Italy (How I Got Into Clothing, Part 2)
My father had signed up for a Berlitz course in Spanish. I suspect the inspiration for this was due in part to his long-standing affair with Carmen Pietri Tracy, our Puerto Rican-born neighbor who was also, by day, a, friend of my mother’s. I am sure Norman’s red-blooded fascination with Hemingway’s Spain was also a major motivator. It may be dangerous for a son to psychoanalyze, but I think Norman identified with the existentialist, macho mystique of Hemingway heroes. A kind of twentieth century paradigm: fatalistic; individualistic; empowered by force of will. For Whom The Bell Tolls, and, more significantly, Death In The Afternoon stirred his romantic spirit, (not to mention his libido,) although insufficiently to justify the effort and time required to learn another language. He’d given up after a couple of sessions. And so when he told me at Christmas about the job in Florence and Montefiascone, he added that I’d be able to prepare by using the balance of his Berlitz tuition for some classes in Italian.
I met my instructor, Antonella Ventre. “ (“Ven-tray!”) twice a week in a small classroom above Madison Avenue. No English. “Buongiorno. Come va?” Never much good at memorization, I had barely managed to stay awake in Latin classes for six years. I'd picked up enough of the peculiarities of Romance language grammar, but my couple of years of Hill School French were miserable. Très Miserable. Trying to remember “je vais, tu vas, il, (elle) va” – the infinite varieties of endings, reflexives, conditional cases, subjunctives – was totally beyond my ADD-addled high school brain’s ability. I'm not kidding. But Antonella never asked me to memorize anything. I would read from the text in Italian. Simple, everyday phrases. How are you? “Come stai?” My name is Nick. “Mi chiamo Nick.” A language as it’s spoken; like a child learns it. She would always, always, correct my pronunciation. Only the accent mattered, she’d say. Not the grammar. Even Italians don't use correct grammar all the time. The way to roll your Rs. The emphasis always on the next-to-last syllable. The music of the language; not the particulars. No grammar. Always, over and over, it was the accent. L’accento! La pronuncia! Lah-chain-tow! Lah pro-noon-cha! Don't recite: parlare. You may know the perfect word to use, even the correct grammar, how it goes into a sentence, even slang expressions, all that; but if you say it with an American accent that’s all they’ll hear, and all that memorizing won’t get you un bicchiere d’aqua, let alone directions from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi. Or a date. She was totally right. When I got there I could talk to people I met every day, at work, with my few Italian friends at the trattoria in Fiesole, in my pensione with Signora Ricci, my ancient landlady. Every conversation was like practice, and I eventually got to be what people call fluent. Naturally I didn't suspect that twenty years later I would use this fluency to organize and create, manufacture and import a collection of Italian-made clothing and furnishings because I could talk to designers, factory owners and manufacturers like I was un paisano. Serendipity or just plain luck; is there a difference? Antonella, Grazie!
The other fundamental of my life in Florence was a book, The Florentine Renaissance, by the Oxford art and history scholar Vincent Cronin.
I’d arrived in the cultural center of the millennium with practically no knowledge of what any of it meant, no background in the history or the art, but Cronin’s book explained it. In clear, matter-of-fact, conversational prose – the cultural equivalent of Antonella Ventre’s language lessons – he detailed the history of the town, from the Etruscans to the Medicis, the basic meaning of the word “renaissance,” being the rebirth of the ideas and tastes of classical Greek art and philosophy; the lives and works of Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Giotto; literally a guidebook to the sculptures and frescoes, museums and churches: the treasure that was Florence. Cronin introduced me to the more obscure and off-the-guidebook places. Human stories that made the artists and writers, from Donatello to Dante, Machiavelli and Savonarola, come to life.
Cronin’s amazing book would have been had less important had importance were my job at Liberto diBari’s firm, Pan Fin Firenze, beenLiberto DiBari’s pants factory, anything like a real job. It was the A classic sinecure – from the Latin meaning “without care;”” – a job that pays you for doing nothing. Usually describes a political appointment. And ; and by hiring me DiBari was in fact being political: kissing up to my old man,; or maybe, even Machiavellian; because by keeping me from actually learning anything, a way of he was sabotaging Norman, a possiblewould-be competitor., in a most passive-aggressive manner. They gave me a desk in the magazzino, the warehouse. Sit here. That was it. I would ask, from time to time, for something to do. Just wait. The message was, come here every day and sit by yourself in the warehouse. We’ll get around to finding you something to do. A new atrocityA DiBari invention: Italian Boredom Torture.
