With a strong work ethic and resume to prove it, it’s no surprise that designer and entrepreneur Dee Ocleppo Hilfiger, who has found success in the fashion world, continues to push the bar higher and rise in a business that has captivated her since she was a young girl.
As a former model, Ocleppo Hilfiger’s endearment for fashion emerged much earlier than her days—in front of the lens. Her mother, who she says always loved fashion and clothing, would “drag her along shopping,” which she absolutely hated. Ultimately, her mother’s love for fashion would begin to wear off on her daughter.
“I probably started paying attention to her Vogue magazines around the age of 11 or 12 years old, and that sparked my passion.”
The future designer would eventually find her way into the business, first as a model, and now as a designer. With her eponymous label, she has created a line of sought-after handbags, and more recently, has added a shoe line for both women and men. In early 2017, Ocleppo Hilfiger took on a new challenge when she became co-owner, creative director, and global ambassador for Judith Leiber, the iconic accessories brand known for its beautiful, glittering clutches that can be seen in the hands of countless celebrities.
Married to fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger for the past 10 years, she credits her husband with being instrumental in her decision to start designing. “We would always bounce ideas off each other, until one day he looked at me and said I should start designing for myself.”
BELLA caught up with the designer to talk about fashion, family [the couple have seven children combined], and the ways in which they are working together to bring awareness to causes close to their heart.
Your love for fashion began early on; was it something you dreamed of doing as a kid?
As a kid I dreamt of being a marine biologist and a photographer for National Geographic. I always had an affinity for the sea. I loved dolphins and remember when my parents took me to a marine park, I wanted to become a dolphin trainer instantly.
After watching “Flipper,” I thought it would be cool—and viable—to have a pet dolphin in our swimming pool! We also had a monthly subscription to National Geographic, and I was obsessed with all of the beautiful images of exotic people and places. I dreamt of being able to see all of those places myself one day.
Although your childhood dream took a slightly different path, you do travel all over the world in your role as global ambassador for Judith Leiber. It’s one of the many hats you wear in your partnership with the brand. What do those roles look like for you?
As the company’s creative director I oversee the creative design across all categories of product, including bags, sunglasses, and soon evening dresses, shoes, and even home decor. As global ambassador, I represent the brand mostly through personal appearances and social media platforms.
For the last six years you’ve been running your own brand, which consists of handbags and more recently a shoe line. When designing your handbags, you gave them a unique twist; where did the idea for interchangeable features come from?
As someone who travels constantly, I thought it was a terrific idea to easily change a bag from day to night or even change a color or material without packing several different bags.
You took that creativity a step further by incorporating the color pink into all of your bags and on the soles of the shoes. Is that your signature color?
I started lining my bags in pink because I thought it was much prettier than a black lining that looks like a black hole; plus it’s a whole lot easier to find things. So naturally when it came time to design the women’s shoes I wanted the soles to be pink as well. So, yes, it has become one of my signatures.
From where do you draw inspiration?
My inspiration comes from what I see and what appeals to me at that moment in time. I constantly seek to create something fresh that may not already exist. I also try to always keep my customer at the forefront of my mind when I’m designing. Comfort, price, and quality always need to exist.
How would you describe your style?
I’d say my style is eclectic. I don’t like to box myself in any one style category since I love and am inspired by all kinds of clothing. One day I can be wearing a very structured, tailored look, and the next day it could be more of a feminine, flowing floral dress. Whatever I may be wearing I do try to look put-together and like I cared to make an effort.
Your husband has been a driving force in the fashion business for a long time. Do the two of you turn to each other for advice and opinions when it comes to your work?
Absolutely. Whether it’s for work or anything else, we always turn to one another. Tommy and I share a true partnership in every sense of the word. Most importantly, we share an implicit trust.
Have you talked about collaborating together on a fashion line?
I would love to. We’ve already collaborated on several homes and a boat, but I’d have to say our best and most favorite collaboration has been our son Sebastian!
The Hilfiger household is a full one. When all of you are together how do you encourage that family connection?
I am pretty sure anyone with kids faces the same struggles trying to get their children off devices and to actually connect and talk at mealtime. I think it’s so important to spend quality family time together. Sharing each other’s feelings, ideas, and passions, as well as encouraging and supporting one another bring us closer as a family.
You and Tommy are dedicated to raising awareness about autism because it has touched your family. You’re both on the board of Autism Speaks. What do you want people to know about this disorder?
It’s a growing disorder that affects one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls. It affects children’s abilities to socially interact properly, which in turn affects just about everything in their lives. Unfortunately, the numbers are growing each year so research is crucial to stop this cruel epidemic.
Both autism and the organization, Autism Speaks, has been a huge part of our lives and something we are extremely passionate about as three of our seven children have been diagnosed on the spectrum.
What other organizations are close to your heart?
Tommy and I are also involved with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation founded by Evelyn and Leonard Lauder. I’m also on the board of Glam4Food, founded by my good friend Mary Alice Stephenson. It’s a nonprofit program that helps uplift anyone in need through fashion and beauty.
When it comes to beauty everyone has a different interpretation. How do you define it?
I define beauty by a warm and inviting smile, a compassionate and open heart, confidence, positivity, a great sense of humor, and a bit of lipstick on top!
Photography by John Russo
Styling by Mindy Gura and Paula Orlan
Makeup by Katrina Borgstrom
Hair by Ricardo Rojas