Nick Hilton Princeton
Good clothes for men and women.

A Memoir

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

Fred

Fred Pressman looked like he’d overslept, dressed in a hurry, combed his hair in the car on the way over. If you didn’t know him you might have thought he was a college professor, a police detective, but in my world this guy was Isaac Newton, Galileo, Nils Bohr. I just took it that he was fascinated by his work; that his personal style was inconsequential. Or that living in a world of myriad possibilities in style, he chose the simplest things, like a chef who fixes himself grilled cheese sandwiches. Not that his clothes were bad, out of style or funny-looking, just perfectly simple. Everything he wore was the finest of its kind. English tan gabardine or grey flannel trousers, a blue, medium-spread collar shirt, dark navy blazer of clear finish worsted, black slip-on shoes and always, always, the same black silk knit, square bottom tie. (In memory of Barney?) In bad weather he wore a Burberry raglan-sleeve, single-breasted fly-front raincoat. Columbo, by way of Tom Ford.

Never leave "well enough" alone.

Never leave "well enough" alone.

Fred’s aura transcended his appearance. His manner was gracious, charming, confident. That celebrity bearing, the self-assurance of a statesman. You knew you were in brilliant company. In addition to the wealth of experience, exposure to and understanding of the design aesthetic of every important clothier the world over, Pressman had something more valuable: he knew what would sell. And, beyond that, he knew what would contribute to Barneys’ growing prestige. This was the source of Fred’s aura: the single talent that constitutes retail genius. Something like that of the dowser, an instinct for recognizing what others don’t, or can’t, a sort of divination; except that Fred had no forked stick, no divining rod. He had his staff, the buyers, men like Peter Rizzo, whom he had groomed and schooled to search out the best of the old and new, from suits to handkerchiefs, underwear to overcoats. These scouts would bring their reports to Fred and if you were lucky he would come and see for himself.

Before Fred ran it, Barneys had been a discount store that sold off-brand close-outs from second-rate manufacturers, could have stayed that way. Like any kid my age, I remembered the radio spots for Barneys’ Boys’ Town. Mom could take junior for his first suit. “Select, don’t settle, at Barney’s!” the ads went. A friend who grew up in Greenwich Village tells of Barney himself, outside the store, sweeping the sidewalk, inviting in passersby with, “Hello! A nice suit for the boy?” he’d say, and my friend’s mother would tug him away from this Chelsea huckster. Barney made money doing huge volume at bargain prices. No romance; he bought theatre seats from an old movie house and put them by the doors. Patrons would sit and wait for a salesman to take them around. Barney’s, like Ripley’s or Robert Hall, might have stayed a schlock house. But for Fred’s vision.

Barneys New York - 1989

Barneys New York - 1989

There are a lot of folks who can spot something that has retail potential. Barney could. The store had been successful selling manufacturers’ overruns and otherwise undistinguished stuff, might have gone on doing so, and Fred could have gone to Miami in the winter and Saratoga in the summer, like my grandfather had. That’s not the talent I’m talking about. No, Alex Hilton and his younger brothers Jerome and Charlie had filled their ten stores with big brand names: Botany 500, Worsted Tex, Arrow Shirts, Countess Mara, all famous names, safe, sale-able, but these names actually diminished Browning Fifth Avenue’s stature. Not schlock, they were just meaningless. Fred’s talent was knowing what would sell, sure, but his special gift was knowing which products deserved to carry the Barneys label, products that would make money for him while adding to the cachet, to the mystique of his house. This is the gift of the true merchant. In the final quarter of the twentieth century there were these menswear giants, these Bashfords, Grodds, Pearlsteins; the Churchills and Roosevelts of apparel. Leaders. In today’s world, where it it isn't aesthetic excitement like Pressman's style divination, but only droll and expedient things, like advertising co-op money, guaranteed margins, markdown allowances, consignment agreements, that determine a retailer’s interest. From my perspective that species of style leader is extinct.

The retail graveyard is full of headstones with names of famous stores, dead from the disease of Entrenched Identity: This Is Who We Are! Barneys New York did not develop this sickness until decades later. The store, located as it was on Seventh Avenue at Seventeenth Street, was not in a bad location. It was in no location whatsoever. Whereas there were three powerhouse men’s stores on Madison Avenue in the 40s, there was no decent retailer of anything within thirty blocks of Barneys. To say there was no walk-by traffic was an overstatement. Pressman believed he could create New York’s most prestigious and most fashionable store at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Seventeenth Street. An audacious goal, and by the time I came along, he’d done it. No one knew the numbers for sure, because Fred and the Pressman family owned it completely, but employees like Lenny Damsky would swear that they were doing upwards of $100 million in the one location, a seven-story building which they now owned. Fred and his two sons, Gene and Robert, and his charming, smart wife Phyllis – who’d created a successful gifts and housewares section called The Passage – accomplished all this in just a few years. By the mid-80s Barneys was New York’s preeminent retailer, carrying the biggest assortment of the most sought-after brands: Hermès, Giorgio Armani, Oxxford, Hickey Freeman, the English line Chester Barrie, virtually every respected collection in the world in clothing, furnishings, even shoes. To insure this exclusivity, the company made licensing arrangements with such famous houses as Lanvin of Paris, and Savile Row’s Kilgore, French and Stanbury, designing silhouettes and fabric collections for these labels only available at Seventh Avenue at Seventeenth Street.

