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Is time up for Tommy?

Who's feeling the chill? The temperature of the Tommy Hilfiger brand has plummeted by several degrees. Hear that wheezing sound? That's hot air seeping out of a high-flying image. And understand this: Turning stone cold in the fashion industry can be more exasperating than bankruptcy, which at least allows you to cut your losses and move on.

The zenith of popularity is a precarious position. It is a perch from which a brand can seemingly do no wrong, when it's both hot and cool and generating such deafening buzz that there's an assumption of never-ending greatness.

And then, suddenly, the moment ends. The brand is lukewarm. Profitable but not hot. This is the state of Tommy Hilfiger.

Is that cheering we hear? For even in an industry that thrives on hype and has an impressive tolerance for self-indulgence, there are limits. There is a point at which a brand becomes irritatingly mammoth, and no matter where one is or what one does, it is suffocatingly inescapable.

Trend trackers began noticing the cooling of the Hilfiger label about a year ago. "One of the telltale signs that a brand is headed south . . . is that it starts increasing in popularity among 8- to 12-year-olds when it had previously been popular with teens and young adults," says Irma Zandl, founder of the Zandl Group, a market research firm. "That's generally a death knell for a brand."

Now, she says, surveys show the trend leaders who made Hilfiger hot are buying the studiously controversial Abercrombie & Fitch, FUBU and even the more conservative Nautica.

Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger has taken cowboy rock style as his new signature, with enough glitz to make a showgirl hyperventilate. The presentation of his spring 2000 line was a Vegas-style extravaganza that overwhelmed the clothes _ red, white and blue rodeo chic emblazoned with the pronouncement that "Tommy Rocks."

And then there were marketing misfires, Zandl says. She cites the hyping of Hilfiger the personality, and the decision to move from celebrating rappers Coolio and Treach to sponsoring concerts by Britney Spears, Jewel and the Rolling Stones. "Who cares about Jewel?" Zandl says. "The Stones are so boomer. Those choices to me have been a really bizarre thing."

Indeed, Wall Street has toned down its passion for Hilfiger. Analysts aren't as enthusiastically recommending the stock. And this month the stock itself fell almost 18 percent as the company announced that third-quarter earnings would fail to meet expectations due to lackluster retail sales. For the first time since it went public in 1992, the company disappointed investors.

Hilfiger remains one of the top wholesalers for designer jeans, fragrances and children's sportswear.

"We believe that the business fundamentals are sound and the brand remains strong," said company spokeswoman Catherine Fisher.

But perhaps more worrisome than the decline in Wall Street vigor is the loss of something less tangible. If a collection doesn't sell, customer feedback can provide concrete reasons why: poor fit, bland colors, too fancy, not fancy enough. Often such flaws of production or design can be quickly fixed.

But when the heat dissipates, there's no easy answer.

A year ago Luigi Maramotti, head of the stalwart Italian clothing house Max Mara, surveying a fashion landscape dotted with white-hot commodities like Gucci and Fendi observed that sometimes it's to a company's advantage to simply maintain a slow, steady simmer, because anything blisteringly hot quickly burns out or cools off.

Fashion magic comes in cycles that last about five years. Hilfiger hit his stride about 1995, when he won awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and VH1. You do the math.

The company plans broader distribution of its Blue Label, the high-end runway line that was reserved for flagship stores, along with new advertising and marketing campaigns aimed at young customers.

Undoubtedly it will try to use its fall 2000 menswear and womenswear shows in New York this month to generate new excitement.

Still, the brand initially gathered steam thanks to the serendipitous embrace of oversize Hilfiger togs by rappers, not because of advertising agencies, trend consultants or distribution plans.

Luck can be kind, but it rarely arrives on demand.

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