"The only thing I got from Princeton was an inferiority complex,” my grandfather told my dad. Didn’t seem to have an effect on Norman’s (Princeton ‘41) plans or aspirations, however. Another bit of advice my grandfather passed on to his son was, in speaking of the clothing business, was “It’s a horse’s ass business and you’d be a horse’s ass to go into it,” a remark my father was fond of repeating to me in my early years in the trade. Strange because I think of my father as having been, unlike me, a dutiful, respectful son; and yet the two most important experiences in his life story were undertakings he was expressly warned by his father against. (As an aside here it may be interesting to reveal that as late as in his 80s my father reported to me of having violent nightmares involving Mr. A. E.) Nevertheless, Norman Hilton ignored some pretty strong paternal advice to his everlasting advantage.
At Princeton in the late 30s Norman was surrounded by young men who’d come from patrician families, grown up in Brookline or Greenwich, graduated from prestigious preparatory schools and were generally known as the “St. Grottlesex” crowd (an amalgam of those schools’ names.) This socio-economically elite class of men had a style that made an indelible impression on a kid from Newark Academy. They dressed in the style of English “county” gentlemen: a Yankee adaptation of the shooting wardrobe of English manorial weekends, reconstituted for indoor wear and modified somewhat by American taste. Along with ankle-length, narrow-legged trousers of gabardine or corduroy, cotton Oxford shirts and narrow repp ties, they wore softly tailored “sport coats:” unpadded jackets in naturally colored tweeds – solids, herringbones and patterns taken from the clan tartans and district checks of the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides. Thus did the “natural shoulder” and “Ivy League” styles become synonymous with the style that we, as children in the 60s, called “preppy.”
Ignoring his father’s warnings about the personal dangers of attending Princeton and entering the clothing business, Norman Hilton got the inspiration, the imprint of Northeastern breeding, and the commercial vehicle for his astounding creativity, marketing skill, and unfailing good taste. My father’s big idea, after leaving Princeton, (and, not incidentally, after a Harvard Business School MBA and a US Navy Lieutenancy,) was to use the Joseph Hilton & Sons factory to manufacture this style of jackets, and to sell them to independent retailers. He might have gone into a horse’s ass business, but he was certainly the only horse’s ass in it who’d gained two Ivy League degrees.
In the early going the line was called Norman Hilton Country Jackets, in homey reference to the genesis of the style. His earliest customers were stores in towns where there was an existing Ivy League element, but as this tweedy look gained acceptance (and took on other names: “Natural Shoulder,” “Traditional,” even “Madison Avenue,”) becoming the preferred dress style of America’s business and professional elite, Norman Hilton gained a reputation as purveyor of the finest quality, most refined version of it. I have no idea why he put his own name on the product, and to speculate would be to re-enter the Freudian fun house of the Hilton family history. It’s hard to believe, however, that Norman Hilton considered himself a “designer,” of the type we imagine today. It seems an oddity, really, in a day when men’s clothing lines had names like Worsted-Tex, Southwick, or Botany 500. By the mid-fifties he’d begun selling suits, too, and dropped the Country Jackets from the name. He told me that this was because Adam Gimbel, who was president of Saks Fifth Avenue back then, had told him the jackets-only schtick was too limited; that Saks’ customers who’d bought all those sport coats were ready for suits. The family business had some talented advertising personnel, who helped Norman realize an Ogilvy-does-Tiffany turn in marketing, combining the sophisticated copy and terrific photographs, classic-looking logo, and high-class image/positioning into a powerful nationwide print ad campaign. Pretty soon the Linden facility was beyond its capacity to fill the orders. From my sixth-grade perspective all this meant was the family move to a big new house, in Rumson, but looking back it’s plain to see that the Norman Hilton Clothing business was a rocketing success.
So you’ve heard all about the next chapter, the decision to do a classic brand-extension which included a Norman Hilton dress furnishings line and the consequent hiring of a talented young man named Ralph Lauren to put all that together; a Shakespearean plot twist in Norman’s history, providing him with fantastic return on a brilliant instinct, while hastening the obsolescence of the Natural Shoulder look and creating a competitive juggernaut that would steal his thunder, his customers, and even, eventually, his sales team. *
The backbone of the business was the factory staff, finally; the yeoman pattern makers, cutters, tailors, sewing machine operators and pressers who actually made Norman Hilton Clothing. The Ivy tide ebbed and the new generation of affluent consumers embraced the likes of Lauren, Cardin, and eventually Armani, but the clothing factory workers still got up every morning, saw their wives and husbands off to work or school, and showed up at 35 East Elizabeth Avenue in Linden to earn a day’s wages making really good clothes for gentlemen. Norman’s uncles, who’d run the 10-store metropolitan area retail operation, by then called Browning Fifth Avenue, were dying, one by one, leaving no one who knew or cared how to run their business, and the entire factory production was dependent on the wholesale sales of Norman Hilton. By this time, in an increasingly, globally competitive world of men’s fashions, the strength of the pure Ivy League as a fashion statement was over. Norman Hilton’s new designer, a poetic dreamer and would-be author in his late twenties, took on the task of remaking the image of the brand from purist traditional to the highest expression of classic craftsmanship and elegance. He could write the script; but who would produce the show?
What did Norman Hilton become? No longer a look, but a standard of excellence, a reality of effort. Hand-sewn armholes; hand set, stitched and felled collars; linings tacked by hand; button thread stacked and wrapped on high, unbreakable stems; buttonholes hand sewn with individually waxed skeins of pure linen thread; the entire garment pressed by hand with 10-pound, gas-fired irons – a dry press, crisper for the absence of steam; Bemberg lining and horn buttons. All this, and the finest piece goods we could find, from the great names of Huddersfield, England, the suiting fabric equivalent of Mecca, and boutique woolen mills in the hills and vales of Scotland and Ireland. Fabric buying was done at the mill, at the designer’s desk, one style at a time, changing thread colors, ordering vast blankets of patterns with nearly infinite varieties of color, texture, weight and finish. Specifying this decoration color, this softer finish or “hand,” and every decision thought out, rethought, reconsidered… Norman Hilton became clothing for connoisseurs in an increasingly mechanized, nonchalant age. A Stradivarius among Yamahas.
A few years ago the Ivy League look reemerged. A somewhat romantic nostalgia for all things Made In USA coincided with the advent of yet another sea change in the silhouette and shape of men’s clothing – smaller, shorter jackets, trimmer pants – which gave the Norman Hilton brand some re-found energy as a style leader. Trouble was, the customer thought the retail price should be old fashioned, too. Nowadays the cost of manufacturing the true Norman Hilton quality was above and beyond what the market for youthful fashion would bear. The name is, and always will be, an icon of quality; and quality in tailored clothing, as one of those intrepid Linden artisans once explained to me, is the combination of three equally important elements: comfort, durability, and beauty. To put all that together under an American roof is a costly business.
Other bits of paternal advice that Alex gave Norman are fascinating for other reasons, (and would forfeit the PG rating of this article,) not least because the advice my dad actually followed was, in terms of moral rectitude at least, categorically bad. The advice he ignored, though, gave American men of a certain age and background a brand of clothing which was like the uniform of an exclusive team, and while accomplishing that he created a standard of quality in tailored clothing that is a hallmark of what American ingenuity, energy and willpower can accomplish, given the right resources. Makes you wonder if we’ll ever see the like of it again.