Corrections or additions?

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

him."

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

Hilton interests.

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

Hilton.

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

have before."

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

men’s appearance.

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

prices."

"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."

Nick Hilton Studio, 221 Witherspoon Street, Suite

102, Princeton 08542. 609-921-8160; fax, 609-921-8671.


Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments