Nick Hilton Princeton
Good clothes for men and women.

A History

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

Dirty Laundry

There’s no point in trying to tell this story without the ugly parts. Ultimately the manufacturing of fine clothing in the United States would experience a Darwinian demise; the Camelot of Linden would meet a sad end, ultimately bulldozed over into garden apartments, a pathetic landmark still visible today, where the factory used to be, a sign: "Hilton Gardens." Whether naïveté or pride blinded us, who can say, but as the end drew near, and the Italians and the Canadians stormed the castle, things in Hilton-land, never a proper Shangri La, became more and more desperate. And as everybody knows, desperate times... Suck.

All smiles for the public... While the building behind us, built in 1923, was in danger of collapse

All smiles for the public... While the building behind us, built in 1923, was in danger of collapse

That, and the constant, sometimes ferocious conflict between my father and myself made the ten-years from 1985 to 1995 more like a war story than a soap opera. So far in these pages I have consciously painted a flattering picture of Norman Hilton, the man. Despite our conflict, which dated from early on, I have abiding, truly genuine admiration for his intelligence and skill as a clothing man, a marketer, an all-around business visionary. Fortunately, by grace and forgiveness and time, plus the relative success I’ve had since, the wounds are healed. Could be my age; the natural fading of memory; or maybe a natural thing, a pain-forgetter hormone like women’s bodies produce, allowing them to forget the agony of childbirth. It’s not that I can’t remember the things he said or did. They just don’t bother me. I’ve forgotten how painful it felt, how agonizing it was, to be my father’s son. Maybe I’ve forgiven, without forgetting.

I didn't go to Choate or Hotchkiss, nor then on to Princeton or Yale, thence to Harvard Law. Wasn't captain of the football team, or president of my class. I was a long-haired, pot-smoking, guitar-playing, poetry-writing, anti-war Dylan fan, a 1960s reincarnation of Holden Caulfield. A walking oxymoron: typical non-conformist. Except for my love of tweed jackets and oxford-cloth button-downs, an icon of the hippie era. Thus did I earn my father's disapproval.

Scene: A weekend night, autumn of 1970, at 2 Broadmoor Drive, Rumson. Connie and Norman up in their separate beds, lights on, reading, the very first time I bring Jennifer home, (reluctantly, unavoidably,) to meet them. The door is open so it seems reasonable to bring her upstairs. Make an introduction. A brief Hello. My new girlfriend. I want to make a good impression. I’m trying to say, “Mom. Dad. I’d like you to meet Jen…”

“I was just thinking about you,” Norman says abruptly. “I was just thinking what a jerk you are.”  Just like that. 

Silence. Mom, attempting to brush it off. “Oh, Norman,” she says.  Like he was kidding. Smiles. “So. How do you do, dear? Jennifer, is it?” True story. Ask her. Or ask pretty much any of my other girlfriends, one of whom discouragingly told me, “I would never marry you. You might turn out to be like your father.” Angry, she meant. 

Okay. His father was worse; it was no secret. And considering his role model, Norman did the best he could. Sounds nice; but was there ever a better way to damn a man with faint praise? “The best he could?” Under the circumstances. Norman and Alex may even have had identical excuses. The Great Depression. The fear, living through two World Wars. The personal pain of being Jewish at Princeton? Whatever the reasons, my grandfather, it seems, did best by his sons by ignoring them, which he did in grand style, spending most days at the race track and nights on the town. No family man, Alex. In his own words, he “Fucked everything from here to Canarsie,” a bit of marital advice he gave my father, adding, “But I always went home to your mother,” which my father in turn told me as he struggled to explain the problems in his own marriage. He told me later, in his mid-eighties, that he’d had terrifying dreams about his father, surreal, vicious, knife-fight-nightmares, all his life.

You may ask why it was I went to work for him. Good question, Dr. Freud. Back then it seemed like a great opportunity. Or, better question, why had he hired me? Because Pete Strom had argued on my behalf, lobbied for me as a candidate for the Italian gig which led eventually to the Norman Hilton job. My mother had tried to discourage Strom. “They’ll kill each other,” I believe were her exact words.

Uniquely qualified to be the uniform...

Uniquely qualified to be the uniform...

