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Joseph Abboud Returns to Men’s Wear

After more than two years on the sidelines, designer Joseph Abboud is back in the men's wear game.

NEW YORK — After more than two years on the sidelines, designer Joseph Abboud is back in the men’s wear game.

Abboud, who exited his namesake company in 2005 after a falling out with current JA Apparel chief executive officer Marty Staff, will launch a label called Jaz in fall 2008.

Armed with a hefty personal fortune, Abboud has negotiated agreements to acquire a shirt-making facility and a sportswear firm to manufacture and market his new brand. He has also lined up three key licenses for the launch: Jack Victor for tailored clothing, Cardinal of Canada for outerwear and J.S. Blank & Co. for neckwear.

“The gun went off, and it turns out the racehorse is still a racehorse,” said a jubilant Abboud of his return to men’s wear. The designer had been forced into relative exile due to his noncompete agreement with JA Apparel, which expired on July 13.

Abboud is acquiring shirtmaker Alden Street Shirts of Fall River, Mass., from owners George Nova and Albert Metivier, which has made high-quality dress shirts since 1936, including private label shirts for retailers like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York. The company will be renamed Herringbone Shirt Mfg. — after Abboud’s longtime holding company — and Robert Kidder, a veteran of Hathaway and Ike Behar, will head it up as president.

To produce Jaz sportswear, Abboud is acquiring the assets of Elmsford, N.Y.–based Merrill Sharpe, a family-owned business founded in 1944. The company will be renamed Herringbone Sportswear Co., and will continue to be run by current president Andrew Schwartz, who will report to Abboud.

Merrill Sharpe produces sportswear under the Riscatto men’s wear brand, which is sold in about 350 specialty store accounts, and also manufactures private label products for catalogues like Bullock & Jones and the Tuttle Collection. Those existing businesses will continue, and Abboud is already thinking of ways to tweak and improve the Riscatto line.

The purchases of Alden Street Shirts and Merrill Sharpe are expected to close in the next month or two. Abboud declined to reveal a purchase price for the two companies, but said it reached “well into the seven figures.”

Montreal-based Jack Victor Ltd. has high hopes for its strategic partnership with Abboud and the long-term Jaz license — the suit maker’s first ever. The debut Jaz tailored clothing line will feature an extensive offering of 250 to 300 different fabrics, in two-button, three-button and double-breasted styles. There will be a formalwear range available as well.

Featuring Italian fabrics from Biella, including cashmere and cashmere blends, the suits will retail from $895 to $1,600, with some of the most luxurious sport coats going up to $1,995.

“We’re going to have a trim fit, but it will be comfortable for the American consumer,” explained Abboud of his designs. “The suits have a soft shoulder and side vents, for the most part. It’s a Continental style, if that word is still being used. This collection is about style, not fashion.”

The “very substantial” sportswear offerings, to be sourced in Italy and Peru, will include cashmere sweaters and cardigans, washed-cotton utility pants, flannel trousers and pleated, tuxedo-style sport shirts.

The 15-piece outerwear line will emphasize fashion offerings rather than tailored topcoats, said Cardinal of Canada president Adam Ray, including a brushed-cotton, military-style jacket with attached down vest, shearling coats and rainwear in performance fabrics. Outerwear will retail for $395 to $2,995, dress and sport shirts from $145 to $295, knit tops from $125 to $250, sweaters from $195 to $795, tailored and casual trousers from $125 to $495 and neckwear from $115 to $155.

“We are positioning this as a luxury collection with accessible prices. It fills that void between American designers and a brand like Zegna,” noted Abboud.

Jaz is targeted to high-end retailers such as the Forum Group specialty stores, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen.

Abboud and his license partners declined to set sales goals for the Jaz brand in its first year.

The resurrection of an Abboud-helmed men’s wear business marks a notable comeback for the designer, who has weathered — although some say abetted — a surfeit of professional Sturm und Drang ever since he decided to sell his Joseph Abboud trademarks in 2000 for $65 million to the now-defunct conglomerate GFT Corp. He clashed with the new owners and left the company, ending up in a bitter and protracted legal battle with them. When GFT sold JA Apparel to private equity fund J.W. Childs Assoc. in 2004, Staff persuaded Abboud to drop the lawsuits and rejoin JA Apparel as chief creative director.

However, Abboud and Staff quickly became disenchanted with one another, and the designer ended up leaving JA Apparel once again in 2005. For the past two years his noncompete agreement prevented him from working in men’s wear, and he was focusing his time on the Council of Fashion Designers of America, teaching a college course and working to get a men’s lifestyle show onto television. Last summer Abboud lost his bid to become president of the CFDA to Diane von Furstenberg, and his TV show has not come to fruition.

The prospects for Jaz seem brighter. But designer Joseph Abboud marketing a new men’s wear brand that competes in the same zone as the Joseph Abboud brand could be a bit confusing to retailers and consumers. Abboud, the person, is prohibited from using his name on any product or marketing materials — but he is allowed to use his name for personal appearances and to reap the attendant publicity that could generate.

JA Apparel has already fired a warning shot across the Jaz bow in trade ads, trumpeting, “The finest trademark lawyers in the world wear Joseph Abboud.”

In a further statement, JA Apparel noted: “We look forward to seeing Joseph’s designs and wish him well. Joseph’s return will have no practical impact on our business, which has grown by double-digit margins in each of the last four years. We are no longer simply a men’s suit maker. Joseph Abboud is a global lifestyle brand and the strength of our brand is bigger than any one individual. We have every expectation that Joseph will respect our ownership of the valuable Joseph Abboud brand name, and, as always, we will be vigilant in protecting that trademark.”