Life went on. Blessedly, without Cifarelli. I never went to his house, never had to beg the old man to reconsider, saving me a certain amount of self-esteem, a diminishing commodity in the circumstances. To control things Norman hired factory managers who reported directly to him, which was fine with me. Eventually he found one he trusted, a master tailor, or as we would call them in those days, a “quality man” who’d run the Petrocelli shop in Manhattan; a more refined, less arrogant gangster-God, a modern-day Roman by the name (had to end with “-elli,”) Rocco Ciccarelli. He took over the office and the responsibilities that went with it. Norman turned his attention – for all too short a time, as we shall see – back to the burgeoning Burberrys wholesale. Now commuting from our small, 18th century roadside home in Princeton, I spent my days in the New York showroom, an elegant 2500-square-foot suite in midtown. I went about my business, which I’d never have called “designing” because that sounded so pretentious, but that’s what I did.
Umberto Carluccio created the patterns. This handsome, agreeable young man had started as a bundle-boy on the cutting floor back when I was schlepping cartons to the loading dock, had made cutter’s apprentice, then been promoted to stock cutter, showing such talent and skill in that capacity that Paulie Cuzzola made him the special-order-man, a specialist of a higher order, who drew the patterns for custom-made suits and jackets. Both of us, thwarted, disrespected by Cifarelli, had something to prove, if only to ourselves. Umberto had some difficulties with Rocco; the pattern man and the tailor and the age-old argument over the sources of problems in the shop: Is it the pattern or is it the sewing? They found a modus vivendi eventually, and seemed to respect one another’s talents.
Under Rocco’s leadership the factory began to literally hum; you could sense it downstairs, in the office and warehouse beneath the droning workrooms. The sound of the machines was the music of growth; the pace and the flow of work improved as increased sales resulted from the improved quality of the clothing. The man had a lot of rules, which derived their authority from his confidence and conviction, something we’d been missing. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” he’d say, and the factory began to have an orderliness about it. “Do everything necessary but nothing more.” Hand operations that contributed to the comfort and longevity of a garment were given increased importance, while antiquated operations, along with a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality vanished. Needless costly hand sewing that added nothing but cost was eliminated. So, the hand-tailored collar, the hand-set sleeves and shoulders, the basted-canvas-interlined front, all the differentiating elements of “make” in our clothing were continued and enhanced while the cost of labor did not rise. We were able to invest in building a custom-tailoring division with fabric offerings, model options, speed of delivery and attention to detail that set the standard for our industry at the time.
Behind all this, as usual, were women. There was a feminine element, a serenity amid the industrial din, especially in the areas of the factory where the hand operations were done. Groups of ladies, backs bent over the garment’s sleeve, back, or shoulder in their laps, looking up only to smile in greeting as I passed by. An efficient female charm came also to our relationships with customers. The service we gave the retailer was evident in the dependability of our made-to-measure business. Retailers were gradually finding that they could reduce inventory costs, improve profit margins, retain customers and improve their specialists’ competitive edge by promoting and training staff to fit and measure men for custom-made clothing. Contravening the traditional more-is-better mentality in which cutting heights were key to efficiency and profitability, we threw everything we had at growing the single-unit production effort. Expanded fabric selection, marketing, in-store presentation, factory-training seminars, all organized to foster this business, which grew steadily for a decade, ultimately amounting to 30% of unit production and nearly 50% of our revenue. Making a suit to fit a man of unusual body type, measured by salespeople of varying experience as far away as California, required systematic, detailed procedures and close communication. We led the industry in adapting to this new clothing mentality, and our success was due to the excellent work of a team of a half-dozen women directed by Kathy Curcio, an incredibly smart, forward-thinking single mom who solved problems and managed her team with little friction or disruption, a rare achievement in a previously contentious environment. Just as beyond their office door, on the factory floor, it was the women who did the work that made the Hilton product special, so in the customer service department it was mothers, sisters and daughters who understood that all our jobs depended on satisfying the retailer with friendly and dependable service, information and delivery.
And so did a calmness, an atmosphere of promise and cooperation once again prevail. It was in fact the golden era, for me at least; for about the next seven years our sales were steady, business continually – albeit marginally – profitable and growing. It was not to last, but while it did it afforded me a career of such gratifying excitement as I’d ever imagined, as if the factory and the production team were the backstage crew of a theatrical production which allowed me to perform, to create a collection, to project a concept of a living style to an audience of retailers and media people.
