How I Got Into Clothing
I graduated from Bard College in June of 1970. Doesn’t sound like a big deal when you say it fast, but graduating from that particular institution in that particular year might be compared to landing after a four-year voyage in space on some remote and unfriendly planet. This new planet had a President named Nixon who ordered a ground invasion of Cambodia, ostensibly because the war in Vietnam next door was so much fun, and some college kids in a place I’d never heard of called Kent State had gone out to protest and had four of their number shot dead by “National Guard” troops; just what nation they were guarding it’s hard to say. Meanwhile cyclones, earthquakes, cholera epidemics, plagues and oil spills were busy eliminating life around the world, and I emerged from Spaceship Bard armed only with a BA degree in modern English poetry, a fabulous record collection, a well-developed marijuana-amphetamine jones, and the cynicism of Holden Caulfield by way of Bob Dylan. I was ready for absolutely nothing, except maybe another seminar, or an outdoor rock concert. My parents came to the graduation, which was delayed for some time by a bomb-scare, the 60s equivalent of flagpole sitting or marathon dancing, and afterward came by the house I was living in, in their chauffeured limo. It was an abandoned hotel in Tivoli, the first floor reception and bar area totally demolished, rafters falling, windows broken. A hippie Downton Abbey. They looked out from the limo and, to my invitation to see my room said, “No thanks. We’ll wait in the car.”
The emotional tone at our graduation was not wistful sentimentality but, rather, abject dread. I had been assigned number 52 by the draft board, out of a possible 366, reasonably good odds that I was going to be asked to serve my country in the patriotic activity of spraying napalm and agent orange on a people who were, like the colonists in America two hundred years before, seeking their independence from a foreign government. Us. (What would have happened to the colonists if George III had had better chemists?) The gruesome reality of war in the jungle intruded into my consciousness on the nightly news; and “My country right or wrong” was just jingoistic imbecility, a slogan made up by generals for lemmings. Investigation into applying for Conscientious Objector status was totally depressing; there was nothing in my background to suggest I was anything more than a chicken. And my conscience, insufficient to spur me into pacifist heroics, did suggest that maybe, underneath it all, that I was just afraid. And then I would think, There is no justification for sacrificing my life for a totally immoral cause! That was my guiding thought, finally. And so “dodging” became the only option, despite the weaselly sound of it. I was headed for Canada.
Jack Sifton was my best friend. Scion of the Toronto Globe and Mail clan, grandson of Sir Clifford Sifton, who, while Minister of the Interior, had been tipped off as to the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway right of way and had thus made judicious real estate purchases between Montreal and Vancouver, which he’d then sold for an untidy fortune, leaving generations of future Siftons free from the fear of starvation. Jack was going back to Canada, and so, after brief consideration of my draft status and general alienation and haplessness, was I. We rented a U-Haul and filled it with all our hippie crash-pad paraphernalia and headed off in the middle of the night to the north, careful to dispose of all unused contraband before crossing the 1000 Islands Bridge and through Canadian Customs in the dawn’s early light.
We found ourselves in Brockville, Ontario, where we rented a house on fertile, broad St. Lawrence farmland, and where, after we’d unpacked and bought groceries and made a couple of “preparatory” trips to Toronto, there was not much to do, except to pretend to look for work among the few village enterprises who had absolutely no interest in college-educated, draft-dodging Yankee pot heads, or to admire the James Taylor-evoking rural landscape, swim in the river, and make frequent-as-possible visits to Jack’s mother’s opulent riverside estate a few kilometers downriver for a decent meal. One entrepreneurial possibility presented itself in the form of a great big panel truck owned and operated by 3 other American tie-dye types who had perfected the art of melting wax and pouring it into glass containers which had some colored sand in them. We made about 500 candles and drove to Ontario’s hippie hangouts and sold maybe three in the course of about two months. This was not any Jack Kerouac scenario. This was a boring dead end. The life of self-imposed exile was over; and maybe the real reason I decided to face the American music was simply that I had fallen in love. Just like it sounds. Fallen. With a girl back in Annandale-on-Hudson by the name of Jennifer, whom I’d kissed goodbye on that June night and somehow, for the life of me, could not stop thinking about. Still can’t, by the way. She was to be the Elaine Robinson in my private version of “The Graduate,” and so, with no prospects of any sort but a notion of romance, I packed up my stuff and hitched a ride back to reality.
