Gods and Gangsters

Human nature has it, I guess, that death always comes as a surprise. I doubt I would have considered the idea of running the factory even briefly had I known, for one thing, how ridiculously hard it would be; or, for another, that Uncle Billy would kick the bucket.

The key to remaining a bon vivant is that you continue to vivre. Dying just ruins that; but while he was vivant and kicking, Billy Hilton was my kind of guy. Smoked and drank and stayed out all night long. At 30, I was a stranger to the grim reaper. Billy had been living AMA forever. Nothing to worry about. He told me his doctor said, “Billy, if you can lay off the booze and the cigarettes for a couple of months until we get this open-heart surgery done…” He just laughed it off. Sorry, doc. Seems too Freudian for a guy who seemed so happy; but Billy must have had some serious death wish. He couldn’t. Or didn’t, want to lay off anything. And despite the doc’s best efforts, Billy breathed his last – or I guess a respirator did – in the recovery room of Riverview Hospital on an ordinary Sunday morning. In July.

I came back from California, went to the funeral and into Billy’s dark, over-air-conditioned, 50s-style first floor office and tried to think of where to… Well, start. Call a meeting. That’s it. Establish authority. Create the new team. Get Slotnick, the money guy. Cathy Curcio, head of customer service. The order-entry guy; the maintenance guy. And Frank Cuzzola, the untitled general factotum of the facility, who did everything from buying the zippers and linings to running the all-important-cash-generating, semi-annual factory warehouse sale.

Frankie was the key man in management-employee relations, being son of Tony Cuzzola, one of my great-grandfather’s employees, and brother of Paul, the head of the cutting department. So, in addition to diplomatic envoy in the foreign world of the factory interior, Frankie was to be my consigliere. The title would have been no surprise. He told me that when he and Paulie – and all Italian kids names end in “ie” – were kids, they were invited to the local “hall” and invited to “do some favors for some guys.” In return for which the “guys” would look out for them. Watch their backs. Take care of their families. Like that. Remember the opening scenes, the streetscape shots of The Sopranos? Shot from a car, going by at street-level? All were taken in Elizabeth, where, in fact, several generations of Cuzzolas lived together, in one multi-family house. (The Sopranos’ cast could have come down to Hiltons' to learn urban New Jersey inflections, accents, and especially the possible variety of uses and applications of the word fuck; rule number one being you should use it as often and in as many ways as possible, as in: “Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck!” for example.) Anyhow, when Frankie and his brother went home and told their father about the “guys,” Tony saw to it that Charlie Hilton, who ran the place back then, hired the two kids when they finished high school. Paulie was the head cutter, Frankie the go-to-guy for everything. Greaseball street life of course found its way into 35 East Elizabeth Avenue, but mostly in the language, no funny business; a kind of respect, an old-country omertà, prevailed so long as Frankie was consigliere.

Looking back, and comparing what we made to what I see and sell today, there were two sets of operations, two groups of workers who did them, who made the Hilton product extraordinary. The finish pressers were four brawny guys who wielded ten-pound, gas-fired irons with surgical skill, creating contours, pressing out the “fullness” just right, making the lapels lie away from the coat front, creating the final form. How they moved the iron, used wet cloths to keep from singeing the fabric, I never got over. It was my favorite job to watch. And the women; the hand-sewers. Typically old-world, the environment in the plant was totally sexist, even though it was women who made the product what it was, who were responsible the quality, for all the finesse. They did the important and skilled labor, the intricate interior handwork known as felling, they made every buttonhole, every bar-tack, the stitching at the neck, the collar, shoulders and armholes that made the product special. And it was women who did the final examining, picking the threads and turning each coat on a dummy like a mom sending her schoolboy out the door of a morning.

