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This article by Laurel Tielis was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Just In Time For Father’s Day, A New Men’s Clothier
Freud wondered: "What do women want?" According
to Nick Hilton, they want men who dress well. "So many wives come
in and say `My husband is a slob. Can you help?’" Owner of an
eponymously named menswear store in Princeton, and fourth generation
of a family in the menswear business since 1888, Nick Hilton can help.
And that’s saying a lot. As many women can attest, helping the otherwise
successful man who dresses like a slob is no easy task. Part of the
problem is that most men do not think of their wardrobe as a work
in progress. They think they can buy a tie (or get one as the classic
— or cliche — Father’s Day gift) and that it will remain a
valuable part of their wardrobe for the next 10 years or so.
Nick Hilton will not even try to give a laundry list of fashion do’s
and don’ts for men. But, from his small but tasteful showroom at 221
Witherspoon Street, several blocks from Palmer Square, he will provide
the big picture that might help men dress, yes, for success —
or at least acquire the appearance of success.
He believes that dressing well is a question of style, rather than
fashion. Fashion, he says, is "trend and gimmick, hype and artifice."
Style on the other hand, is using good taste to coordinate a smart
look that feels comfortable. "It’s not a question of the right
tie. It’s knowing how to assemble the elements in a way that works
for each individual."
For Hilton, dressing well is bred in the bone. His great-grandfather,
Joseph Hilton, came here from Kiev and opened his first store on Flatbush
Avenue in Brooklyn. At that time, Hilton notes, there was no such
thing as buying a suit off the rack. All menswear was custom tailored.
"Joe Hilton was an innovator," he says. "He decided to
make garments in sizes, open a store, and let the customers come to
The flagship store was at Broadway and Market Street in Newark. By
1927 there was a Joseph Hilton & Sons on Times Square. At its height,
the business had 10 locations, as well as a factory in Linden, New
Jersey, which supplied the product. As Hilton explains, "Although
it wasn’t referred to that way, just like Bond’s or Ripley’s, it was
a factory outlet store," selling its own merchandise.
Joseph Hilton wasn’t just busy in-store; he fathered nine children,
five boys and four girls, and raised them in Llewellyn Park, a wealthy
suburb near West Orange.
Alex Hilton, Nick’s grandfather, entered the family business after
graduating from Princeton in 1919, at a time when there were still
quotas for Jewish students. "He was the eldest son," Hilton
says. "There was lots of money; Saratoga in the summer, chauffeurs,
butlers, maids." He estimates that by the 1920s the business took
in $10 million a year.
The Depression changed things, though. By the 1940s, the company manufactured
uniforms for the armed forces under the name, Tip Top Tailors. After
World War II, because of a trademark issue, the family purchased Browning
King and Company, which later became Browning Fifth Avenue, with stores
in the tri-state area.
Norman Hilton, Nick’s father, was Princeton Class of ’41 and a graduate
of the Harvard Business School. Norman entered the business in 1947
after serving in the Navy in World War II. He is credited with the
"natural shoulder look" in menswear, as well as in refining
Ivy campus wear. Says the son: "Norman was enamored of the Andover/Exeter
look with its sloping shoulder, narrow sleeve and overall softness."
Under Norman Hilton, the company prospered, expanding beyond suits
and sports coats to ties, shirts and trousers.
Hilton calls his father "the best stylist there ever was,"
but by the late 1960s, Norman had grown tired of the role. He hired
a young man then working in the tie business at Beau Brummel. That
was how Ralph Lauren came to the company and how Hilton Manufacturing
became an initial investor in Polo when Lauren left one year later.
"They had a buy-sell agreement," says Hilton, "at 50 percent-50
percent, for the shirts and ties only." He adds though, "That
was not inconsiderable." Ten years later, Lauren bought out the
Nick Hilton grew up in Rumson and graduated from the Hun School and
Bard before entering the business in 1970, when it was going through
a number of upheavals. Sent first to Italy, where he worked at a Macy’s/The
May Company buying office, he later became a salesman based in Massachusetts.
He then moved to Manhattan, and "because of all the changes within
one year, I was manager," he says.
"From 1970 to 1975," he says, "we almost lost the business."
Senior management as well as sales help had left to go with Lauren.
The factory had become a liability as the building got older, and
the unions’ demands for pay increases became stronger. Style changes
cut into profits as well. This was the era of double knits, leisure
suits and the Nehru jacket.
"We had a chain of 10 stores and nobody to run them," says
Hilton. They lost the stores, but "Halston decided to go into
menswear and gave the company an order for 2,500 units, which saved
the factory." The company returned to profitability when it became
the U.S. agent for Burberry. Burberry sales escalated from $650,000
a year to $22 million. "It was like printing money," says
The business also provided him with wife Jennifer Malamud, who worked
as a designer of women’s tailored clothing for the company. The two
married in 1975 and have three children, Nicholas, 22, a junior at
Rutgers who helps out on weekends, Catherine, 14, and Jake, 12.
By 1980, at age 32, Nick Hilton was named president.
Over the next few years, the company dressed everyone from Paul Newman
to Wynton Marsalis to Presidents Carter and Bush. In 1984 the firm
received a Coty Fashion Award.
Eventually though, continued union problems forced the company to
close the factory. There was typical father/son friction as well.
