If hindsight is 20-20, as they say, then missed opportunities are the eye chart. My early attempt to create an Italian-made line of sportswear is in icy-sharp focus; maybe the top line.
Looking at the Shakespearean Tragedy we might call Linden 1975 - 1995, there are several plot twists which I now see as precursors, premonitions of inevitable doom. This is after we’d let Lauren take his clothing production to Massachusetts, sufficiently alienated Halston that we lost his clothing production, and, finally, been unable to convince the Burberrys management to utilize our facility to manufacture a line of men’s suits, sport jackets and blazers. Business volume in Norman Hilton Clothing would ebb and flow, the Brooks Brothers contract would come to gnarly and contentious renegotiations, but we sailed along with the unconsciously hopeful attitude that next year, next season, next week, the American manufacturing of menswear would regain the robust growth and profitability of yesterday. This is the major, underlying theme of the time. The march of folly. Brings to mind the plight of real estate developers who, despite frequent constant warnings that, indeed, the ocean is going to continue to rise, persist in building condos on the beach. This is what we do!
I’d met a guy in Florence, Alberto Corsini, who had clothing and knitwear factories in Tuscany and Umbria and who wanted someone to give him access to the US market. Corsini knew we were importing trousers from Montefiascone and he offered me the opportunity to design and distribute a collection of Italian-made sportswear to round out our collection. The idea was to make clothes for weekends, since everything we made in Linden was strictly for the five-day-a-week professional, so limited to certain customers and certain stores. But this was way different. Definitely not the same old shit, and needed a clever moniker. “Nick Hilton da Corsini.” Though I thought the “da” sounded stupid. Corsini liked it; thought it sounded Italian. For a guy who couldn’t speak English it was a guess, I’d say, but his style sense was right on. We made tailored sportswear – at the time an oxymoron – Italian fabrics, cottons, linen, denim, with good workmanship and a young, international feeling. Sweaters, sport shirts and unconstructed, outerwear-sportswear pieces, a new sort kind of sport jacket. The attitude was fresh and hip, decidedly un-traditional.
Bob Slotnick, our CFO – no-one called him that; acronyms weren’t as popular back then – argued incessantly for quitting the Montefiascone trouser business because, as he indignantly reminded me, although the Italian government allowed us to import English and Japanese fabrics into Italy duty-free, we were obliged to turn around and export 100% of the cloth in made-up garments or pay the duty within a certain period. Inventories of unsold fabric had to be made up and sent somewhere or we would be forced to pay millions of lire to the Italian government just to let the goods rot. This gave Slotnick, who tended to histrionics, not to say hysterics, a cudgel to wave around at every meeting, every discussion, virtually every opportunity. My new Tailored Sportswear brainchild was, to him, Son of Frankenstein.
I hate math, especially the kind of math accountants use: that kind of Bang-You’re-Dead math. The first fall season went by without a hitch. The sweaters and lightly constructed jackets and sport-style pleated trousers were delivered on time, went into the retail stores, and, to the best of my knowledge, sold through fairly well. Spring was different. The little unconstructed cotton jacket we had made, converted from centimeters to inches, was much smaller than the size label said, and we got most of them back. Slotnick slapped on the war paint. He was just doing what any financial executive got paid to do, but my father, who would distract himself once in a while from the ever-expanding Burberry business, paying just enough attention to find out what the tribulations were in Linden, found out about yet again another Italian problem, which Slotnick whooped up like the Sioux at Little Big Horn, and Nick Hilton da Corsini got the hatchet. And so, after a year of research and development, trial and error, the future of the Hilton Clothing enterprise was set. We were a United States Clothing Manufacturing Company. What was important about us was the product, the steak, not the sizzle. Right then and there, I’m not thirty yet, I have some ideas; change is in the air. I have a feeling the market won’t go backwards anytime soon. I should have said, OK. See you around. But…
For the reader who may be scouring these pages for some insights in business management, here’s the main course: the disease of Institutional Senility, from which few enterprises ever emerge alive, presents as one of its early symptoms an inability to imagine a new type of endeavor. This is a legendary failing. The Pennsylvania Railroad failed to see itself as a “transportation company,” and so on. Hilton Clothes, Incorporated was unable to imagine a future in which the comforting thrum of the machinery upstairs had disappeared. Rather than envisioning the Hilton label as an upscale lifestyle brand ala Polo or Zegna, our management was addicted to a manufacturing identity. If I’d had any real balls back then, though, I’d have kept at it. It was the right thing to do, as any fool now can see. But Slotnick was master of the numbers, and numbers don’t lie. Within a year the Italian ventures were both terminated and the company went back to Doing One Thing Well. A handsome, venerated clothing factory, like a sleek luxury liner booked to capacity with tradition-enthralled passengers dancing to the same old tunes, sailing serenely through the calm North Atlantic night.