Strom liked me. Saw something in me from my Italian experience, took me under his wing.  When Italy exhausted its promise and I came back it had been decided that I’d be the New England states Norman Hilton sales rep. I had  going on, not least a steadily increasing, dangerous thirst and was happy to have the major parts of my life-puzzle put in place for me. But I did not enjoy it; not for a minute. Coming from a beautiful apartment in Fiesole to a funky back bedroom in a college friend's house in the dark woods of western Massachusetts; from a zippy, carefree Lambretta to a steamship-size Pontiac filled with heavy sample cases; from Florentine viale to mud-frozen, barely paved back roads and slushy turnpike lanes, from waiting on tipsy rich tourists to calling on old, bitter New England retailers, the type who, if they didn’t know everything already, were certainly not going to hear it from a kid from New Jersey. With one or two exceptions the stores I called on were relics of an earlier time, throwbacks to the heyday of Ivy League, natural-shoulder dominance, hoping against hope that the men of the world, or of their town, at least, would one day wake up and realize, “What was I thinking? I have to get down to The House of Walsh or The Squire Shop and buy that new tweed sport jacket! Another pair of flannel trousers! A three-piece, three-button herringbone suit!” Never happened. It was over. The guys that did wake up went to Louis, Boston, or to Barneys New York or to some snazzy small boutique and bought some bell-bottom pants, a jacket with five-inch lapels, gigantic collared shirts, and platform shoes. The other guys put their scratchy, baggy, old-fashioned suits out on the curb for Goodwill Industries to pick up because they just didn’t wear suits anymore. The death-knell for the “traditional” tailored clothing business had begun to toll as early as 1972. These retailers were stuck there, looking out of their store windows to the street, making nasty, disparaging remarks about the passersby, despairing of their future.

Then Strom and pretty much everyone else quit, and my father, inexplicably, quickly installed me in the role of creative head of the company. I was young, had nothing to lose, and no fear. For the first time in my working life I felt like I was in the right place, although the commute was bestial, 4 hours of travel time each day. But I was fascinated, doing the right thing, and loving it; the fabric buying, the designing, the overall aesthetic stuff: making samples, or as close to it as I could, with Cifarelli; trying new things. I loved the most what I did best (doesn’t everybody?) Choosing fabrics, model prototypes, stitching, pocket details, linings, undercollars; experimenting; the creative stuff. The Mojo. The sauce. I traveled to Scotland, to Ireland, and throughout the British midlands, visiting mills and designing, right down to the width of the stripes, the yarn colors, the finishes of the cloths we would highlight each season. I invented fabrics. Mayfair, for example, was the first real mid-weight, year-round suit in the market, which we made by taking a heavy-ish yarn and weaving it in a tropical construction, so it would breathe. Originally it was made by Hield Brothers, in Huddersfield. The finishing, a light brush, rinsing in a special solution, and the inimitable English steaming gave it a unique hand and drape. An even bigger hit was the tweed jacketing we called Castlereagh. Originally dismissed by Gardiners of Selkirk (Scotland) as too light for jackets, too light, in fact, to warrant the Wool Bureau's trademark, I insisted on their making sample yardage for us, and the result was a line of sportcoats with a tweed feel and look, but with the weight of a summer jacket. 

...of America's elite

...of America's elite

Norman Hilton clothing had a very important asset: brand identity. A significant part of Norman’s genius was the way he had communicated the essentials: top quality, “St. Grottlesex” style. His advertising and marketing got that across clearly and memorably, with great photography and intelligent copy, in the right media. The clothing was exquisite, for sure, but perhaps more important were the intangibles, the associations with places like 21, Four Seasons, Sotheby Park Bernet, Ivy League football, the Shetland Islands, all of which appeared in his ads. He created a brand identity that was captivating; he knew who his customer was. And such clear brand-identity made it difficult to reposition. Over the years those icons of taste and class had changed. A new customer had emerged: a fashion-conscious, internationally-aware man who didn’t relate to the same symbols. The famous Norman Hilton 3-button silhouette was no longer in fashion. What we still had beyond any doubt, was the superior quality of the product: the fabrics, the fit; the hand-sewing and hand pressing. That was the essence, and for a time I thought it would be enough. There did not seem to be a way to modernize an image which depended on tradition.

Jennifer and I were married by now, and living in Connecticut. I was travelling around, visiting a dwindling roster of retailers, and commuting to the New York showroom most days. I'd been the stylist and spokesperson for Norman Hilton for a few years, had made some important friends in the press and in the industry, living the life. There was no denying that, one after another, the prototypical "Oxford Shop" and the rest of the independent J. Press or Brooks Brothers wannabes were either trading down so as to lower their prices, or closing. Merchandising a line for this crowd, bringing out another English worsted, another type of tweed sport jacket, was not going to assure our future.  So upon my dear uncle’s demise Jennifer and I sold our charming riverside cottage in the Silvermine section of New Canaan and moved with our infant son to Princeton. What made me think I would want to run a factory is anybody’s guess. Billy, now in his ice-bucket urn in the family’s Hillside mausoleum, hadn’t been around to show me the ropes, not that he even knew where they were, and a showdown loomed. I could feel it coming. A Shakespearean scenario. The prince had chosen the wrong door. I was now the boss of a manufacturing facility with 350 mostly non-English speaking employees making over a thousand garments a week (and annual sales of $13 million,) and an increasingly nervous, hyper-emotional boss: his father. Nor had the notion that the factory staff, many of whom had been working there back when I, a teenager from swanky Rumson, had worked summers, sockless in Bass Weejuns, Canterbury belts, white Levi’s and Izod polos. The boss's country-club kid, sleeping it off lunch hours under the pants shelves in the air-conditioned shipping room. And now here I was, trying to look like I knew how to run the place. No wonder it was impossible for Cifarelli to think of me as the boss. Fact is, I couldn’t really see it myself; and the conflict between my creative, the left-brain, right-brain, or whatever, would be with me for a long time. But here I was. For better or for worse. And as I've said, my relationship with the pattern maker was the real sore spot.