Finally DiBari showed up with a great box of files to translate for him. He had recently decided to pass on an opportunity to produce Levi’s jeans under license in Italy. By some Byzantine logic he’d chosen instead to take a license to manufacture jeans under the English brand, Gloverall, an old company who had a modest reputation – not for blue jeans, but for Loden cloth toggle coats. Levi’s had wanted a bigger percentage of sales as their fee. This bothered DiBari. About Liberto’s business judgment in general, need one say more? The Big Box, delivered to my basement “office,” was crammed with Levi’s marketing literature, which il Signore hoped would guide his efforts in the Gloverall venture, and I was to tell him how. Levi’s advertising was all about American heritage, San Francisco, the gold rush, and and Levi Strauss’s authenticity as the Original Blue Jean. In short, absolutely nothing in that box would help market a line with a brand sort-of famous in the UK for Yorkshire-made, stodgy woolen overcoats. My Italian was lacking in subtlety, for sure; my explanation blunt, and DiBari took in the news with lot of frowning and dismissive hand waving. Meeting over. DiBari’s enthusiasm for helping me develop business skills, while initially modest, dwindled, and the boredom torture resumed. Day after day. Niente da fare. Nervous at first, eventually I found it easy to call in and say, “I have something else to do today,” to the response, “Va bene!” And so I would roam the city, armed with Cronin’s book and an eager appetite for the art and story of this city of flowers. Six months of this and I was qualified to be a tour guide.
About one week a month I would travel down to Montefiascone, to my “real” job. Leo Lozzi, boss of Latham Clothes in Massachusetts and contractor for Ralph Lauren’s burgeoning Polo clothing business, had grown up in a family of tailors in the hillside town of Montefiascone, in the Province of Viterbo. In Italian terms, the middle of nowhere. Out of the way, picturesque and unchanged for centuries, a place you will never find in any Frommer’s Guide; but if you would care to visit the essential Italy, a movie set, complete with ancient cisterna, church and bell tower, and rustic vistas over Lago di Bolsena and beyond, you should visit. By some quirk of big family unplanning, Leo had two nephews, Luigi and Giuseppe, who were considerably older than he. His older sister’s two sons, both old enough to be Leo’s uncles, had a shop in the town where they’d been doing hand-sewn alterations for years, and, with Leo’s money and organizing help, had rounded up twenty or thirty local young men and women who’d learned something about sewing from mamma, and had begun a manufacturing business. The provincial and the national governments helped. The Bronzetti brothers' business, a local start-up, qualified for artigiano – artisan – status, giving them tax relief, government assistance and a break from the normal pay regulations. Using the Bronzettis as contractors, we Hiltons were competing against ourselves, with much better products at considerably lower prices. There was a fork in the road right there, one of many on the way to perdition, and we wound up not taking it. But read on.
My father had given Leo a pair of suit pants to copy, hand-tailored by Oxxford Clothes in Chicago, which was, in tailoring terms, a work of art. They featured an interior “curtain,” the entire waistband and pockets one piece, and made completely by hand. The Bronzettis copied it; but the Italian “findings,” the pocketing, the lining, the thread, the trims were so much finer than anything you could find in the US, the trousers were better than the original. And at 1800 lire to the dollar? Literally marvelous.
Leo had bigger plans, too. In a field outside of town, workmen had begun to construct a building which was to house a bigger and better Bronzetti operation. Suits! Sport jackets! Hand-tailored in Italy, to be sold in the US, the EU, and the world! Leo’s plans included a partnership with Norman in the venture. That’s where I came in. Actually, I came in on the back of Bruno di Tomasso’s big white Moto Guzzi, having arrived via the Settebello, Italy’s elegant mid-century express train, at Orvieto. Bruno was maybe the only resident of Montefiascone with any familiarity with English, and so he acted as interlocutor between the Norman Hilton offices in Linden and the Bronzetti brothers. So, to sum up, my father was taking orders from Norman Hilton customers nationwide, investing a ton of money in fabric, trim, sampling and labor, making a partnership with someone he hardly knew, planning to build a clothing factory, and I, along with a Marcello Mastroianni-type, motorcycle-riding, ex-Italian Air Force pilot with marginal English and zero business experience, were supposed to keep track of it all.
