Nick Hilton’s 10 Favorite Things
From Hemingway and his wife to Small World and Viburnum, Nick Hilton shares the things he cherishes most.
By Sarah Emily Gilbert
Around Princeton, Nick Hilton is the go-to guy for fashion. Born into the men’s clothing business, Hilton is now the eponymous owner of one of the finest men and women’s clothing shops in New Jersey. Alongside his fashion-forward wife, Jennifer and daughter, Catherine, Nick Hilton provides his customers a personalized shopping experience complete with style advice, custom-tailored clothing, and a welcoming environment. And while Nick Hilton might be known for his well-dressed exterior, it’s his thoughtfulness that truly set him apart. This is perfectly displayed in his list of 10 favorite things. Though one might expect his list to include designer suits or cufflinks, Hilton brings us through the qualities inherent in the things he loves. From the simplicity of Hemingway’s prose to the virtuosity of Canali clothing, Nick Hilton shares some of his most treasured things with Princeton Magazine.
1. Kindness: How we’re supposed to treat one another. The ideal we hold ourselves to, when we’re thinking and feeling and acting right. The Golden Rule. The thing we know we might never give or get enough of, ever. The thing that makes “customer service” just that: not words, or policies, or intentions, but the attitude that makes the world a better place. This attitude is exemplified by Maureen Haddad, owner of The Tower Cottage, a small hotel in Point Pleasant; she makes you feel like you’re the only guest in the whole, wide world. Jennifer Hilton is like that, but she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? Married to me all these years? Kindness is the soul of patience.
2. Simplicity: Good taste seems to have a common thread throughout the ages and across all aspects of design. My father liked to call it the “absence of artifice.” It’s true in people’s ways of communicating, too, as in, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” It’s not that things can never be complicated or hard to understand; it’s that the expression of them is clear and forthright. Products that are pure quality, without a lot of stuff going on. Like John Smedley Sea Island Cotton knitwear, or Hemingway’s prose, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, or, for that matter, Monsignor Greg Malovetz’s homilies, Sundays at St. Charles Borromeo.
3. Virtuosity: Some major dudes have it, like Meryl Streep, Keith Jarrett, Eric Clapton, Louis de Bernieres, John Singer Sargent. But I’m truly in love with more mundane, everyday examples. In my industry you see this level of artistry in the art of the pattern-maker. An apparel retailer depends on the fit of his wares. No matter how beautiful a suit or a jacket may be, if it has bumps or folds or bulges where it shouldn’t, it’s worthless. Skill is one thing; blend it with heartfelt, passionate effort and refusal to accept mediocrity and what you get is pure excellence. The fit of Canali clothing is the result of their designer’s virtuosity. Another example: I’ve never given (or received) flowers from Ashling O’Brien’s Viburnum Florist that weren’t truly spectacular. I love that. And the Westminster Christmas celebration of Readings and Carols is virtuosity in profusion every December.
4. Respect: A precious attribute because it is, sadly, so rare. (The absence is conspicuous in modern dress standards, men wearing tee shirts to funerals, baseball caps in restaurants, and so on.) Respect is fundamental to life. I love the way the Italians revere their elders; the way (most) library patrons know to be quiet; the way a great chef is keen on presentation; the little gestures that constitute good manners. The only way our political system will ever work is if we can somehow begin to have respect for the other fellow’s point of view and try from there to work things out. In a way, in our business we trade in respect.
5. Serenity: Another rarity in modern life is quietness. I love to walk with Jennifer around Bedens Brook in the evenings. There is a silence about it, a comforting lack of distraction. Tranquility is the object of spiritual work, meditation, even therapy, and I think the underlying quality of true happiness. I can find it also on the canal path, the Institute woods, and even, sometimes, in my own head. It comes with practice, over time.
6. Sustainability: This is a specific kind of morality. It’s respect, too, in a special sense. It’s one of those words that points to something bigger. It’s not just reusable bags and electric cars, glass bottles and self-regulating thermostats; it’s a consciousness of wholesomeness and purity, of natural goodness, of our responsibility to the future of humanity. Sustainability is peace on earth. The Whole Earth Center personifies this. I love that place.
7. Ingenuity: Isn’t technology just awesome? The whole process, I mean, that lets us experience the future unfolding in our lives. My Princeton parking “Smart Card” has a place in my heart, (Dude you get change from the meter!) and so do the guys at Image Arts, who’ve figured out how to print and mount my photographs onto bright clean Plexiglas, so they’re bright, permanent and pristine. Wow. Technology is best when it’s fills a need, instead of creating one.
8. Robustness: I don’t like tasting menus because the dishes are small and I can’t remember after the fourth or fifth course what I’ve had so far. It frustrates me. But I can rip into Agricola’s Duck Two Ways and I’m, like, satisfied. Like I am with a “Double Joe to Go,” across the street, at Small World. And it’s not just food. There’s a richness, a robustness to a Lone Pine shearling coat that just makes life better.
9. Graciousness: I got a thank-you note from a customer, for example. She didn’t have to thank me, but she has that quality. When you spend your life – or most of it – dealing with the public, you come to value the “social lubricant” of personal gentility in a major way. Because things don’t always go smoothly, and when I’m not at my best it’s absolutely wonderful to have someone cut me some slack. And when you kill yourself to get it right for the customer and they seem to appreciate it, man, what a difference that makes. So, thank you! To all of you gracious folks out there.
10. Security: So what’s going on at Thanksgiving? The family all around; the laughter, the stories, the warmth. It’s what a family does. Everything is going to be all right. Where do we get that, otherwise?