by Stephen Garner
Gene Hiller
Gene Hiller

MR magazine is saddened to report the passing of menswear icon Gene Hiller, who died peacefully on Monday, December 17 at the age of 90 with his family and friends by his side.

Gene was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 11, 1928, and was raised in Muncie, Indiana by his loving parents Max and Bea Hiller. He attended Indiana University and upon graduation, became a first lieutenant in the United States Army ‘B’ company, 31st infantry. He was later awarded the bronze star for his heroic actions during the Korean War. After the war, he and his first wife moved to the Bay area and settled in Greenbrae where they raised their two daughters, Pam and Karen.

It did not take long for Gene Hiller to become a legend in the menswear industry. His first store opened on Geary Street in 1953, followed by his award-winning store in Sausalito beneath the Sausalito Hotel. In 1992, he moved the store to its current location in the Old Sausalito City Hall building.

Gene was a grateful and respectful man, famous for his sense of style, unparalleled class and generosity. He felt honored by his clients’ patronage and made a point to treat them as family. He is survived by his adored wife of 35 years, Tove, with whom he traveled the world and built their Tiburon dream home, venue of many celebrations with family, friends and charitable organizations. He is also survived by his loving stepdaughter Terri, and twin grandsons Angel and Alex.

Gene will be greatly missed but his legacy lives on through the countless people he touched: his friends and family, his staff at Gene Hiller Menswear and his industry colleagues. Says retail friend Elton Salinas, “I met Gene in the early 1970s when I opened Cuzzens in San Francisco. I was immediately inspired by his talent, his sense of style, and his generous spirit.” And from designer Bill Lavin, “I always loved this man! We did business together for more than 38 years and he truly appreciated my passion for design. I will miss you Gene: you may be gone from this world but you’ll never be forgotten.”

Adds Karen Alberg, editor in chief of MR magazine, “I would often see Gene at trade shows and, even in his later years when he’d cover the shows in a wheelchair, he had such dignity and class. Gene emanated kindness: he’d greet me with a warm hug and a sparkle in his eyes; when he’d ask ‘how are you?’, I got the feeling he actually wanted to know…” Adds Harris Rubenstein from Jack Victor, “The men’s clothing industry has lost an icon. Gene was the warmest of people and knew how to make everyone who visited his magnificent store in Sausalito so welcome, whether a client or salesperson. He mentored Tom to be exactly the same, so his legacy will carry on.”

Recalls industry veteran Joe Barrato, “I met Gene in ’87 when I was running Brioni. He was always a gentleman, and with a curious mind. His store had a point of view that never wavered from his vision; his team was the most knowledgeable and passionate around. Gene created a website way before it was popular. On that site was a Brioni blue blazer that retailed for $1500. I was apprehensive: this was my first experience on the internet. I called him and told him I thought it would be tough to sell a Brioni blazer at that price. Of course, he proved me wrong! What I underestimated was the drawing power of his store in Sausalito; his customers came from all over the U.S. and this was a new way of reaching them. He was a true pioneer!”

“Gene was one of the first customers I met when I was sent by Pancaldi to NYC in September 1977,” recollects Luciano Moresco. “I was a 25-year-old kid, first time in America, and I was in awe of this vibrant, handsome man storming with purpose and decision into our showroom. With him was this young, lanky guy with an Italian last name who became a fixed presence with Gene on buying trips. Of all the smart decisions Gene made in his career, the smartest was recognizing the talent of Tom Gangitano, who he eventually made his business partner. I will always cherish the memory of the dazzling, handsome Gene Hiller, making his presence felt wherever he went, always leaving a lasting impression.”

Sean Hieter from Corneliani also speaks of Hiller’s legacy. “Like the man himself, the Gene Hiller store is one of refinement, luxury and heart. Everyone who enters is family; you feel the warmth the moment you walk through the door. Gene built his business on extraordinary personal service; Tom, Wayne and all their associates continue to carry that torch.” Adds Chris Donohue at Eton Shirts, “The corporate culture of ‘excellence at every step’ that Gene developed within his business is truly exceptional. His team of sellers, buyers and managers are among the best in the industry, and we are honored to be a small part of his legacy.”

Sums up Anders Hjärne at Stenstrom: “65 years in business speaks for itself, but Gene was a true visionary who laid the foundation on which his successors can continue to evolve and thrive. His enthusiasm and dedication for people and product will forever be felt by those he worked with.”

And from George Tsaganeas, “Gene was extremely friendly, always taking the time to chat. He had a great sense of style, and I truly appreciated the fashion direction he gave me. He was part of that iconic group of retail pioneers that included Syd Shapiro, Ira Segal, Harry Kosins and Jerry Gushner. Gene was one of those giants and will be greatly missed by the entire menswear industry.”