Fathers and Sons (Or, Miracle on 44th Street)
My New York designer debut started as an accidental moment on a street corner on an otherwise unremarkable April day. Totally unpredictable, like most of life.
I had been agonizing over my futile attempts to sell to Saks for years. Agonizing in general, really. Cracks, fissures, ominous background themes, a horror movie soundtrack; life in the clothing business. All that vanished amid exhaust vapors and bus noises on a Fifth Avenue afternoon.
Agonizing. I’m a Hilton. We do that. Then we explode. My father told me a story, a memory of his grandfather Joe. Just a kid, he was visiting his grandparents when something happened. Joe got so angry my father remembered him “jumping up and down.” Literally hopping mad. My father thought that it must be genetic, somehow explained his own anger. To him it seemed like an inheritance. His dad, A.E., my grandfather just seemed angry; he didn’t jump around. You never knew what he was thinking or feeling. His anger seethed like a pot of water, boiling with the lid on.
Once, when I was maybe ten or eleven, and we were having dinner, Lil, A.E. and me, at Longchamp’s, downstairs from their apartment on 66th Street. Pop liked his meat well done. He’d sent his steak back twice already to be cooked enough, and when it was set down in front of him the third time it looked like an artifact from a nuclear test site. “We’re leaving. Let’s go, Lil.” he said, as he slowly, deliberately, pushed the entire plate, silver service – Lil and I watching, incredulous – glasses, butter plate and everything else over the edge of the table and onto the floor. And out we went. I’d been enjoying my steak, actually. That was that. He never said another word about it.
For some reason this side of Pop was frequently incited by restaurant personnel. One sunny June Sunday, Norman, Connie and the five of us kids pulled into the parking lot of The Jockey Club, a classy joint near Monmouth Park Race Track, for Father’s Day dinner. Still in the car, suddenly all of my cousins, uncles, aunts were heading toward us; leaving the restaurant. Pop apparently got into an argument with the maître d’, before anyone even went in, and that was that. Dinner cancelled. See you later. My father had this same allergy to restaurant staff. He would ask a waiter to recommend something from the menu, and then, when he didn’t like it, would summon the white-jacketed miscreant to the table.
“You like this shit?”
Mortified, We’d look around to see if anyone was watching. I inherited the anger, for sure; but a waiter could bring me a plate of road-kill skunk today and I will not say a word.
Gatherings of any could be a scene. One Thanksgiving at the shore house on Neptune Avenue in Deal, the entire clan arrayed, posed for the photographer hired to memorialize the occasion, my cousin Peter started fidgeting, fooling around, and his father, my uncle John, leaned over and whacked him on the head.
“John!” Peter’s mom, my aunt Lucy said. “Don’t hit him on the head!”
“He’s his son. He can hit him if he wants to,” John’s mother, my grandmother, Lillian said.
“Who asked you?” Lucy said.
Whence ensued complete pandemonium, with uncles screaming at aunts, grandparents at each other, kids crying, others hysterically attempting to get all to STOP; volume rising, until everybody just left. Got our coats and went out the door. I remember the photographer, shaking his head, folding up his tripod. What I did not remember was the witness to all this, a customer, a young guy from the West Coast named Gordy Atkinson, who was staying at Uncle John’s house for the weekend for some reason, and who was excited to share his recollection of this most exciting Thanksgiving when I called on him at his store in Newport Beach, some twenty years later. You were there? I was! Never seen anything like it. To complete the festivities, my father fell asleep at the wheel of his Buick Roadmaster on the way back to Rumson; cruised right through the Peninsula House Hotel sign on Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright which, fortunately woke him up enough to stop the car. No one was injured.
I’ve studied this, living with it as I have. I’ve learned some things about anger. It isn’t a thing in itself. It’s fear, pent up, under pressure, erupting. Like a volcano. Spewing pure dangerous emotional magma. In men, anyhow, since fear is, well, scary, and we’re supposed to be men, after all, we fake this warrior frenzy until the pressure subsides and it occurs to us how stupid we look. Then there’s a wave of self-recrimination’ a foul-tasting dessert. That’s for us healthier angry guys. Others buy AK47s and go to the movies.