By 1990, he says, "I perceived a difference in my taste and the
taste of the customer that wanted to buy Norman Hilton. I had a lot
of piss and vinegar. I started the Nick Hilton Collection, which by
1995 was a $12 million business.
"I had an idea that men’s clothing should be comfortable all the
time; dressed up and comfortable at the same time. This comes through
the silhouette, the choice of fabrics, the colors, the softness, natural
body lines and natural fabrics." Hilton saw his job as "educating
the retailer to educate the consumer."
Over the next five years Hilton wanted to create a lifestyle collection
for men, but ran into problems because the company manufacturing his
line was only interested in producing suits.
"In 1999," he says, "I became independent with the remnants
of a collection. I was moonlighting a tie line, a shirt line, and
a trouser line. Six months ago I began an alliance with an Italian
line that sells us silk for our ties."
Today 115 specialty stores across the country, like Paul Stuart in
New York, Carroll & Company Beverly Hills, Nordstrom, and Mark Shale
in Chicago sell Nick Hilton’s line under the label NH Collection.
The first year in business the collection did $1.5 million wholesale
— out of which $1.2 million was spent on trousers.
Because Hilton needed to create a stock program (an in-store service
for reorders) for these accounts, he had to build up inventory. He
then needed a place to store the inventory so he came up with a simple
business plan: "I’ll have my office and if someone comes in, I’ll
sell them something." That was how last year he came to discover
the 1,250 square foot former WHWH radio station space on Witherspoon
Street, which now serves as store and warehouse.
Hilton defends the offbeat location by saying, "There are 10 parking
spaces in the back, which is very important. You can go to lunch and
go shopping without schlepping through the Hulfish parking lot. It’s
kind of downtown and not downtown."
According to Hilton there are three ways that customers come in. He
has a small advertising budget, which he uses for print ads, he has
a word-of-mouth business, and he sells to those who pass by and come
in to ask "Aren’t you the Nick Hilton that made the line I bought
at Richards of Greenwich 10 years ago?
The retail operation has had a positive effect on the wholesale business.
One of the things that has become clear is that he realized that he
can run a retail business on Nick Hilton alone. "Every day I’m
in a laboratory testing the product line — reaction to fabrics,
to weights," he says. "There is a base of validity that we didn’t
He continues: "You find out about human nature by becoming a retailer.
I want to raise consciousness about quality and about what feels good."
He also wants wives and girl friends to stop being disappointed in
He says men who are resistant to buying clothes have to be appealed
to "not in a combative way but a philosophical way. We have to
recreate the appeal and the enjoyment of looking good."
Hilton believes menswear took a downturn because "bigger is better"
in America. "When you have large factories you have to produce
and sell a lot of merchandise, so you need big customers. Economies
of scale mitigate against quality," he explains. "Men have
been so badly treated. Suit manufacturers tried to save business and
wound up destroying it. Uncomfortable cheap junk is sold for high
"People think a lot about their appearance but they don’t have
an objective view," he says. "It’s like a cancer patient deciding
he doesn’t want to have cancer anymore. You have to have help to heal."
In his boutique-type space, Hilton assembles outfits to give men a
visual reference to put together a sports jacket, shirt, tie and trousers
that work. His own reference is men like William Holden in "Sabrina"
or Jimmy Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story."
"I’ve been in this business 30 years and I can tell you: you need
a couple of jackets and a suit. You need to build a wardrobe one piece
at a time." For example, to look crisp and feel comfortable on
a hot day, he offers polished Egyptian cotton trousers for $150.
"I’m allergic to wool," he says, "so our wool is not scratchy.
You can buy fine worsted wool trousers for $175, exquisite light weight
wool serge Tasmanian 120s wool for $195 or an extraordinary fabric
from Fratelli Cerruti Supremissimo 120s for $295."
Just how much does it cost to be dressed by Nick Hilton? "Without
giving me your whole wallet you can walk out of here looking and feeling
better," he says. "If you trust our taste it could cost you
$2,500 a season." In terms of price, Hilton says, "we’re certainly
not a bargain store, but we don’t need department store margins and
you probably don’t have to chuck your whole wardrobe." Expect
to pay $600 to $700 for suits, $395 to $495 for sports jackets, $95
to $150 for shirts, $65 to $95 for sport shirts, and $65 for ties.
For those on a smaller budget, there are two sales a year, after Christmas
and in July. Seasonal sports coats and pants are half price, but dress
shirts and dress pants don’t get marked down.
Although Langrock’s, the English Shop, Alan Royce, and Harry Ballot
are no longer in town to supply upscale menswear, Hilton believes
that "our store works for Princeton; the point of view works for
Princeton. This is a not a Barney’s; it is not a New York store. The
Princeton customer is not so different from the one in Grand Rapids,
or West Hartford.
"Our age range is probably 32 to 55 and he’s got kids in school.
If you put him in something new, you have to give him long enough
to decide if he likes it."
Says Hilton: "Now that I’m embarked on retail, I’m passionate
about the business. I can work with people and make them look good.
I expect to be here the rest of my life. I risk being pushy, but then
guys will come to me and say, `You made me buy this. Now, it’s my
favorite; I wear it all the time.’
"I get millions of compliments," he says. "I can’t tell
you how gratifying it is."
102, Princeton 08542. 609-921-8160; fax, 609-921-8671.
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