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In the early 80s I was looking for a design/administrative assistant when a young girl answered the ad and came up to the showroom. She was from Queens. Age: 17 years old. Education: PS Something-or-Other, city high school. Then some business courses. Prior experience: Managed a McDonalds, a busy one in the city. She was wearing a proper, beige linen-esque skirt and jacket, cute Italian-girl looks and a no-nonsense attitude. Her mother worked in a clothing factory and her father was a security guy in a mid-town office building. Her mom made dresses; the family had some background in clothing. I hired her on the spot. I knew about these Italian women. Strong. Purposeful. Take initiative. Never sick. Respectful. No bullshit. Rosann Serripieri her name was, and in business we were more or less inseparable for the next thirteen years.
Sexism is a loser’s attitude; a reverse IQ test. The less capable you consider women, the less deserving of your total admiration, the dumber that proves you to be. Admit it guys. Women are better. They’re smarter, stronger, more loyal, resilient. I mean, would you sign up for childbirth duty, Mr. Bigstuff? I hired a lot of bullshit executives over the years. 100% men. Sales guys, showroom assistants, road men, factory office staff and so on. The women outshone almost all of them. Of course it was a small company, but none of that glass ceiling stuff. Seemed to me that women didn’t make a big deal of things; didn’t want the ego-gratifying titles. Equal pay, sure, but keep the hierarchical baloney. Rosann was always just right there. She saw things clearly, didn’t need much instruction, made her own systems, and generally ran the showroom like it was her own business. It was the “men’s” business after all, so she’d raise an occasional eyebrow, make the occasional critical observation. That was it. Only once had a serious conflict. With a Sales Manager, a problem invisible to me because of the deferential ass-kissing way the guy acted around me. She came to me one Monday morning, after I’d been away the week before. Told me she was leaving.
“I can’t work with J—," she said. “He’s obnoxious. Acts like owns the place. Disrespectful. Sexist. I can’t stay. I have another job.”
I called the guy in. Fired him. “Because of her?” he spat. “That little bitch?”
“I rely on Rosann completely. She says it’s her or you. I need her.” By the time the conversation was over I saw it. The guys sycophantic ass-kissing had blinded me, should have tipped me off about a gross defect in myself. “Good luck to you.”
Women do everything. Always. Rosann ran the nuts and bolts of the Nick Hilton enterprise, Patricia Harrington created the story, put out the message, arranged the weekly editor or reporter lunch. La Grenouille. Caravelle. Cipriani. We were selling at Saks and Barneys and the twenty or twenty-five most prestigious retail stores in the country. We had a couple million in advance orders. Up an coming, they said, and it was amazing how much coverage we got. Because of Pat. Pretty, witty, curly-headed Long Island Irish charmer. Got the most self-important writers to cover us, like Stan Gellers of DNR, self-appointed but actual king maker. She got us wide, weekly coverage despite the fact that I was anything but the gay enfant terrible Gellers would have preferred to write about. (Almost needless to say, my father had openly dismissed Gellers as a lightweight, and it’d gotten back to him.) We didn’t have to advertise in the paper to get the coverage; we were hot.
I have the clippings from this period, which Pat collected and Rosann kept in a big folio binder she’d labeled “SCRAPEBOOK” a spelling error I never mentioned, wouldn’t change and still treasure, since despite the wonderful accomplishments the articles chronicled, there was always some conflict or threat in the background, something like a “scrape” in the offing. A situation comedy, but without the laugh track. The clippings detail the transition of Nick Hilton President to Nick Hilton Designer. We were in the trade papers every week. USA today ran a feature. The Chicago Tribune. GQ published a story that ran to eight pages. The pictured persona, Nick Hilton the designer, had a strange, alien look. That guy doesn’t look like a designer. He looks like me. I’d get ready for these press interviews by rehearsing to myself the promotional hype about my legendary family, my interest in art and literature. Wanted the public to know that Eliot and Hopper were my influences, thinking to counter my competitors’ lists — movie stars, musicians — with some intellectual stuff. Talk about how great style is a matter of building on tradition, taking what has gone on before and turning the wheel a bit, so that folks can relate. Build a case for non-radical innovation. This is what I believed — still do— constitutes greatness in design. Going the middle way, innovation without radical elements; striving to hit that “objective correlative,” the element in your creation that evokes a universal response. Listen to Brahms’ lullaby. Read Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” No one raised in Western civilization can hear that peaceful, reassuring melody or imagine that cold solitude without getting the “feeling” the artist intended. What was that? Worked for composers and poets; should work for designers. Right? That was my artistic ambition. Not easily communicated.
