Uh-Oh. (Or, How I Got Into Clothing Part 3)
When I got back it was even weirder.
A metamorphosis of style hit the sleeping American clothing industry like a tab of Owsley Stanley’s blotter acid. Change! Now! Manufacturers were like teenagers at the campus deli, and someone had loaded the jukebox with Jimi Hendrix and The Mothers of Invention – psychedelic shock rock, kids. Following the frantic pace of the changes in everything: human rights, sexual mores and other drugs, the clothes people wore were as extravagantly new, unorthodox, strange. Minis. Maxis, batik, tie-dye, bell-bottoms, embroidered tunics, huarache sandals, hip-huggers. Velvet and denim. Brave New World! A Lexington Avenue boutique, The Different Drummer, advertised with a billboard that said it all with unforgettable imagery, a picture of the owner, grimacing, holding a big mound of feces beneath the slogan “Tired of the Same Old Shit?”
American men began to think that dressing unconventionally, in a modern, untraditional ways, was a measure of Cool. The Leisure Suit appeared. The Nehru. Wide shoulders and wider lapels, tight, shaped waists, crazy patterns. The venerable Avenue Montaigne houses, Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin (and inevitable myriad cheap wannabes – even Johnny Carson had a clothing line!) captured the imagination of leading retailers, like Saks, Marshall Field, I. Magnin. Polo and less expensive pretenders with names like Country Britches and Arthur Richards were romancing the modern-minded traditionalists, while established, traditional, Ivy League stores, Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and J.R. Tripler on Madison Avenue were on oxygen. Paul Stuart, the colorful, innovative upstart was eating their neighbors’ traditional lunch. Stores like my uncles’ Browning Fifth Avenue, (the recipient of two of every three garments Hilton Clothes produced,) innocent of any real aesthetic, let alone a modern, competitive strategy, and having existed for years on nothing other than a surfeit of demand for generic menswear, were being decimated by shape-conscious, style conscious, sex-conscious, up-to-date competitors. At Norman Hilton’s offices at 1290 Avenue of the Americas it was a full-scale five-alarm fire. 1966 through 1968 were the golden years. The Linden facility, between the Browning production and the Norman Hilton sales, had produced a memorable 67,000 garments in 1967. This had been the high-water mark, and by 1971, when I showed up, the tide had pretty much gone out.
That may be the when I first began to hear the word “undercapitalized” to describe the company, implying that Joe Hilton and his nine (that’s right, 9) children had lived quite nicely, but neglected to consider the inevitable. And the success of Norman Hilton had not made the manufacturing company fat, by any means. The colossal earnings of the late 60’s were gone like the confetti at a New Year’s celebration. The talk around the office was of factors, collateral, receivables, covenants. The Bank. I’m not sure anyone was even thinking about how to make nice clothes; it would have been like making up your Christmas list while flying a fighter plane in a dog fight. When Mr. Lange, the president of Midlantic Commercial, the company’s new factor visited, it was like an affair of state, lunch at La Grenouille, free custom-tailored suits, and who knows what else. The office in Linden a Situation Room. Lawyers, accountants, charts, graphs, and files. Meeting after meeting, minus my old man, who went into hiding in Rumson, playing and drinking gin and golfing, hoping he’d made enough dough to last until the world came to its senses. Uncle Billy, last of my grandfather’s generation and thus Chief, could only take it for about three hours a day. Tex, his chauffeur, brought him up from Deal every morning at about 10, and then at lunch time carted him off to Monmouth Park, Aqueduct, or Belmont, depending on which track was open. Peter Strom ran everything.
Pete was somebody’s son-in-law. Billy had hired him in the late 50’s as a favor. Bright, ambitious and charming, handsome and irreverent, Strom was a 60s Horatio Alger character, having made it from factory bundle boy to chief aide to Norman, at whose insistence he had dropped Goldstein as a surname and went by Strom, his middle name. This worked wonders with the crusty curmudgeons, the Super Wasp – not to say anti-Semitic – Norman Hilton retailers. I worked for him for a year or so. He was a great boss. No matter how tough, how direct, how demanding he was in managing me, no matter how impatient or exasperated he became, I always knew that doing what he told me was for my own good. It was not to make his life easier, to make him look good, or to prove anything; if I did what he said it was good for me and it would be good for the company. That is how to manage people. At the same time, working for him was just fun. In preparing me for his departure he accompanied me on a road trip around the north east, which you can read more about in the police logs of the period.
As Strom, now the big cheese, must have realized, Norman Hilton was in desperate need of a change in strategy. But Peter's extraordinary managerial skill in no way qualified him as a stylist. My father, demoralized by the realization that his thoroughbred taste had lost its luster, turned the designing over to Strom, lock, stock and barrel. The collections of those years were indescribable; but I’ll give it a go: Think four pocketed, back-belted, brass-buttoned, bell-bottomed, double-knit leisure suits, (hand-tailored!) in shades like Nile green and battleship grey. Big pink and blue hounds-tooth “double knit” jackets with four-and-a-half inch lapels. That kind of thing. The Euro look? I guess. Today we call it dog shit, not being kind. Giant plaid sport jackets; giant tartan trousers. (Proof? I have a pair of pants right here, right now, in my office. Norman Hilton, Vintage 1972. I bought them at John Mazzo’s, a store in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1997 – I swear to God – where they had sat, unsold, for 25 years.)
