Ralph Lauren and Halston Meet "The Experts" - A Tragicomedy in 2 Acts
Read this as a philosophical comment on the possibility of being totally wrong when you’re completely right; or it might be a comment on the nature of a certain generation of Italian men; maybe you’ll see in it a depiction of the self-assurance of a young designer that is emblematic of a certain genius; or maybe it’s a business fable with a familiar moral. Anyhow, here are the facts of the case:
In 1967 my father sold his shares in Winnebago Industries to invest $75,000 in a company called Polo Fashions, the brainchild of an employee of his named Ralph Lauren. My father had an instinct for the next big thing. (Eight years later he took on the U.S. agency for Burberry, then selling a few raincoats to a few stodgy men’s specialty stores.) Lauren had already achieved some notice for his extrvagant, 5-inch wide, richly textured and colored silk neckties, and his idea was to expand the line into dress shirts and furnishings, sportswear, and, finally, tailored clothing. Since Norman’s family owned Hilton Manufacturing, a clothing factory built by my great-grandfather in the 20s, this was to be a win-win all around.
Mike Cifarelli was the “designer” at Hilton Manufacturing. Today I think he would be called a pattern-maker, but back then the guy (always a guy) who made the “paper” was The Man. He always wore a crisp white shirt and a necktie, black, in mourning for his father, and he never laughed. He never really spoke much, in fact, as his English was as bad as his self-importance was large. But he was unquestionably The Man. It would be easy for me to go off on any number of tangents right here, but this is a blog, not a book. Suffice it to say that Cifarelli created one really great jacket model, at Norman’s behest, which had been the reason why my father’s business, in 1967, was unbelievably good. Everything he made subsequently, however, was this one model with minor variations.
The “kid” (Lauren) had a definite idea in mind for his clothing, down to the lapel width, the shape of the notch, the waist suppression, where the coat should button, the length of the vent, everything. He’d told my father the inspiration was Adolphe Menjou and his romantically classic style, and this idée-fixe was the driving force of Polo from the start. Cifarelli didn’t know from Adolphe Menjou or anything like romantic anything, but he knew (or thought he knew) what made clothing sell at retail. I suppose a series of encounters took place, at the last of which Cifarelli, unable to verbally convince Lauren of the folly of such a skinny-waisted, low-button jacket, threw the garment on the floor and stomped on it like it was a live animal, yelling “Not in-a my shop!” and so on, at which Ralph walked disgustedly out, went to Lawrence, Massachusetts to the waiting arms of Leo Lozzi and Lanham Clothes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wait. There’s more.
Cifarelli retired eventually, leaving no one trained to be his successor, but the head tailor in the Hilton shop was then another Italian Mike, this one surnamed Cruscito. The retail icon Danny Zarem was a friend of Halston’s and a fan of the legendary quality of Norman Hilton’s tailoring. Halston had apparently been convinced by Zarem that his name would sell men’s clothing as well as women’s, and Hilton was selected as the manufacturer. ( A footnote here would mention that the timing of this was crucial, because by 1975, more fashionable lines like Polo were eating our proverbial lunch, and the factory was literally working hand-to-mouth.) Following Halston’s instructions, a freelance pattern maker had given the factory a paper pattern for a man’s jacket with very distinctive lines and a feature as yet unseen in the men’s tailored clothing business: a one-piece back, together with trousers designed with rather narrow legs.
So we made the sample, amid a lot of bitching and moaning about having to make so strange a garment, with no center-back seam and all, and the day came to bring it to Halston, then ensconced in a five-story townhouse cum design studio cum residence in the East 60s. Butler, houseboys, the works. You get the picture. A cloudy spring afternoon. Me and Cruscito and Frank Cuzzola, the guy who drove us. This was the industrial equivalent of a scene from the Beverly Hillbillies, except that I alone among the three of us, actually knew who Halston was, and what he stood for, and the Liza connection and all the rest. To my colleagues he was just a rich finocchio with a strange finocchio suit.
After a few minutes of pleasantries it became imperative in Mr. Cruscito’s mind to explain to Mr. Halston the myriad problems with the one-piece back. To which Mr. Halston responded with I have to say a supercilious remark to the effect that the problems with alterations and fit were not important to him, a spark to the Italian’s tinderbox. “I am a professional,” Cruscito says, to which Halston’s initial flustered response is “I am a professional, too.” Hardly worthy of the more famous man, but sufficient to tank the meeting pretty much altogether; and thus after a few more minutes of very tense chit-chat from me, the three of us headed back down the stairs, into the Cadillac and back to NJ.
Are we looking for irony here? If so, let it be said that both Cifarelli and Cruscito were right. There are certain rules about fitting men which are cardinal, and breaking them, while it may add some romance or nuance or apparent creativity to the product, makes the eventual retail selling of a suit more difficult; sometimes impossible. I would see, in Saks or Bloomingdales, Polo jackets which had the distinctive feature of a lapel break which never ended, curling the entire front open because the lapel and button stance were designed incorrectly. Halston sold 5,000 suits his first two seasons, and then… Bupkes. He eventually licensed Schoeneman Brothers to make the clothing for him and I am sure never once looked at the product, which apart from the label, was indistinguishable from the rest of the Schoeneman line.