Giorgio Armani was trying to do this, designing clothing for “The Untouchables,” a gangster movie. But how does that work? Never mind it was crooks and murderers, not exactly aspirational characters; American style by Giorgio Armani? How about Nick Hilton?
In the clothing I was designing there was just enough innovation, just enough reference to the past to achieve an immediate image: American style, reinvented. Take the comfortable Manhattan bon vivant elegance of my grandfather, the natural richness of Norman’s Ivy tradition and fuse them together. My aim was to create a renaissance of 20th Century style. No one seemed to realize that American style, the confident fashion of mid-century American men, a sort of urbane swagger in the clothing of American actors, musicians, politicians, TV stars, had been distilled by Hollywood, broadcast all over the world. Americans thought we were adopting Italian style, but it was the other way around. I would play on this beau ideal image with technologically advanced fabrics and our unique, handsewn, supremely comfortable construction. I would market it with black-and-white, Life magazine-style photos. Handsome American types in a boxing gym, a diner, a train station. Recreate the feeling of post-WWII US: energy, potentiality, strength. Comfortable, easy cut, drape, and the classic masculine V-shape.
“Huh?” The editor looked up from his pasta primavera. “Wait. That sounds good.” Scribbled some notes. Rule number one in fashion journalism: take notes. Makes it look like you’re listening. Even though you’ve already written the story, already got the angle, in your head, or, more likely, been told the angle by your boss – the venerable, lunch-with-major-talents (read: advertisers) only, right-about-everything Editor In Chief – make sure that, during the interview, you take some notes. “Wait. Lemme get that,” you have to say. Of course it’ll never make it into print. Probably just as well. Theories of style? Too cerebral. Objective correlative? College coffee shop baloney. To paraphrase Mencken, no one ever sold a suit by overestimating the intellectual interests of the reading public.
Pat Harrington sensed my disdain for writers who came to the showroom with the story already written. “Son of Norman Goes His Own Way,” that sort of crap. She urged me to keep it submerged, but that inner dialog always makes itself known. Body language. Eye movements. Anyhow none of this American Renaissance seemed fashion news. The journalists loved their trips to Milan and Paris, the elegant way they were wined and dined by the Europeans, the exotic – to them – ways of the world over there. American Renaissance? Who cares?
There were some points of light. Ralph “Ron” DiGennaro, like me a self-proclaimed intellectual marooned on this Fashion Island, totally got it. Wrote a piece for an Esquire magazine trade publication called “Trade Talk,” flatteringly illustrated with a photo of a philosophical-looking me. Went into the theory behind the Nick Hilton Collection. Nailed it, actually. Probably was read by between fifteen and twenty people coast to coast. Understood by maybe half. Pat smiled benignly; this would be good for your Bard hippy friends, but you left them all back in Canada, and, by the way, they don’t shop at Saks or on Rodeo Drive.
Hype was needed. Not theory. Being a designer and actually designing are two different things. No one would accuse Tommy Hilfiger, for example, of having spent a lot of time philosophizing about his creative effort. Just walk through the Polo Ralph Lauren department at Bloomies and knock it all off at Murjani (his backer’s) factories in India and Bangladesh. Big American Red-White-And-Blue logos on basic sports clothes. Sweatshirts, rugby shirts, short sleeve polo shirts, khaki shorts. All you need to “Be A Designer” in the Hilfiger mold was to have embroidery. And billboards.