Michael Cifarelli - in a 1964 New Yorker ad. Still Doing One Thing, fifteen years later.

Michael Cifarelli - in a 1964 New Yorker ad. Still Doing One Thing, fifteen years later.

And then the unimaginable happened. Cifarelli just walked out. Told Frankie to “Say goodbye to the kid,” put on his impeccable suit jacket and just split. Something like two o’clock on a Tuesday. Blessing in disguise? If so, it was wearing a fright wig and a fake mustache.

“Hi dad.” On the phone.

“Hello son. How are you doing? Everything all right?”

“Mr. Cifarelli just retired.”

“Oh. I… He. WHAT?”

“Retired. Just picked up and left.”

“WHAT?” Gasping. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TELLING ME?” Norman had a 2-millimeter fuse, on a good day. “What did you say to him? Without telling me? Or saying anything? It’s two o’clock in the afternoon! Are you sure?” Not a good day.

“Well… I didn’t say anything to him. I mean I just heard it.”

“You just HEARD it?”

“He told Frank Cuzzola he was retiring. Then…”

“WHAT? Just like that? After all these years? Just walked the fuck out? What did you say to him?”

“I… Well. Nothing. I just asked Umberto to draw a new jacket. I guess he saw it on the cutting table, or… Somebody must have said something. I guess...”

“You GUESS? You had a cutter design a model without asking Cifarelli?” Now in full-on rage mode, voice lowered to murderous intensity. “What the hell were you thinking?” I had no answer. Thinking? “Claire! Shut my door,” to his secretary, then, “Well, sonny Jim. You go find him. You just go to his house and make it right. In Elizabeth he lives. You just do that. Whatever it fucking takes. You hear me? He has to give us some kind of notice. So we can find someone. And get Benny Rosen,” the union guy. Was he talking to me? Or to Claire? “Get him on the fucking phone. He can talk to him. Jesus!” Then, silence.

There weren’t any silver linings in the emotional thunderstorm happening in his head, just the sound of doom. The idea that we had everything we needed; that the shop, from the cutting floor to the shipping room, would run as smoothly if not better without that 80-plus, arrogant geezer; that we had escaped paying him an exorbitant severance, and, most important, that we could maybe make a new product, with the kind of expression and style that I wanted, that the market wanted, that the best up-and-coming stores in the country wanted; the idea, in short, that we were better off without Cifarelli, had not a scintilla of a chance. Fear drowned out everything else.

If there was one moment, one specific interaction, one conversation that summed it up, that typified our “relationship,” that was it. The Rubicon, crossed. The end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end. What was left unsaid, almost said. Sensed, but just as clear as if it had been said. The meaning clear. What hope against hope had feebly constructed, that I could be relied on, could be trusted, was gone. Period. I was a jerk, as he’d suspected all along; and now my being a jerk was threatening him. No matter what. He’d made it clear. I was incapable. Feckless. A loser. The same kid, standing there, in his bedroom, trying to introduce his girlfriend. I was just thinking about you… You Can’t Do It. You’re just irresponsible. And what I thought in return was… What I thought was… You son of a bitch why don’t you try to help me? Why can’t you take my side for once? Instead of thinking that the world is going to defeat me, that life is going to overwhelm me! I’m just a disappointment. I will fail. And because you believe it you are making me believe it – because you’re scared to death and what you think is that if it’s up to me we’re just doomed, GOD DAMN IT!

Let the psychoanalysts explain it. Maybe. He was projecting onto me what he was afraid of in himself; maybe I was afraid he was right. Fear overcame love, whatever of it there was, and became hate. This unspoken dialogue had started when I was a boy, and would continue for years, hiding behind the words of every conversation, never expressed, never acknowledged. We thought what we thought, or felt, and we knew we thought it, felt it, but couldn’t say it, couldn’t get past it; because we couldn’t imagine ever getting back, getting over it if we were to actually say. What. We. Thought. Simmering. One argument, one slip of the tongue away from pushing the button on mutual assured destruction, family-style. So no world-ending cataclysm, we just had constant, soul-wrenching, demoralizing trench warfare. The conflict may have been Oedipal at the start, then morphed into alpha-male dominance. Too complicated to speculate on, really. But we didn't agree on anything at all for years and years. 

I remember exactly how, and exactly when, the conflict ended. It was a long time later. A lot went on in the meanwhile. And the best, believe it or not, lay ahead.