Browning Fifth Avenue folded. The stores closed. The factory production, dependent as it was on volume from the stores, tanked, leaving the Norman Hilton division a teetering domino. My father, back at the helm after Strom (and with him most of the veteran sales staff,) decamped to Polo, went to work again and also went, every day, to Mass at St. Patrick’s, praying to St. Anthony, who came through big time, eventually sending Len Damsky, who had worked for years for Uncle Jerome as a buyer until he’d got tired of the low pay and abuse. Lenny was the men’s merchandising boss at Barney’s, and he showed up one rainy afternoon with the news that Burberry’s (whose most important account in the country at the time was Barney’s,) were thinking of starting a big initiative in America and were looking for someone to run the operation. They’d asked Lenny if he knew anybody. Damsky knew that the Hilton enterprise was foundering, and he knew that Norman, who had launched Polo, was acquainted with just about every major retail decision maker in the industry. He told the Burberry’s guys he’d check it out.
Would Norman be interested? Lenny asked.
Brian Kitson, Burberry’s supercharged new Managing Director, was sufficiently impressed with Norman’s pedigrees, prestigious club memberships and high-profile contacts to sign him up for what was to be a twelve-year stint as sole US agent. Burberrys was going to invade America, and they did so by hyping the brand with advertising, public relations, fashion shows and extravagance on a scale even my father was comfortable with. No more a doughty old raincoat company! It’s all new! Came the decree from London. Forget the old! In with the innovative, fresh fashion ideas! Get rid of that plaid! Forty years later that plaid is still around.
Norman’s contribution was invaluable, and not just in sales. He understood the impressionable, status-seeking side of affluent Americans. His Ogilvie-inspired New Yorker advertising campaign in the 60s had made his brand famous, and his instincts about brand building by association. He put Norman Hilton men in 21, in Sotheby’s, in identifiably toney settings. He told Kitson that Burberry marketing shouldn’t be selling raincoats. They should sell England. Of all things 70s-era Americans were likely to be attracted by, the clear, clean look of London, the charm of the Cotswolds, the quality assurance of English craftsmanship, all of this was what was important. It was what the brand stood for; not the product. He sensed this, and he was on the first wave of apparel marketers to see that the medium, was, indeed, the message. At the end of his tenure the annual US sales had increased by two thousand percent.
After Strom left a guy named Crit Rawlings took over the Norman Hilton helm. His style sense was better, but he quit soon after; and not before he’d convinced our old friends, the Bronzettis in Montefiascone, to also make trousers for his new company. Nice move. He could go to the customers he’d met through Norman with better deals on the exact same product; never mind that Norman had made all the initial investment and had designed and perfected the product. What’s strangest about this was that, forever after, Rawlings sang Norman’s praises. Decades later I would hear, “Ol’ Crit said,” this or that about Norman, always glowing praise. The feeling was anything but mutual.
Timing is everything, as they say. After the collapse of the Browning stores, Strom’s defection to Polo, the quick abdication of his successor, and the piracy of a major product line, market conditions bad and getting worse, I ascended to the position of chief cook and bottle-washer. I must admit I was proud to see my name in print, but couldn’t help remembering my grandfather’s famous, great leveler: “So? A big jerk-off in the papers?” My father, now fully engaged in the Burberrys project, guided me distractedly, took me around to the mill agents’ offices, and taught me the rudiments of choosing fabrics. He introduced me to the mills’ fabric stylists and then left me to it. My impression was that, having built up his company to its late 60s apogee of sales volume, profitability and reputation, he could not bring himself to participate in its downfall; he seemed to have little faith in the future of the business (or in me, by inference.) Uncle Billy soldiered on, running the factory on a sort of part-time basis, and my uncle John, Norman’s brother, designated super-salesman for the company, brought in huge, factory-filling, low-priced orders from Brooks Brothers. Contracting business for us was like methadone for a junkie; unable to get the profitable real thing, the company, strung out on high overheads and management costs, got a fix from unprofitable sales, thus staving off judgment day, at least temporarily.
It was the artistic opportunity that fascinated me. A realistic, career minded, ambitious individual would have said “Thanks, but no thanks,” and headed for the hills, gone to work for a stock brokerage. Not me, frustrated artist. Bard graduate. Poet. Once I began selecting and designing the fabrics and working with the pattern makers and the shop guys on fit and model details, I’d found my calling. The part of me that had once wanted to be a writer found out I really wanted to be what we call a “stylist.” Youthful optimism and the thrilling freedom to design a collection blinded me to the danger. I became completely immersed in the process. It was like being left in the lab while the science teacher was on a lunch break. I thought I might have a formula to prolong life, and it worked. For a while anyway.