Women. “Hello Meester Nick.” They’d be smiling. “Mr. Nicky!” Most of them middle-aged, Italian mamma-mia types, some Greek, or Polish. That elegant-earthy Sophia Loren vibe: capable, smart, salty women. Mothers. Some shy; some brash. Got their husbands and kids breakfast, showed up at Hiltons at 8 AM every day, and went home from there to laundry, dinner, dishes. Made espresso in banged-up old stove-top pots. Bialetti. “Buongiorno, Signorina!” “Mr. Nicky! you wanna coffee?” I’d take some once in a while, so much sugar it was like espresso syrup. “Grazie mille, Signora.” I’d say. Knocked ‘em out.

There were a few guys in the place who also brightened my days, too. The younger ones, who’d made it from apprenticeship to the shop floor, to the exalted status of “tailor” or “cutter.” Smiled, said “Hello, sir.” Extra polite, which seemed to dignify me, themselves, and the place. Old world manners. Glad to see me. To see the next generation of family coming in, insuring their future. I didn’t threaten them. But one asshole can ruin your whole day. And one often did.

Today the word “menswear designer” today conjures up images: ranks of slim, grimacing models in unwearable outfits marching down runways; glowering, alienated types in strange poses in multi-full-page spreads in glossy magazines; black-and-white photos of struggling, tatted-up and pierced artistes in grey hoodies, pinning vests on a dummy in a grungy atelier; but in the 70s there was no such thing as a menswear designer. In the business, in the factories and the showrooms, the word “Designer” was the title of the guy who nobody outside the company ever heard of, who drew the patterns; and the guy who made the patterns ran the place. With skills honed in provincial workrooms around Naples and Rome or in the British Midlands, a few men, by their artistry, ambition and sheer grandiosity rose above their peers to management level. They occupied a rare stratum within the organizational chart. They were indispensable; and not just in their own minds. An ironic twist in Hilton history, our Designer was the guy who ran Ralph Lauren, the man most readily identifiable as a true menswear designer, out. Michael Cifarelli, his name was. An Italian man of a certain type, common in that generation. Of course, I’ve known a lot of supremely egotistical guys in many different industries, of different ethnic identities, ages, accents and traits; but none so iconic, so grandiose, or so ultimately pathetic, as the maestro-Italiano: the same type as the mafia don, without the guns.

Cifarelli had the knack. At least he had it at once, when he drafted the Norman Hilton “Hampton” model, the three-button, slightly shaped sack coat that did for Norman Hilton what beer did for Milwaukee. Of course, Norman had the vision; knew what he wanted. He’d been in the middle of it, 1930s Princeton, Harvard Business School. There were a lot of pretenders, Southwick, Lanham and others, but Norman Hilton had lived the Ivy League style, among men who were the Ivy League. His jacket had a patrician aura; a pedigree; the look of old money. He’d described it to Cifarelli, who drew, sampled, redrew, resampled and finally managed to make a three-button, “two-to-button” jacket with more grace and a more body-tracing, a more flattering silhouette, crafted, stitched and pressed, finished to be the blue-ribbon version of the type. Every season, every delivery, the product sold in the retailers’ stores. It was flattering, comfortable, and consistent. The Hampton sport jacket was Cifarelli’s masterpiece, the industry standard. Thus did the God of Linden gain his everlasting position on the throne.

By the time I got there, though, Cifarelli was in his mid-seventies. I told him I wanted to make some changes, to update the product. Asked him to make some new samples. Our relationship, chilly at first, froze. I want to change it up to reach a younger, faster, upscale market. I want a new, and he’s God. The God who banished Lauren, no less. Gods don’t do new. “Norman’s kid,” he called me. “The kid. Wants to be some kind of a designer.” The word, as the old-timers used it, had about the same significance as “queer.” Gods do the same tricks over and over. The industry was celebrating brands that stood for change: “lifestyle” brands that showed a total look, across multiple classifications. If there was going to be any creativity, any newness to our line, it was going to come from someone else.  In the religion of style, Gods get replaced. But by whom?