June 30, 2013 by Ville Raivio
VR: Your age and occupation?
NH: 65, Clothing merchant.
VR: Your educational background?
NH: Private secondary schools, Bard College (BA) 1970.
VR: Have you any children or spouse (and how do they relate to your style enthusiasm)?
NH: Strange question. My wife, Jennifer, is my partner in business and the manager/buyer/merchandiser of our women’s department. We make all of our major buying decisions (lines to carry, overall strategic planning) together. We have 2 sons, the younger is involved in the marketing of our shop and is in the process of (re)building our on-line store. Our daughter is an advertising director of styling for Polo Ralph Lauren.
VR: …and your parents and siblings’ reactions back in the days?
NH: My family, on my father’s side, has been in the clothing business since they arrived in America in the 1880s. Nevertheless, my parents thought I was nuts to go into the business when I did; at first I thought they were right. But somehow I wound up being the designer of our wholesale line at the age of 28 or so, and it turned me on despite the difficulty of manufacturing quality apparel in the USA in the later 20th century.
VR: What other hobbies or passions do you have besides apparel?
NH: I play music and take photographs, but my major avocational concern is helping alcoholics and addicts to recover and lead “normal” lives.
VR: How did you first become interested in clothing, and when did you turn your eyes towards classic apparel? Why classics instead of fashion?
NH: Hard to escape it, really. My father was an icon of Ivy League sensibility, a Princeton and Harvard B. School alum, as well as a really talented designer and a master marketer. You couldn’t be around him and not get it, which I did as a kid, and it lasted as a formative influence. My grandfather had a different take: he was a classic post WWII New York bon vivant and he dressed in a classic, but not “Ivy” style — more like the jazz greats or movie stars of the 1950s. Suave is how I’d put it. But both of them had one thing in common: they knew you could never fake quality. Only the authentic thing, the original, will do. NO BULLSHIT. Ever. That is the essence of classic style: it’s the real thing. Fashion, as I understand it, is new for newness’ sake, pushing the envelope, like modern in the artistic sense, great for hanging on walls maybe; but clothing should not call attention to the wearer. That’s indicative of character traits that are just, well, not on. Ostentation, excess pride, lack of solidity. What does the clothing say about the wearer? Not to say trends are bad; things change. But good style adapts the trend into itself and moves the individual along a continuum. Skirts for men, for example, are exciting fashion, but bad style.
VR: How have you gathered your knowledge of apparel — from books, in-house training, workshops or somewhere else?
NH: All of the above, plus living and working overseas, especially Italy.
VR: How would you describe your own dress? Have you any particular style or cut philosophy?
NH: Comfortable elegance.
VR: Which RTW makers or tailors do you favour?
NH: To wear or to sell? Zegna is wonderful but too commercial to carry. I can sell Canali all day long, but it doesn’t fit me very well. Brioni fits me perfectly, but I couldn’t sell it with any enthusiasm because it just ain’t worth the money. Hickey Freeman fits and is worth the money. If I were going to add a line it would be Isaia.
VR: Please tell us how your store was born and what goals you had in the beginning. How have you been received so far?
NH: Short version: while still a designer/importer, I had an idea to open an outlet store, but friends suggested a real, high-end shop such as the ones we were selling to. Eventually I turned the wholesale business over to a licensee who tanked it, but the store grew almost 20% every year for 10 years in a row, despite a slowdown from September 08 through March 09.
VR: I’ve read that you decided to re-establish the Hilton brand. What lead you to this in 2002?
NH: I assume you’re referring to Norman Hilton.
A) I had enough money to buy the brand back from the SOBs who stole it in -96.
B) I wanted to go nationwide with a custom-tailored product that we’d designed and we needed a label. Norman Hilton still has some resonance in parts of the US. The label has come to mean different things since then, however.
VR: How would you describe the goods Nick Hilton offers?
NH: Good taste, good quality, worth the money. The things we sell are good for you.
VR: I trust there are plenty of menswear stores in Princeton — why should my readers visit you?
1.) Authority. We know. The others don’t.
2.) Quality (beauty, durability, and comfort) in products.
3.) Kind, friendly, honest, patient, dependable, courteous service.
VR: What’s your definition of style?
NH: That which gives the wearer an air of confident, dignified grace. Style is the personal definition of the individual; it is the refinement of the person, the definition of his or her character. Clothing does not have style; people do.
VR: Who or what inspires you?
NH: T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, people who struggle without giving up, George Harrison, Mother Theresa, Ralph Lauren, Tao Te Ching, my father, Emmet Fox, people who are kind, Dhammapada, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson Browne, Boz Scaggs, and everybody I meet, because they are either positive or negative examples of how to live.
VR: Over the years you must have learned quite a bit about apparel. Is there something you wish more men would know? This is a great opportunity to make a lasting influence on my younger readers. Most of us aren’t blessed with rakish relatives, which makes learning about style a challenge later in life and yet another trait men are supposed to master. All tips and thoughts are valuable.
NH: All throughout the history of humanity, from Socrates and Plato down, people have had mentors. I suggest that the young(ish) person develop an open-minded, willing-to-learn attitude about personal style. The thing that deadens the personality and removes the creative elan vital from a person is unwillingness to take direction and guidance from someone who is an expert. So, when someone asks me how to learn about dressing, here’s what I say: ‘Go to a store where you like how the people (who work there) look, and let them teach you. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Be open minded. It’s a process, not a destination.’
Pictures: © The Hilton family