There’s one thing I’m sure of, and that’s Don’t Be Too Sure. Remember Blockbuster Video? And who didn’t have a Blackberry? Hostess Twinkies? What’s next? I know one thing: Opinion Polls are doomed.
Back in the 80s, while we US menswear makers were arguing about what zippers to buy and how we could press this new Super 120s Italian crap that had every manufacturer pulling his hair out trying not to pucker, the man in the street was busy making other plans. “I’m thinking of ditching this suit altogether,” he said. “If David Geffen can do it…” And eventually, while we were concentrating on fighting other American manufacturers for market share, the market did what markets always do. The low-level accountant who had to wear a suit bought cheap Asian imports at mall stores, while the affluent suit wearer, the banker, lawyer, CEO-type, switched over to Zegna, or Brioni, Canali, or Samuelsohn of Canada; the rest of American men switched to Dockers and golf shirts. Just like the shoe business did in Brockton, Massachusetts, the tailored clothing business in the US imploded.
The death toll from the epidemic of manufacturing globalization included some of the most venerable names in American menswear, responsible in their heyday for literally millions of garments and tens of thousands of jobs. Huge companies: J. Schoeneman & Co., L. Grief & Bros., Pincus Brothers Maxwell, Joseph & Feiss, GGG, Petrocelli and others all closed up within ten years. You may have never heard of these firms, but you certainly were familiar with the brand names they produced: Ralph Lauren, Lanvin, Kilgour, French and Stanbury, Bill Blass, Palm Beach, even Hugo Boss. And although these firms together with the jobs they provided are all gone, the brand names they produced are alive and well. This is the purest evidence that building a brand name is more important, in the long run, than building a good product.
In my own life it was like jumping from one iceberg to another. When we closed I went (long story made short) to work for Hartz & Co., a medium-sized manufacturer in Frederick, Maryland. Ben Gilbert and the owner, a street-smart New Yorker named Al Cohen, sang a siren song to me and I jumped for it, bringing my talent and experience, which were irrelevant to them, and my brand names, Norman Hilton and Nick Hilton Collection, which were really all they wanted. But the grim reaper arrived in Frederick, inevitably, with Hartz’ name on his short list. In Cohen’s and Gilbert’s frantic attempt to lower the costs, I was an easy target. They had bought a 99-year lease on my brand, and they’d never listened to a word I’d said anyhow. The morning I got the ax, a colleague of mine said “You don’t seem to be too upset.” In fact I left their offices smiling; I’m smiling still. I jumped off and swam to safety.
In an interesting epilogue, Hartz’s ruin was accompanied (in fact, accelerated,) by a front-page-news crime drama. It turned out that Mr. Gilbert’s position previous to the president’s chair at Hartz was not at Hart, Schaffner and Marx, as he’d loudly and persistently claimed, but rather in the defendant’s seat in a Pennsylvania court room, where he’d been convicted of embezzling a half-million dollars and given a suspended sentence. Cohen had obviously not done any background check on the guy and had thus made a convicted felon his Chief Executive Officer, with complete financial control of the company. Over the course of his tenure at Hartz & Co., Gilbert swindled a million and a half dollars – or at least that’s what they convicted him of, God knows how much he really stole. Cohen dropped dead of a heart attack in his office two weeks after hearing the news.
It wasn’t without a good deal of trepidation, mind you, that I started out on this new career. I mean, who knew? I’m pretty sure, when I turned around in that fateful moment on that Princeton July afternoon in 2001 and saw the “For Rent” sign on what would be the site of the most successful venture I’d ever undertaken, that it had nothing to do with Hilton Clothes, or Hartz & Co., or anything else, but fate. I didn’t give any thought to the four men’s clothing stores in Princeton which had all gone out of business in the preceding decade. What I mean is, when I jumped to the next iceberg, it was without any idea of what was going to happen. But I wasn’t looking back.
So what’s the moral of the story? Success is an inside job. The vagaries of any market, or of commerce generally, are hard to predict, and the individual who is flexible, adaptable, open to change, willing to jump to a different iceberg, prepared for any eventuality, is most likely to succeed. Building the right widget is not going to save you; it’s building the right mind, the right spirit in a healthy body. Go on, learn to meditate. Take that walk. Go to that dance class, that singing lesson. Enjoy your work; work hard, but don’t make hard work of it. Your destiny is up to you; fate will always have other plans.