Like hopping-mad Joe, table-clearing A.E., and stormin’ Norman – even his friends called him that – I was secretly, generally afraid. Whether I learned or inherited this curse, this generalized anxiety, it was a part of me, like a birthmark. Fear, masquerading as ferocity. You can recognize it by its malodorous air: the scent of Victimhood. Why me? Or, worse: Poor me! It has a smell – like shit: shit mixed with poison – a scent you wear around to call attention to yourself, or to punish those around you. Suffer slings and arrows? Not an option. When we suffer we let you know. Take arms against my sea of troubles, in futile, embarrassing outbursts. And me, scion of this fearful family, genetically endowed with intolerance, I had a sense of impending doom. Looking back, I could say it was justified. Doom actually was impending. Now I’m pretty sure fear brought it on. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be: that is the answer, not the question. Quit stewing and fretting and just take a walk. Meditate. Say a prayer, even. I had been trying to sell Norman Hilton to the Saks buying team since the late 70s. I kept at it, called the merchandise manager, department heads, even the CEO, for years. Same response. Thanks anyway. Nothing doing. It made me crazy. The very words – Saks, Fifth, Avenue – would incite riotous, uncontrollable rage. Like the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned…” sketch. Words bring on insanity. Fuck them! Assholes! Their minds were made up, thought they knew what Norman Hilton was all about, no matter what I’d done to change it. This was my bête noir with so many important stores. My father had sold them his line for years. When John Fresco was coming up, Norman was having lunches at 21 with Adam Gimbel, Saks’ owner. Even had a fling with one of the secretaries in the menswear office. Ten years on, I couldn’t get past that, for reasons by this time all too painfully clear: Ivy was dead, except for Ralph’s take on it. European was in. Blah, blah, blah.
A natural-born salesman is happy to hear a No; or so I’ve heard. Just so many Nos until the next Yes. I was anything but a natural-born salesman. Every No felt like a prison sentence. I’d call them. Suffer the rebuff. Wait six months. Call again. The secretary to the Saks buyer would say, “Mr. McCampbell can’t take your call right now.” A polite dodge. I knew it meant: He’ll Never Take Your Call! Forget It! She wouldn’t say it, but she meant: Quit calling already! Okay, I’d say. Thank you. Very polite. Then bang the phone down. Fuck them! The Hiltons do like that: get fucking angry. That’ll show ‘em.
Norman would ask about it from time to time. Say, trying to sound casual, “What about Saks? We used to have a big business with Saks.”
“Um. Well.” Every answer felt lame. The Dog Ate My Homework.
“Well, keep at it,” he’d say. With some pessimism in his tone.
The thing about life, it’s totally unpredictable. All you can do is do your best at the time and wait to see what fate has in store. In certain circumstances there is a lot to be said for doing nothing; and serendipity doesn’t get big enough billing in the drama of life. Maybe the best thing to do when you’re struggling with something is just to leave it there. Go outside. Take a walk. Breathe.
Turned out taking a walk was the right thing to do. Serendipity doesn’t get big enough billing in the drama of life; philosophers go from “God’s Will” to “Chaos Theory.” Fate? Happenstance. Randomness. That’s all they can say about it.
I’m sorry guys. In my life it’s a trend, as real as the stock market, or global warming. Good things come to those who, however ungracefully, wait. Try to do good. Be kind to animals. Give to charity. Go to church. There’s a trend of good fortune in this universe. Life. Stay with the trend. Things happen. Like the one afternoon I just happened to be walking up Fifth Avenue and ran into the entire brain trust of Saks’ men’s division. John Fresco, Linda Beauchamp, and Dan McCampbell, the trio responsible for all of Saks Fifth Avenue men’s wear merchandising, right there in front of me, right across the street from the old Browning Fifth Avenue location, at 45th Street. All congenial.
“How are you?”
“So! What’s new?” someone asked, and I was inspired. It just came over me. A fleeting, infectious confidence.