Who is this Armani guy?

Who is this Armani guy?

To be “at” Barneys was the sine-qua-non of a respectable house, a necessary endorsement for our line; but it had eluded us for years. And before I’d even met Fred Pressman I was behind a major eight ball. For one thing, my great-uncles’ chain of stores, Browning Fifth Avenue, had competed with Barneys for years, and top salesmen and buyers had been lured away from one by the other more than once, rankling managements. To make matters worse, Fred was mad at us, or at Norman, specifically, because of a problem that involved Giorgio Armani, as it happens. The Italian designer’s clothing was first made by an Italian company called Hilton. It was common for mid-century Italian companies to give themselves English-sounding names. The label on the clothing Barneys bought said “Giorgio Armani by Hilton” or something and when it was inspected by US customs at JFK some diligent clerk saw “Hilton,” checked the copyright list and blew the whistle. Norman heard the news from his lawyer and panicked. In the big emergency meeting with the lawyers, my father and Slotnick were on the warpath. Who was this Armani guy anyway?

At the Sunday pow-wow I stuck my neck out. I knew there was no one in the room but me who’d ever heard of Armani, but I said, “We should make a deal with these guys. Armani is going to be huge. Why don’t we try to work something out? Why make enemies? Especially since Barney’s helped us get the Burberry business,” I went on. “Shouldn’t we…”

Mickey Stockel, my dad’s trademark attorney, made a speech about how not protecting your mark was dangerous precedent, and anybody would be able to rip us off in the market and we’d be powerless to…

Hearing this, I tried to say, “But shouldn’t we just try to talk – ”

“Forget it,” Norman said. That was that. Meeting over.

Those Hilton/Armani suits, instead of making it to the racks down at Seventh Avenue and Seventeenth Street, went back to Italy. Years later I was in Guido Mosterts’ (the Hilton of Italy’s owner’s) office in Milan, trying to interest him in a deal, and he told what a monumental pain in the ass it was. He’d been on safari in Kenya or someplace and had to cut it short, to fly to New York to go to court. Then lost the case. Fred didn’t get over it so easily either. Plus he sensed (correctly) that my father was one of those old-school snobs who’d never got over the idea that Barneys was an off-price store. Whether out of family jealousy or just ignorance, my father had the notion that selling Norman Hilton to Barneys would damage our image. Fred sensed that, I think; and when I called on him he told me.

“So now you want to sell us?” Fred asked. “Your father wouldn’t talk to us.” We were sitting in The Café at Barneys, and I just about choked. I didn’t have much of a comeback. Gee. But we’re such nice guys. No, I just told him about my new stuff. I said I'd been working on models, modern fabrics, a new image. I couldn't tell if he was interested, really, but I guess he was. I mumbled something about how it was a new company. New attitudes. New vision. Something about how, for me, selling Barneys was a life-or-death deal for the brand. Ass-kissing, left, right, center. I had one trump card to play: Fred’s case of Paul Stuart Envy. Although Barneys was the premier destination for international men’s fashion, Fred coveted those Westchester and Connecticut commuters – brokers, bankers, lawyers – who got off the train at Grand Central and went to nearby Brooks Brothers, F.R. Tripler, Paul Stuart. Madison Avenue shoppers, who favored traditional natural shoulder clothes. Paul Stuart’s founder, Ralph Ostrove, was rumored to have invented the name Southwick for Grieco Brothers, its manufacturers. Southwick’s label stood for Ivy League refinement and Paul Stuart had it exclusively. Norman Hilton was a better product, more expensive. He could have it exclusively. Perhaps there was some paternal instinct working. Maybe it was just me, searching for something. Maybe sending his buyers to see my line, finally, was strictly a business decision. In my memory, at any rate, by the end of our luncheon the Armani thing and Fred's resentment of Norman were history; we were friends. I had a shot at selling Barneys. Over a sandwich in that Café we struck up a relationship that lasted through good times and, ultimately, disaster, until he died. Although he may not have known it, he was a mentor to me, and his memory still is. I’m sure he sensed my respect, bordering on awe, as he’d visit each season, tell me how we should redraw the pattern, fix the shoulder, reduce the chest. What kinds of fabrics to add. Tweaks and fixes I’d have resented from almost anyone else. But not from him. Soon Norman Hilton was featured in a glassed-in corner at the top of the central escalator in Barney’s, centerpiece of the Madison Room. That presence established Norman Hilton as a still-vital, premier American brand and gave Barneys the Ivy League credentials that Fred sought. It was my most important account, and remains my fondest memory.