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The FBI and Joseph Abbound

<GR:"WOMENS (wwd)? daily wear><GR:"2001"><GR:"GENERAL issue? this in also><GR:"1201"><GR:"122601">NEW YORK -- On the evening of Sept. 10, designer Joseph Abboud and his public-relations manager, John Dellera, boarded an American Airlines flight in New...

NEW YORK — On the evening of Sept. 10, designer Joseph Abboud and his public-relations manager, John Dellera, boarded an American Airlines flight in New York headed for San Diego. Abboud was scheduled to make personal appearances at four California Nordstrom stores and the Macy’s West Passport charity fashion show.

He didn’t make it to any of them. The next morning, terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers — and a cleaning crew discovered several boxcutters on the flight Abboud and Dellera had taken safely to California just hours earlier.

Life for Abboud since the tragic events of Sept. 11 has been filled with many of the concerns shared by all American designers, retailers and industry observers: the challenging sales climate, order cancellations, markdown money, geopolitical anxieties, plus, of course, the everyday business of directing the creative efforts of a $280 million (retail) enterprise. But unlike other apparel players, Abboud has also experienced a somewhat disquieting — but undeniably intriguing — series of encounters with the FBI since that fateful day.

The first inkling Abboud got that his name had come to the attention of law enforcement officers was from his travel agent.

“My agent called me up about two weeks after Sept. 11 and told me the FBI had called to ask about me,” he told DNR, WWD’s brother publication. “They had seen my name on the passenger list for my flight to San Diego. It was American Airlines, which had been one of the airlines targeted by hijackers, and it was a Boeing 767, which was one of the targeted jet types. I’m not sure if it was my Middle Eastern name or the fact that I had only flown one-way (Abboud drove back to New York from California) that put up a red flag.”

Which brings up the incidental fact of Abboud’s ethnic heritage. Both sets of the 51-year-old designer’s grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to the U.S. at the turn of the last century, passing through the gates of Ellis Island. Abboud’s parents were both born in the U.S. and Abboud grew up in the multicultural stew of Boston’s South End. And not that it should matter, but the designer happens to be Catholic, and speaks not a word of Arabic, “except for the curse words.”

The travel agent quickly disabused the FBI of any far-fetched notions they might have harbored about Abboud.

“Well, you can’t expect the FBI to be so fashion-conscious to know my name, so I thought that was that,” said the affable, down-to-earth designer.

But Abboud’s brush with the law was just getting started.

“A few days later, my secretary called me at home and said the FBI would like to come over and interview me that weekend,” he recalled. “Well, you can imagine, even if you haven’t done anything, that idea can still be a little intimidating.”

Abboud called the FBI agents back, and in order not to intrude on his family, which includes a wife and two daughters, they agreed to see him in his Fifth Avenue office on the following Monday.

“They were two of the nicest guys, and they really looked like FBI agents,” said Abboud of the men who showed up to interview him. “They had on great textured sport coats. I was like Mr. Fashion, complimenting their ties. Hey, when two big guys walk into your office, you try to lighten the mood a little.”

It turned out the designer himself was not under suspicion, but the agents asked him to review about 200 photographs of “Middle Eastern-looking men” to see if he recognized any of them from his Sept. 10 flight. Reached at his office, Detective Peter O’Donnell of a joint New York Police Department-FBI task force, one of the agents who interviewed Abboud, said: “I can’t comment, except to say we did talk to him. We’re tracking down many leads as part of an ongoing investigation. But Mr. Abboud was never [a suspect] in that investigation.”

Among the photographs shown Abboud were pictures of the 19 hijackers killed on Sept. 11.

“It was really chilling to see the actual photos of these guys, outside the context of a newspaper or television report,” the designer said.

Even more chilling were the photographs of items found on Abboud’s plane, following a cleaning of the aircraft. “There were things that made it look like that plane was meant to be hijacked,” said Abboud, “including boxcutters.”

It sounds dramatic, but the designer appears to have taken these surprising facts in stride.

“Fate works in so many strange ways. Who knows what was going on that night? There was terrible weather, torrential rain, thunder and lightning. Maybe that saved us,” he said.

Abboud takes pains to declare he’s pretty certain that his Lebanese heritage and surname were not a trigger factor that led to his interview.

