BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
HEIRESS AND ENTREPRENEUR NICKY HILTON — HERE WEARING THE NEW CLASH DE CARTIER COLLECTION — ON HER ADMIRABLE WORK ETHIC, SOPHISTICATED STYLE AND HOW TO HAVE IT ALL.
Many wanderers traveling through Rome make it their mission to visit the Trevi Fountain. After all, legend says that those who toss in one coin with their right hand, over their left shoulder, will return to the Eternal City; if they toss in two, they’ll return and fall in love. Three is the dream: Ciao di nuovo, Roma! — love and marriage. And why not? Let’s be real: it’s hard not to throw euros at hope.
When Nicky Rothschild, née Hilton, found herself in Italy’s capital last summer during her first big trip of the pandemic, she had not heard of said folklore. She and her mom, Kathy, were simply grateful that they had the city — fountain, Spanish Steps and all — to themselves. But then, Hilton has no need for such superstitions. In fact, it was in this very city a decade ago that she met her husband, financier James Rothschild of the European banking dynasty (at F1 heiress Petra Ecclestone’s wedding, no less), whom she married four years later in what can only be described as a royal wedding at the Orangery at Kensington Palace Gardens in London. No luck or coins necessary, thank you very much.
From her love story alone, it would seem like the 38-year-old socialite, model, fashion designer and heiress has a charmed life. And there’s no denying it, she absolutely does. A loving husband, two beautiful children — Lily Grace Victoria, 5, and Theodora “Teddy” Marilyn, 3 — exquisite beauty and taste for days, and a gorgeous NoHo penthouse (which provided the perfect glamorous backdrop for Hilton to sift through new baubles from the Clash de Cartier collection during our shoot the week prior).
“I think my parents instilled a great work ethic in me and my siblings. They let it be known very early on that you were going to get to work, and you were going to make a name for yourself. And we did,” Nicky Hilton declares over Zoom in early September, just a day after Ida tore its way through her home of New York City (completely bypassing her actual Manhattan home. See? Charmed).
Nicky Hilton’s first job was glamorous in theory, but in execution — well, not so much. At the tender age of 13 (her parents were not messing around), she interned at Hamptons magazine, taking the trash out, filling coffee orders, dropping off magazines at advertisers. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for Hilton, this was an excellent way of getting her feet wet and learning to work hard for her money (though she wasn’t getting paid). “So many of the kids we grew up with do not have that work ethic, and I think when everything is handed to someone, it can be really harmful. It’s so important to learn the value of earning a dollar and feeling that accomplishment as a result,” she says.
Starting off early was beneficial in every way. By the time she was 17, she and her siblings — Paris, 40; Barron, 31; and Conrad, 27 — were traveling the world, and able to do so of their own volition. “I’ve been working for what feels like forever,” she notes, “and “I’m very, very happy that my parents pushed us.”
If you’re wondering whether she’ll enforce the same work ethic with her own kids, the answer is an unequivocal yes. “I think having young children do summer jobs gives them a sense of responsibility, a place to go [so they aren’t getting in trouble or being idle]. My kids will definitely be getting summer jobs; maybe something easy to start, like the ice cream shop in town.”
Starting young certainly worked out to her benefit. Nicky Hilton (who actually does go by Rothschild, despite her equally famous last name) was just 21 when she launched her first clothing line, which then segued into a line of handbags for Japanese company Samantha Thavasa. In 2005, she flipped to a front-of-house role, becoming the face of Australian lingerie brand Antz Pantz. By 2007 she was back behind the scenes, designing the more luxurious fashion line Nicholai. In 2010, she introduced a line of jewelry, which was followed by a 10-piece collection with eLuxe in 2014, a capsule collection of handbags with Linea Pelle in 2015 and, in 2017, a collaboration with Tolani for Mommy and Me (which was so successful she reprised the relationship the following year). Her first footwear collection, in partnership with French Sole, launched in 2019. A second, 100 percent sustainable collection for the brand is her most recent project. The leather flats are totally on brand for Hilton, who has been wearing a version of them since her teens.