This show was not in its first run, though. There was not a retailer in America unfamiliar with the Norman Hilton brand; more problematic, there was no retailer who hadn’t formed an opinion of our product, personnel, or style. Norman’s peerless marketing ideas had created a double-edged sword: we were defined by an image that was solid, well-known, difficult to alter; the customers we were holding on to, though shrinking in number, passionately did not want us to change. The emerging retail “giants,” however, were looking for something new.
By the mid-eighties the prominent, successful men’s clothing retailers in the northeast, the midwest, and on the west coast were not the companies that made Norman Hilton successful twenty years earlier. Wilkes Bashford had become San Francisco’s most elite shop, offering new, predominantly European and almost unimaginably expensive clothing. Louis, always Boston’s best-known men’s specialty store, now run by Murray Pearlstein, a mercurial, restless merchant with an unmatched instinct for finding the finest, most exquisite merchandise from all over the world, was prominently featuring designers and manufacturers virtually unheard of ten years earlier. Fred Pressman had turned his father’s off-price, lower west-side schlock house into one of America’s most prestigious retail destinations: Barneys New York. These men, and others like them around the country, discerning visionaries with successful, growing stores, cast long shadows in the industry, and to get them to feature your product was the dream of every manufacturer, especially if your product was expensive, like ours was, and oriented toward an affluent, clothes conscious consumer, like ours was.
Hand-wringing hindsight is a trap, but it’s worthwhile to observe that at this moment, sometime in the early 1980s, a kind of Cassandra was offering prophesies of dire consequences, but as her fate was sealed by a curse, no one listened. We were a company Who Manufactures One Thousand Garments Per Week. This was our mindset; our imagination consumed by maintaining, actually increasing, unit volume. Cassandra was all the while whispering that we were never going to be able to maintain, let alone modernize or even finance our rickety, three-story firetrap of a factory in the coming years. We might have decided to step back, tighten our belts, reimagine our future. To make only full-price, very special, high-image merchandise. Fewer, better things. We might have remained manufacturers of very expensive and elegant traditional menswear, making small adjustments in line with current trends. We might have seen ourselves as a small, specialized, exclusive company, but for Cassandra’s curse. We could not hear her. No. Growth was our watchword. Paddling upstream a mile above Niagara.
After Umberto and I had tried scores of samples and prototypes, I was sure we had something exciting and new: a natural successor to the traditional Norman Hilton style with a kind of flair, an attitude; something no one else had tried. This was unfamiliar territory, of course, but with the right marketing...
Then, a eureka moment. At the movies. The film, “Chariots of Fire,” the story of two British runners who compete at the 1924 Olympics. A romantic and beautiful picture which just happened to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, as well as Best Picture. The costumes, designed by Milena Canonero, were a romantic, sort of proto-Ivy League style, the inspiration for my father’s early collections. A carefree sort of elegance, lavishly and painstakingly recreated by Ms. Canonero, fresh, non-commercial, and best of all: realistic. In a word, saleable. The silhouettes of the tailored clothing (and everybody in the movie wore tailored clothing, except while racing) were close to what Umberto and I had dreamed up in the sample room. Now we had a visual we could refer to, and the trend was on already. People would understand; especially if the costume designer for that movie were known to be collaborating with us, the way Robert Redford had pulled Lauren in on “The Great Gatsby.” I called her. We met. Signed an agreement and began work right away, bringing in photographs and story boards of the ideas, working together selecting the cloth ranges, trying new ideas. Colorful, irrepressible, mercurial, three-time Oscar winner, Milena.
Everything about it was cool; the colors, slim-fitting, soft shouldered jackets, the baggy-pants, flannel-and-tweed look, the cut, the fit; all of it designed to bring our brand into a new era; to make Norman Hilton a designer label. Academy Award talent hyped with national advertising, news releases, editorial coverage like never before. The works. The collection consisted of vests, topcoats, trousers; a complete wardrobe approach. Rich, luxurious fabrics from Scotland and England. Nothing left out. Things began to happen.