“The agents said they were interviewing everyone in the New York area who was on my flight, and I saw a long list they had,” he said.

All the same, public-relations manager Dellera, who was on the same flight, was never contacted by investigators.

“I just chalk that up to an error on someone’s part,” Dellera said. “I was just very curious what the angle was for them to be talking to Joseph. I wasn’t worried about him being dragged off in chains or anything, although it did give me a shiver when I found out about the boxcutters.”

All of this insight into one small facet of the massive investigation into the terrorist attacks begs the question: Should Abboud be revealing any of this information?

“The officers asked me not to reveal certain facts,” he said. “Actually, they didn’t ask me, they told me. And I’ve followed those instructions.”

But the story doesn’t end there. A few days later, yet another FBI agent called from New Mexico to follow up on a tip the agency had received. As it happens, in his determined effort to get back to New York from California in the days following Sept. 11, Abboud resorted to hiring a limousine company to chauffeur him all the way home.

“There were no planes, trains or rental cars available,” he recalled.

VIP Limousine and Coaches of Anaheim, Calif., provided the designer with a stretch limo and two drivers, who drove in shifts nonstop across the country in 52 hours.

“We only stopped for gas, and at McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr.,” Abboud noted.

It turned out, at one of those rest stops, someone mistook the designer for a “Middle Eastern-looking individual” with his two bodyguards hightailing it somewhere fast, and reported this to the FBI.

“I guess you don’t see that many stretch limos on the back roads of New Mexico, and we stood out,” Abboud said.

The matter was quickly cleared up with the FBI’s New Mexico office, which declined to comment further for this article. While the incident was clearly tied to Abboud’s ethnic background, he remains unflustered by it.

“I was a little surprised, but not offended,” he said. “Some of my friends are more indignant, but I understand it. No one wants to be racially profiled, but I haven’t felt persecuted at all. I have to say, if I were on a plane with four young Arab guys, I would be somewhat concerned. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life; you’re just keyed into these things now.”

What’s more, Abboud bent over backward to praise the FBI’s handling of these matters, calling them “very professional, polite, terrific.” He noted with some amazement that “they somehow tracked down every limousine company west of Santa Fe to find me from that tip. It’s really amazing how many agents and how much work is being put into these hijacking and anthrax problems.”

However, Abboud freely recalled that his career has not been totally free of discrimination — but in Europe, not the U.S.

“In the early Nineties, our ties were selling really well in places like Germany, the U.K. and Spain, but were doing badly in France,” he said. “My Italian partner told me, with embarrassment, that my name sounded too Middle Eastern for France.”

He also remembered being asked his ethnic background and searched without fail every time he passed through Malpensa airport in Milan, despite his American passport.

The final chapter in this saga occurred two weeks ago. Another FBI agent phoned Abboud, this time from Los Angeles, looking for information on a man who shared the designer’s last name, but was living under the alias Joseph Allen.

“That was kind of weird — he had my last name, and my first name in his alias,” said Abboud, who politely told the agent he didn’t have any information to offer.

Before she hung up, though, she also asked Abboud about an award he had received from an Arab-American group in Washington, D.C.

“They had also called [prominent Lebanese-American deejay] Casey Kasem about his award from the same group, but she wouldn’t tell me if it was under investigation for anything,” Abboud added.

That award is just one of many that have been bestowed upon the designer, including ones from the UJA-Federation of New York and the American Jewish Committee, for his community work. Those plaques sit prominently in Abboud’s Manhattan office, along with his two CFDA Men’s Wear Designer of the Year awards, an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, the obligatory snapshots of celebrity pals like Wynton Marsalis and Bryant Gumbel, and a photo of a radiantly beautiful sister whom Abboud lost to breast cancer.

Abboud seems to look back on his run-in with the Feds with a mix of puzzlement, sense of adventure and great respect for their work. But he certainly has enough in his day planner to keep his mind from dwelling on it: Apart from his design duties, this spring he will teach a course at UMass Boston on integrating creative and business skills, he’s working on a book about his own family history, there are negotiations in the works for an Abboud-hosted style show on PBS and rumor has it that the designer is trying to buy his name back from GFT Net.

All the same, he noted with amusement — and just a hint of pride — “I must have a pretty thick file at the FBI. If I was of any help to them, then I’m happy.”