“I went to a strict all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side where we had to wear uniforms, and our shoes were the only things we were allowed to pick ourselves,” she explains. “I stumbled upon the French Sole flagship store walking home one day and just fell in love with their shoes, so I’ve been a customer, and now I’m a collaborator. It’s been really organic.”
If her past has you wondering “Gossip Girl?” perhaps it won’t surprise you that she’s named two of her latest looks after that series’ two leading ladies, Serena (van der Woodsen, played by Blake Lively) and Blair (Waldorf, played by Leighton Meester) — despite only watching the show briefly. “[My upbringing] definitely had that Upper East Side prep school vibe, and I do have some really cute, preppy ballet flats, though that show was a lot more glamorous than my actual school days,” she says with a smile. “I always name shoes in my collection after women I love and admire. Sometimes they’re family members [there are actually many Paris and Kathy shoes in the line], sometimes they’re friends and sometimes they’re fictional TV characters.”
In a sense, she’s getting to relive her youth through Lily, who adorably pops in to (organically) model one of her Mom-designed dresses. “I’ve been getting my daughter ready for her first day of kindergarten and have been doing a little school shopping on Madison [Avenue]. I’ve been looking for exactly that French Sole look — just classic, clean, timeless,” she says.
Which, at 5, isn’t something Lily is quite ready for…yet. She goes for anything with rainbows and unicorns — not the classic, East Coast preppy chic her mother favors, but more reminiscent of the funky, trendsetting style of her Aunt Paris.
“My mother and sister are such great role models, and they each have their own unique style, especially Paris. I love that,” Nicky Hilton says. “It’s so funny — now you see all these young girls copying her exact looks from back in the day. And that was all her. She never worked with a stylist; it was all just her imagination. There’s something to be said for that, that people are still following those trends today and emulating them.”
Hilton, who describes herself as “shy, funny and sensitive,” is also self-deprecating and humble. She is not one to toot her own horn or subscribe to her own success, though she’s clearly enjoyed just as much as her big sister, admittedly in a more low-key way.
“I mean, I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I’ve done jewelry, handbags, clothing. I dabbled in childrenswear, which is fun, and which I’d like to explore a bit more,” she says of her eye to the future. (She has also dabbled in the hospitality space, opening two now-shuttered Nicky O Hotels in 2006 — “I don’t know if I’d want to be in that business again right now,” she says — published her first book, 365 Style, in 2014, and collaborated with Smashbox to create a line of cat-inspired makeup kits in 2015.) She says she is working on something in the luxury fashion space — possibly accessory-related — though she can’t currently share more. At the moment, she adds, home decor has piqued her interest.
“We all spent so much time at home this year, and I really just got into making my home beautiful — always making sure there were fresh flowers around, and just caring more about it,” she says. “So maybe down the road I’ll do something in the home space. Bedding has been on my mind, or maybe tabletop trays.”
Whatever Nicky Hilton focuses on, no doubt it will be successful. She is the great-granddaughter of Hilton hotels founder Conrad Hilton Sr., after all (she was named after her granduncle Conrad Hilton Jr., who was also nicknamed Nicky), and the daughter of one of the most successful real estate developers in Los Angeles, father Rick. But it is actually a non-family member whose guidance has impacted her career the most.
“I remember meeting with the CEO of a big company, and her advice to me was just one word: focus. And that really resonated with me, because I feel like sometimes you’re trying to do all these different things and always putting your eggs in different baskets. But if you really focus on one particular thing at a time, the incredible can happen.”
It’s hard to imagine that the impeccably groomed woman on Zoom, effortlessly elegant in Gucci’s pale blue poplin cat button-down, ever had a bad-girl phase. And well, that’s because she hasn’t. If there was ever multicolored hair or strategically hidden piercings in her past, Nicky Hilton isn’t owning up to them.
Instead of the wild child, she’s always been the good girl. It feels more natural, so she embraces it.