Patricia Harrington phoned. We’d met in Beverly Hills a few years before, when she worked for Jerry Magnin's on Rodeo Drive, and we had mutual friends. Pat was about to go on her own as a publicist. We had an instantaneous rapport; she was lovely, sophisticated and diplomatic enough to charm both my dad and the check-writing Slotnick, and together we set about making some news. Pat was, from that moment, my closest adviser, most trusted ally, and most honest critic. An industry veteran, she knew the right people in the right places, and she had an uncanny sense of tone, of how a story could play, and she was enthusiastic about our Academy Award level collaboration with Milena. We had the product and now we had Pat, our PR engine, and to top it off, the cachet of a Hollywood headliner. Press releases, lawyers, cocktails at 21 with press nabobs. We did it all. Naturally with Milena the honeymoon didn’t last long. Collaborating with a two-time Oscar-winning, fiercely opinionated, intellectually gifted Italian woman was like trying to harness a unicorn. A typical argument: “Should our jackets be side- or center-vented?” Sounds like an easy call. Me, walking around the bedroom in our Princeton house, on the phone in my boxers; Milena, on a film location in Paris, arguing at high volume. Always emotional, on this topic Milena was livid. “Those tawdry, cheap shops in New Bond Street, like Cecil Gee’s,” she said, naming the awful, Las Vegas-glitz London boutique. “They carry side-vented jackets! They sell to low-level, tasteless accountant chaps. Track touts. Bookies!” She didn’t care that none of our prospective clientele had ever heard of Cecil Gee’s or even seen a side vent. She didn’t know anything about the clothing business, which was good and bad, and her fee ($10,000 per season, paltry in show business,) was not sufficient for her to start learning. I knew a lot about the market, about acceptable style, about the competitive forces, the taste of retailer. She didn’t; to her, pretty much what anyone else thought was irrelevant. I’d hired an unstoppable force; no use in my being an immovable object. Impossible to rein in, she directed every element of the line, at least in the sampling and planning stages. She never sat in on a sales presentation, so she didn’t see the filtered version.
It was all worth it, ultimately. It was I who I learned. Milena knew everything there was to know about clothing. History, trends, fabrics, styles of every kind. Her real skill was that of a true historian, and with a photographic memory. But the history really mattered. She was keen on developing something new, something modern, a blend of influences from all over the map and from all time. Reining in her ideas, keeping it practical, was difficult. She couldn’t care less what retailers wanted, or what our salesmen could sell, or what a factory could produce. “We just can’t make a suit jacket with no shoulder pads and no canvas, Milena. It will look so puckered and collapsed that it’ll come back from the retailer like a boomerang!” She was right, as it turned out, and her ideas would eventually find their way into collections from all over the world. But it was too early, and I was not only a designer, but a manufacturer. I had to listen to the factory staff, the guys who had to make these ideas a reality.
What to call it? It had to be associated with the Hilton brand, had to be a generational change, not abandoning the heritage. A Keith Jarrett album cover caught my eye. “Standards.” A great word, with multiple definitions. “Standards of excellence,” which spoke of quality and respectability, the pedigree of the product; "standards of jazz," familiar melodies with innovative improvisations; and, finally, flags or pennants were also standards; banners proclaiming teams or nations; so does his clothing proclaim the man.
I went to my dad with the idea. “Standards by Norman Hilton,” I said. “It sounds good to me. I like it.
“Standards schmandards,” he said. “What do you need another name for?”
“Because it’s different,” I tried. “It separates it from the old stuff.” How else to say it?
Norman couldn’t say it. Who could? But it was obvious that an innovative new concept with even a slightly different name was, to him, threatening. He couldn’t say it, because he knew how it would sound, but any variation on his name contaminated the pure idea that this company and this product were his and his alone. And I couldn't say what I thought, that it was vanity, the product of a fragile ego, that made him feel this way. Again, these unsaid things remained. Emotional carcinogens.
In the end the lip-biting, excruciating tolerance required in dealing with Norman’s nay-saying and our Hollywood Prima Donna was all worth it. The combination of our tailoring expertise, the snappy style of the “Chariots” era, and our knowledge of the practical, real world of menswear all blended together beautifully. When the early samples were ready we hired the right looking models and schlepped the whole entourage, publicists, stylists, photographers, assistants and various hangers-on down to Bay Head, or to the Bucks County countryside for elaborate, movie-set-style, three-day photo-shoots. All of the romance and extravagance of a cinematic production. This image, this romance was what the Norman Hilton product line had been lacking.
We sold the line to very important retailers, among them Brittany Ltd. in Chicago and Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco – stores which had never bought the original Norman Hilton – and the press ate it up. We began to be featured in every clothing issue; we took editors and writers to La Grenouille and Lutece,
Standards by Norman Hilton was nominated for, and finally won, the Coty Award for men’s design at a ceremony at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We celebrated with a big bash at ‘21’ and some big-time movie stars, Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon. Ms. Harrington worked the phones and the coverage we got was huge. Naturally DNR, Esquire, GQ, even the New York Times, the out-of-town and the trade press, even the blue-collar New York Post, covered the whole thing. Milena received the award with grace and elegance and the evening was like a dream come true.
Norman congratulated me, as was his way, on our “Big jerk-off in the papers. Let's hope it does some good.”