“I’ve been working on something. New and different. My line is right for Saks now! I have something for you!” I said. “I’ve done a line. Under my own name.”
This was only partially true. I’d made a line, for sure. But as yet it had no name. They stared, not sure how to answer. Linda and Dan looked at John, who seemed interested. I went on. “You know I’d never call you with the same old thing. This is new, and it’s... Important!”
Fresco seemed pleased to hear that. Something in his eyes. He smiled. “Bring it around,” he said. “Let Dan see it.” A glance at Dan. A sort of a smile.
Maybe? A momentary, delirious maybe. Just maybe this would work. Kindling optimism. How it works, right? A crack in the door, light in the tunnel; voices. I flew back to the showroom, told Rosann. More swatches! Call the fabric guys. We got a chance with Saks! Let’s go! Sped from there to the factory. Umberto. What about a double-breasted model? What’s the point-to-point measure? Do we need a two-button version? Cut a sample. Rush it through. We have to be ready June 1.
Don’t get the wrong idea. It wasn’t just good fortune. Or persistence. Various forces, currents, and turns of events were behind their decision to take my collection. A strong endorsement from Fresco and Linda didn’t hurt. They liked me. But mostly it was an opening at that particular price point and a major change in men’s style: a swing to bigger, easier, more comfortable clothing. Umberto’s model, realized in crepe-based, high-torsion yarns, and subtle, supple materials from imaginative Italian mills had a Giants of Jazz, post-war masculinity. Swagger. A look of confident virility. Nevertheless, they’d never have known about it but for beautiful synchronicity: a chance meeting on a spring day on the west side of Fifth Avenue. Mid-May I called Dan, got right through, made the date, held my breath.
The process was nothing like selling my line to a Fred Pressman or Murray Pearlstein. The department store buyer came to the showroom, checked the line out, went back to the management and reported his or her impressions, got the thumbs up or down, then either made an appointment to “work” or gave you a polite pass. The thumbs up included a store roll-out plan, a product-by-product budget, and an outline of “the agreement.” If you were an established company, a Hickey Freeman or Hugo Boss, say, or a brand-name division of a big manufacturer, your deal menu had mostly to do with what you could do for them. The deal would include various terms of art, like Guaranteed Margin, or Sell-Through Agreement, that sort of stuff. Basically, it was a discount or consignment, an "on-wheels" type of a deal, all testifying to the rickety structure of the entire industry, insurance policies to protect the big stores from loss.
A walk around the 6th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue would prove they needed all these gimmicks. Racks and racks jammed with every conceivable tailored clothing item, from Brioni tuxedoes down to Hart, Schaffer & Marx polyester blazers. Thousands and thousands of units, awaiting the perfect Mr. 44 Short, Mr. 46 XL. Joe Hilton's dream, a ready-made world of gigantic selections, had made him rich, made him open ten big stores and a factory to supply them, the factory that I was now responsible for. A century later the dream had become a nightmare. Men’s ready-to-wear, had outgrown itself. Like any good industrial idea: when everyone else catches on it becomes lethal. Supply outgrows demand; competition Darwinian-deadly. The men's clothing industry then began, like an overloaded freighter on the high seas, to attempt changing course. Back to the future: retailers caught on to ordering one-at-a-time, made-to-measure suits. Manufacturers would convert their production lines and their customer service departments into custom tailored divisions. But none too soon. It took a century for Joe’s idea come full circle, for the idea of large inventories to tank. And this, believe it or not, was before the entire business world decided that Dockers and a golf shirt were perfectly acceptable in the corner office, in the board room.
Are all cycles vicious? Seems like it. Every new idea in business means casualties. Casualties mean more casualties, and in the clothing business of the 80s and 90s most manufacturers, suffering sales slumps season after season took measures that just made things worse. Mr. and Mrs. Smith went shopping for a new suit for him. They don't know it, but by now, the accountants who behind the scenes really made the decisions at Saks, Bloomingdales, and every other big joint from coast to coast had made outlines of agreements that put all the risk back on the supplier. Naturally the cost of doing this would be added to the manufacturers’ overheads, and the clothing increased in price. Then the consumer, complaining about price increases from season to season, demanded less expensive clothes, forcing manufacturers to cheapen their products.