Times Square was out of the question, but there were certain things you had to do to earn your Merit Badges, to make Eagle Scout of Fashion. Full page ads. A fashion show. There was a lot of back-and-forth about this. Ralph Lauren told somebody who told me that men’s fashion shows were a bad idea. He saw what Suzy Menkes and the Paris Paparazzi crowd missed: either the line of men strutting down a runway had on wearable, “normal” clothes, which made the show deadly dull, non-newsworthy, or they had to be dressed in completely ridiculous shit, like a concept car at an auto show, that nobody would ever buy or dream of wearing, which, to a business-minded businessman, made the whole thing a ridiculous waste of time, not to mention money. Pat Harrington argued for it, convinced me, I went to Norman. “If you think it’ll work.” Put it back on me. Okay. Then Slotnick. Budgets, ROI, etc. What’ll it cost? $25,000, I said. “Okay, but that’s your six-months promotional budget. Gone in January.” Okay. Let’s go. Where to have it? There was some buzz about the lower west side. This is when they still packed meat in the meatpacking district, but there was a night club there, on West 14th Street, Nell’s, run by the actress Nell Campbell, prototype for a new kind of cabaret, furnished like a salon that Oscar Wilde might frequent, overstuffed Victorian sofas, Tiffany lampshades, low ceiling, dark. Not famous yet, and not expensive, at least by New York standards. What do we need? Runway installed. Photographers. Video. Invitations. Lighting. A bunch of stylists to help with the backstage outfit changes. Hundreds of samples; delivered on time; altered for the models. Oh yes, the models. A stage manager. A stage manager? People to schlep. Break down, post-show move out. 25K was worse than wishful thinking. Finally, the music. Pat brought a guy to the showroom to discuss. Big meeting, the stage manager, head stylist, Pat and this music guy. He told me his idea, something like electro-pop, loud, the latest. Played a sample. No.
“This is American style,” I said. “Sophisticated. Smart,” to his sort of blasé New York smirk.
“This is New York City,” he said. “1990…” He was thinking I was thinking maybe Duke Ellington. Peter Duchin. “It has to be right. Has to be today! What are you thinking? Like, jazz or something?” Pronounced “jazz” like “dirty diaper.”
“Yeah well thanks.” I said. Asshole. Added silently. To Pat, when he left, I said, “I can do the music myself.”
I had been in bands, been singing, playing guitar since I was ten. I’d recently met a guy, Peter Spencer, who was a real musician, and we’d sung some stuff at his house, I played rhythm, Peter lead guitar, a couple of local gals, four-part harmonies. Sounded OK. Maybe… Why not? I called him. Hey Pete, I have an idea. Select a few R&B standards, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bobby Troupe. 50s stuff. Get that bass player, Courtney Colletti, from New Hope, a few other guys: drums, trumpet, sax, keyboards, conga. We’ll do a set while the models are walking. Rock ‘em. Spencer loved it. Got all the guys. Created the song list. Then we’d practice, rehearse. Peter coached me, left nothing out, never spared my feelings. “Sing through the top of your head, not out your nose.” That sort of stuff. Encouraged me as the date approached. “We sound good, man!” Got us ready. Final rehearsal we recorded. Great. See you next week. Pat thought this was a totally crazy. Worse, a just plain stupid idea. That the music would suck, embarrass us, and more, lose her a good gig, when it was all said and done. I had faith though. In hindsight it’s amazing.
The invitations were in the shape of a 45 RPM record, mailed in a sheaf like a record-store promo. The event was officially titled “You can’t Judge A Book By Looking At The Cover,” the Bo Diddley number that opened the show. All of it came together, on the night of January 26, 1991. Nick Hilton at Nell’s. A fantastic success. The clothes, the guests, the music, the place. All great.