everything has now totally changed in China,' explains Chou of his latest project. 'There is still the Communist Party but they don't believe in collectivisation - so we went back. That is why my father is so very happy today.' The family who fled with nothing went back bigtime with more than a nod to Mr Hilfiger.