With that particular ethos at her back, it’s only natural that philanthropy would be as instinctive to her as breathing. “[Giving back] is sort of in my DNA,” Nicky Hilton confides. “My great-grandfather, Conrad, set up the Hilton Foundation in 1944 and left most of his wealth to it. [The Hilton Foundation seeks to improve the lives of individuals living in poverty and experiencing disadvantages throughout the world.] And to date, they have given away nearly $2 billion to nonprofit organizations. So whenever I’m doing a project, whether it’s design or anything in my personal life, I always try to incorporate elements of giving back.”
This is actually how one of her latest ventures, a collaboration with Bauble Stockings, came to be. “I saw these cute little miniature stockings in a store, and I put them on my Instagram. The owner [Kate Stewart] direct-messaged me and we got to talking, and she said, ‘I have guest designers, would you want to do a collection?’ And then I just fell in love with her whole mission. She employs hundreds of women in Haiti, and they create all these mini-stockings that are hand-done needlepoint. She’s raised so much money and has put many of her employees’ children through school. With our collaboration, we’re going to be donating a percentage of sales to Animal Haven, which is the local animal shelter in New York, which I sit on the board of. It was a really feel-good project.”
The holidays have always been a feel-good time for Nicky Hilton in general.She can’t help but look forward to Christmas in L.A. every year, when her mother morphs into Mrs. Claus and transforms the family’s Bel-Air mansion into the North Pole, or that, as of last year, her husband dressed up like Santa himself, complete with a sack of toys that he lugged across the manicured lawn past a stand of palm trees. But mostly because she’s always associated the most wonderful time of the year with giving back. “Growing up, my mom would take us to the Los Angeles Mission homeless shelter in downtown L.A. and we would prepare dinner for all the people living there,” she recalls, adding, “We’ve also done things with the Starlight Foundation, where we’ve invited all the families back to our home and just had a day of games and fun. I really enjoy doing those things. It makes me feel good.”
So call her crazy (and here I’m being sarcastic), but Nicky Hilton likes to feel good. She knows she’s always had a lucky lot in life, and she refuses to take it for granted — especially during the pandemic.
“The word that comes to mind when I try to explain how the last year has made me feel is gratitude,” Nicky Hilton says. “I just feel really grateful for everything that I had — my health, all the time I had with my family, that I was more in touch with my friends. I also felt very appreciative of the small things. I remember walking down the aisles of Whole Foods when it reopened, and I was so happy to be there, even with my gloves, my mask and the fact that I waited 30 minutes to get in. The small things matter. I think there were definitely good things that came out of this; there were a lot of silver linings. It put a lot of stuff into perspective.” Not that everything was easy — wrangling two young children to participate in Zoom schooling was “wild torture” even for the hardiest of hearts, and, as a businesswoman who thrives on personal connections, communicating virtually was a drag. But in general, she has no complaints.
“I’m in my home, my safe place. And I know I keep going back to gratitude — it is not lost on me that I’m able to have this home, and I have my health. I have my family. I do what I love. I have my animals [cats Mac and Cheese] that I love. So yeah, the cliché is true. Home is where the heart is,” she says.
And she doesn’t just mean her house, either. Although she was born and raised in L.A., she considers herself a ride-or-die New Yorker now. She is part of the fabric of the City that Never Sleeps, where she can sit quietly at one of her favorite cozy hotel bars — the Mark, the Bowery, the Crosby — sip a skinny margarita and watch the world go by.
“What I love about New York the most is the people. It’s the melting pot of the world. There’s just something for everyone; it’s so diverse. There is so much culture and art and food and fashion — it truly has the best of everything,” Nicky Hilton declares, adding, “I am born-and-bred-L.A., but I love New York. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I think it’s just the most fun, energetic, cool, resilient city in the world, and I take it very personally when people knock it.”
When I wonder if she’d use those very adjectives to describe herself, she shrugs one elegant shoulder and says, “I mean, why not? I’m a New Yorker, after all.”