Everything went swimmingly. At first. Orders came in, (by air mail!) fabrics were received, cut, sewn, and pressed; pants of flannel, serge, gabardine, Prince of Wales plaids, bold, colorful tartans, even Indian Madras, were packed into parcels for America’s finest men’s stores. Only one silent problem; unsold seasonal fabrics, remnants of pieces not exhausted by customer orders – American tastes being completely alien to the European mentality – were unmarketable in Italy, or anywhere else. Once, when a particularly strange Madras plaid design arrived, I was summoned to look at it, to confirm that this weird fabric, originally intended for women’s saris and headscarfs, was, in fact, to be made into trousers for men. Incredibile! Unsold fabric inventory would be impossible to dispose of, being unfit for the European market and too expensive to export to dump at distressed prices to retail scavengers like Harry Rothman or others. This small infection would turn, eventually, fatal. Then there was the problem of the lawyers. The Italian lawyers dressed very nicely, enjoyed the lunches, were very polite. “We have to make an appointment to make an appointment. I will call next week,” one said. Then there was the peculiar Italian fascination with notarization. I was carrying reams of legal documents, province- and state-issued permits, pages and pages of medieval boilerplate, to be stamped, signed, and sealed by a local notario, who, despite being hardly ever open, was conceivably getting rich on this one deal. This slowed the already plodding pace of everything. What little motion there was came to a complete halt at the August vacanze, when everything in Montefiascone and everywhere else stopped like a freeze-frame in a silent movie. Still no contract, no agreement between Hilton, Lozzi, and the Bronzettis. Once again, niente da fare, which I had learned to do so well in Florence, so I returned.
Life in Florence, my personal graduate curriculum in ancient and modern Italian art, language, and culture, had some drawbacks. Lonely. DiBari, tired of my lamentations, or just to get me out of his sight, gave me a job in his clothing store, Confezioni DiBari, in the Por Santa Maria, near the Ponte Vecchio. The idea was that I would wait on the American customers. One problem. That summer, by another Nixon initiative, the US dollar was suddenly allowed to “float” against other currencies, and so had no fixed value against the lira. The dollar started the summer at 1800 lire per, descended at one point to only 1200 and then bounced around in between. The result? US tourists stayed away in droves. Your American Express Travelers Cheques would be worth something different daily. How could you come to Italy, not having any idea what you’d spend? Confezioni DiBari, like all of Florence, depended on the American tourist, and the mood among the sales staff at the store went from gloomy to antagonistic.
Then there was my personal life, or my excuse for one; getting flimsier. Jennifer, keen in January about joining me in June, had become incommunicado; the telephone was impossible, the mail glacial, and I (correctly, it turned out) began to detect a waning of her enthusiasm. Months went by and I was waiting. I’d made friends; Fiesole was an ex-pat haven, full of American intellectual and artistic types who gathered nightly at Mamma Lola, an open taverna in the central square, a sort-of Sun Also Rises-cum-1971 air; no shortage of chit-chat and wine-powered discourse. But something was missing. If, as I came to realize years later, life is really only about one's purpose, what we do, and legacy, what we leave behind, maybe everything was missing.
When Jennifer finally showed up we had to work pretty hard at living together after a long separation, and more and more it seemed like maybe la dolce vita was not happening. We made a go of it, riding out on my motorcycle to the Chianti vineyards, visiting Siena for il Palio, the mediaeval horse race in the central piazza, and San Gimignano, but it was no honeymoon. Jennifer studied and I tried to work, but there was a feeling of inevitability about the Bronzetti venture, and my Florentine retail career was clearly going nowhere, and I began to make plans to go stateside.
The Polo venture was exploding; kind of a Pyrrhic victory for Norman, his investment paying off but his crew abandoning ship, signing on with Ralph. By 1973 pretty much the entire team, who'd made Norman Hilton incredibly successful throughout the 60s, had gone. The natural shoulder, easy silhouette of the Traditional Era was losing ground to the shapely influence of the continental designers, and the the elder Hiltons, Charlie, my grandfather Alex, then Jerome were dying, leaving the Browning Fifth Avenue stores leaderless, sales plunging, future imperilled. Seemed like a propitious time to head home. I mean, what could happen?