I fancied myself a writer, although the idea of a “creative profession” sounded like an oxymoron, I thought I’d give it a try. So I did what writers do. (No, that’s not really true -- writers write). I applied for work as a writer. At the Daily News Record, the menswear trade journal in New York, at the Red Bank Register and the Asbury Park Press. No soap. I was thinking along the lines of Hemingway’s gig with the Kansas City Star. What might accurately be called a pipe-dream. The Press’s news editor said, “Listen kid, there was a full moon over the weekend and I have a ton of letters-to-the-editor I gotta answer, so you’ll have to excuse me.” They clearly didn’t understand my potential. Fortunately, the military didn’t want me either, owing in large measure to my childhood doctor’s convincing letter about my allergies (eczema and other intractable health problems.) All this had been Plan B. By December I was still lying around my parents’ house and eventually my indolence became the topic of family preference. When it came to my grandmother’s attention, she came up with Plan C. For Clothing.
Lillian Hilton, my dear Granny, had always had her eye on me. Wife of the eldest of Joe’s nine children, and thus doyenne of that generation, called brother-in-law Jerome, who ran the family’s Browning Fifth Avenue chain of men’s clothing stores. She hug up the phone, turned and said to me, “You start next week.” The job was in sales, in the furnishings department of the Browning store in Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey, where I would wear a suit every day for the first time in my life, and suggest shirt and tie combinations to northern New Jersey housewives as Christmas and Hanukah gifts for their husbands, sons and lovers. About all this job offered in the way of worldly wisdom was the truth of the adage de gustibus non disputandum est. It did not matter one whit what I thought was a nice tie or shirt, and these folks had a way of letting me know that in almost merciless terms. “You like that? Well you’re just wrong!” Retail Lesson 1: disputation in matters of taste is, with retail customers anyway, just dumb.
This was a part of the new planet I’d landed on; I was a total alien. In the family business. All in all, mall life totally sucked. Never mind that I had to drive an hour and a half each way to get there; the humdrum of commerciality, the eternal unnatural light, ubiquitous fast-food smells, relentless Muzak, and the chintzy-tinselness of everything at Christmas made it feel like one of the lower cantos in Dante’s Inferno. I thought there should be a sign over the store’s employee entrance, “Abandon hope all ye who enter.”
And then, a miracle. At Christmas dinner, out of the blue, my father offered me a job. In Italy, no less. Florence, no less. Perhaps he was impressed by the fact that his uncle Jerome, a notorious hard-ass, hadn’t fired me. I’m not sure how I qualified in his mind, but he’d decided that I was going to be his eyes and ears in the venture he’d begun with Leo Lozzi (ironically the same Leo Lozzi to whom he’d lost Ralph Lauren’s clothing contract.) They were starting to manufacture trousers in Montefiascone, a small town between Viterbo and Orvieto in northern Lazio Province, about 60 miles from Rome. A friend of Norman’s, a Florentine pants manufacturer named Liberto DiBari had offered to hire me. The idea was that I would work in Florence at DiBari’s company, Pan Fin Firenze, until I was sufficiently knowledgeable to move down to Montefiascone and take over. In the meanwhile I was supposed to visit the factory from time to time and take inventory, check production and so on. Sounded to me like out of the inferno, into heaven.
After a few lessons at Berlitz I packed all my worldly belongings and moved to Florence. I found a room in a house in Fiesole, a picturesque town in the hills above the city, with a view of olive groves, the red tiled roofs of the city, the immense dome of the cathedral and Giotto’s bell tower, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the cedar-lined hills across the Arno valley. My career had commenced in the most auspicious of circumstances.