The increasing costs of fabric and labor, plus the cost of the deals that a company like, say, Botany 500 had to make with the store, causes the suit to go from $435 to $495. Mr. and Mrs. Smith come in to buy their semi-annual new suit for Joe. Turning the tag over, Mrs. Smith says, "Wow, Joe. This suit costs five hundred bucks!" Joe calls the salesman over. “Got anything cheaper?” No fool, Joe Smith. There always was. The salesman goes to another rack, pulls out an import with a clever Italian name. “Try this on, Joe.” The Smiths buy the Vermicelli suit, made in Philippines, for $350. Upstairs, at the end of the month, the buyer looks at the Botany 500 sell-through statistics. Goes to his boss, the merchandise Manager and says, “Hey Lou, Botany is not performing.” Manager tells his pal, the Botany 500 VP of Sales, at lunch the following week, "Hey you guys are getting killed. You gotta compete with Vermicelli." Okay, so Botany 500 buys cheaper fabrics, cuts more and more manufacturing corners, lowers labor costs, all in an effort to deliver a cheaper suit. A cheaply made, scratchy-feeling, not-very-durable version of the $495 suit, now retailing at $395. It never works. You have to factor this in: the Philippines factory worker cares more about her dollar-a-day job than her Baltimore five-dollar-an-hour counterpart. She is more careful. Her workmanship is finer. More precise. The Smiths like that Vermicelli made in Philippines because it’s a better suit for less money. They come in next year and buy another. For old times’ sake, Joe tries a Botany 500 on and decided No Thanks. "This thing is scratchy," Joe Smith says. "What happened to Botany 500? I used to love their suits."
Dan came up to the showroom in early June. Reviewed the troops. Hello, hello. Every corner filled with mannequins. Catered luncheon. Coffee, dessert. We went to work. Story boards with photographs. All the post WWII jazz greats, boxers, icons of an era. Bogart. Movie stills. Laminated book of our proposed color stories – variations of taupe, olive, sandy gray. Models parading in and out. Swatches. Samples. The navy crepe blazer. “We’ll build a backup inventory you can pull from in-season.” Advertising plans. Exclusivity in the New York area. Laid out all the swatches, still holding my breath.
“It’s good.” McCampbell said. “It’s very good. Let me talk it over with John. But I think we’ll do it.”
When they came back to make the buy, no onerous conditions. We got the fair-haired young designer treatment. No take-backs; no margin relief. A healthy advertising and PR budget for the launch, full page Sunday Times magazine, personal appearance, no-obligation “locker stock” of basic items, but no discounts. We got their respect.
“Hey Dad. How are you?” Trying to sound cool.
“So?” he said. “News?”
“We got ‘em.” I said. “We’re in Saks.”
A full-on New York style designer launch. Pat Harrington got the Times’ Woody Hochswender to do a full-page story. Me, and Ralph. And Alan Flusser. The news is Big. Easy. Comfortable tailoring. A photo of me, under the headline “The New Male Silhouette.” Big as life, in a double-breasted suit. The vanguard of the comfort revolution. Saks’ window trimmers painted my name on the Fifth Avenue windows – NICK HILTON ON 6 – and filled them, every window, with our clothes. They showcased the line in their ten biggest doors, the A stores, Chicago, San Francisco and Beverly Hills. We hosted a party at 21 for the sales staff. We had a PA on the floor, complete with cocktails and canapés. Sent personal invitation to press and New York swells, dignitaries and opinion-creators. In the first hour of business on the first Saturday Saks sold 5 suits. Quite a start. I can’t really recall the emotion I felt at all this. You could say I was thrilled. Vindicated. But there was something about it – about me? – that tempered the exhilaration. I was proud, sure, to see my name there, painted on the windows going down 50th Street and Fifth Avenue. Thousands of people going by every day. I was strutting my stuff, but it was an act. I felt I still had to prove it. Designer. Not me somehow.