There are few name designers in the industry who are as down-to-earth as Joseph Abboud: a man whose humble demeanor belies his impressive achievements. He is a designer who has attained much success, but not without a fair share of turmoil. But like most of our great American heroes, he managed to find his way back to the top.
When Abboud first entered the fashion industry as a 16-year-old part-time employee at Louis Boston, he knew he’d found his passion. Over the course of 12 years, he served as buyer, merchandiser, and eventually coordinator of promotion and advertising for the famed specialty store. It was from Murray Pearlstein at Louis where Abboud learned the art of the sale, the knack of mixing colors and fabrics, and the importance of creative courage.
In 1981, Abboud joined Ralph Lauren for a three-year stint that eventually led him to become associate director of menswear design. “If Louis Boston was my undergraduate degree, then my business degree was achieved at Ralph Lauren,” says Abboud. “My two great inspirations in life have been Murray Pearlstein and Ralph Lauren. What I learned from Ralph was dedication to a brand. He is brilliant at fully understanding what his brand is and is not. It’s that focus that has stuck with me all these years.”
When Abboud stepped out on his own in 1987, he produced what he still calls his most memorable collection. “I remember the night before I launched my very first Joseph Abboud collection. It was at the Designer’s Collective at the Berkshire Hotel on 52nd street. I panicked and thought ‘Why am I doing this? Who wants another label?’ But the response was incredible.”
Abboud vividly remember Richard Bowes, then VP of Bergdorf Goodman, walking into his booth at the show. “He said, ‘I have to bring in Dawn Mello’ who was president of Bergdorfs at the time, and a Merchant Queen. (Merchants like Fred Pressman [of Barneys] and Wilkes Bashford were also at that level: not necessarily numbers guys but true visionaries.) So Dawn came in, and immediately fell in love with my kilim rugs that I had brought in from home to decorate the hotel room. I’ll never forget that: she immediately got the connection and thus knew where the collection was coming from. She ended up giving us a first floor shop on 57th Street. There was very little men’s at Bergdorfs at the time, and we had a huge shop. And what do you think sold best? Unstructured linen jackets and separates.”
This was the beginning of Abboud’s entry into the best high-end men’s specialty stores in the country. In 1988, Abboud’s new company, JA Apparel, inked a deal with Milan-based GFT (Gruppo Finanziario Tessile) USA to help expand the collection and bolster manufacturing in the States. The company purchased a factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and outfitted the space as if it were an Italian atelier, with the technology to support the projected volume. “The old saying was: ‘You don’t choose GFT, GFT chooses you.’ So I felt like I was the prettiest girl at the dance.”
With his namesake collection, Abboud established an exceptional style sensibility noted for its elegance and relaxed sophistication. His debut collection of blacks and browns earned him the name “Mr. Neutral;” but his palette has since evolved to include beiges, olives, and other sophisticated earth tones.
His rise to success garnered him numerous honors, including being the only designer to have received the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year Award two years in a row (1989 and 1990) and the Special Achievement Award from The Neckwear Association of America in 1994. Other awards over the years include The Cutty Sark Award for Most Promising Menswear Designer (1988), the Woolmark Award for Distinguished Fashion (1989 and 1993) and, in 1995, Abboud won the Excellence in American Design by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Most recently, Abboud was honored by the American Apparel & Footwear Association as its 2016 Person of the Year.
THE TURNING POINT
In 2000, when Abboud sold his trademark, JA Apparel, to GFT for $65 million, he was to stay on to design under the brand. But he ultimately left the company after creative differences with the management, only to return four years later when J.W. Childs Associates bought JA Apparel for $73 million in 2004. Abboud then left the company for good in 2005.
“It took an enormous amount of intestinal fortitude to get through this period of my life,” confides Abboud. “It would have been very easy to roll up in a fetal position and give up, but I didn’t. I had to fight a lot of legal battles. It’s hard for creative people to fight corporations but since I didn’t want my entire focus to be on reacquiring the company, I chose to define myself through my own creativity.”
Abboud’s life changed for the better, once more, when he joined Men’s Wearhouse (now Tailored Brands) as its chief creative director in December 2012. He was reunited with the Joseph Abboud brand when Men’s Wearhouse acquired JA Holding Inc. in August 2013.
“I’m tremendously grateful for the opportunity that Doug (Ewert) has given me,” says Abboud. “When Doug and David Edwab approached me and offered a dream scenario, I couldn’t turn it down. Shortly after I joined Men’s Wearhouse we started negotiating with JA Apparel to buy it back, and we did. I’ll never forget what Doug said to me when I was still considering coming on board. He said, ‘If you join us, you’ll never regret it, I promise you.’ That still sticks with me today. He has been a dedicated partner ever since.”
Abboud has gone on to produce his first runway show after a 15-year absence, and will do another at New York Fashion Week: Men’s this month. What’s more, his return to his signature American sartorial heritage marks a new chapter for the designer, and heralds more to come. “We are now the largest tailored clothing manufacturer in North America,” says Abboud. “We’re really proud of that. We’re producing over 300,000 units a year. Our custom business (with three to four week turnaround) is going strong and has much opportunity for growth; having our own factory in Massachusetts is a big advantage in producing quality custom clothing.”
With all of his success, Abboud takes nothing for granted. “This award is really special to me because it’s about being recognized by my peers in an industry that I love, and have been a part of, for such a long time. There’s a sort of decency and humanity about menswear vs. women’s wear: it’s always seemed more genteel; we’re not afraid to embrace each other,” he says.
“I must sound like the champion or poster boy for menswear, but I welcome that role because we’ve been the stepchild in the fashion world for much too long. But what’s happening with menswear today is truly exciting.”