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Men’s Wear CEO Summit: Reinventing HMX

Doug Williams and Joseph Abboud shared the story of how they rebuilt the Hartmarx business.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 03/31/2011

The sea of sleeves in traditional tailored clothing departments is a yawn and needs to be revamped to appeal to today’s shopper.

“We need to make tailored clothing departments more interesting,” said Joseph Abboud, president and chief creative officer of the HMX Group. “Men are the new women,” and are now more interested than ever in looking good. This presents an opportunity for the men’s wear industry, but only if they’re prepared to “shake things up,” he said.

That’s exactly what he did to the product offerings at the former Hartmarx Corp. when he came on board at the beginning of 2010. “We’re breaking the rules in a sexy, intelligent and masculine way.”Abboud and Doug Williams, chief executive officer of HMX, were the opening speakers at the Men’s Wear Industry CEO Summit at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York on Tuesday. They told the tale of how they rebuilt the shattered shell of the Hartmarx business after being brought in by the company’s new majority owners, S. Kumars Nationwide Ltd. (SKNL), a publicly held Indian company.

When Williams walked into the company in September of 2009, he found that there were fewer than $20 million in orders in hand. Retailers had walked away from the business because they were not convinced that the company could deliver because of its financial problems and subsequent bankruptcy filing. At the same time, the design of the labels had suffered and the “product did not have relevance to consumers,” he said.

His first order of business was to convince retailers that the newly formed HMX, which had acquired only the assets of the business, would deliver on time. He also worked to lift the spirits of employees, who were terrified they would lose their jobs.

Williams, who was raised on a farm in South Dakota, said most of the employees were like prairie dogs, hiding in their holes and expecting the worst. “We encouraged them to come out,” he said.

He quickly evaluated the product and realized that a major revamp was in order. Realizing that his strength is as “a business engineer” and not a merchant, he searched the market for “the best talent” and hired Abboud. Both Williams and Abboud had cut their teeth at Polo Ralph Lauren and learned firsthand about how to “build great product and execute it. That philosophy was drilled into us by Ralph Lauren himself,” Williams said.

Both men believe that brands “have to have consistent DNA” in order to make a statement to retailers and on the sales floors. Williams likened it to “establishing goal posts,” where the company would use the past for inspiration but strive to create a modern offering.

The jewels in the HMX crown include Hart Schaffner Marx, which is 120 years old, Hickey Freeman, which is 100, and Coppley, a Canadian label with 107 years of history. But despite their longevity, Williams said, the brands “had no relevance.”

This represented “a great opportunity and challenge,” Abboud said.

One of the firm’s strengths that could be exploited, they said, was the fact that their tailored clothing was produced in company-owned factories in the U.S. and Canada. “As a an American designer,” Abboud said, it’s invaluable to be able to produce a quality garment in the U.S. Today, HMX makes more than 500,000 suits at its facilities, which retail from $795 to $3,000.

But the design needed a major overhaul. “The first thing I saw was that the silhouette and fabrics looked backward,” he said. “That’s not where the market should go. We should take the lead. We needed creative discipline.”

And so he created a leaner silhouette, softened up the construction of the suits, turned to more relevant fabrics and added complementary casualwear offerings by creating “a bridge from tailored clothing to sportswear.” He said he sometimes pushed the envelope, offering nine different madras patterns instead of just three, for example, but the depth of the collection provided retailers with more options and showed the company’s commitment to product.

Abboud also created distinct collections for different seasons. “The thought of seasonal collections is so important in men’s wear,” he said. “Why take the options away from our customers.”

Moves like this show that HMX is “not burdened down by the way things used to be,” Abboud said.

He has the full support of Williams. “Too often the business side says to consolidate, and that stymies the creative process,” he said. Abboud added: “Creativity drives profit.”To help drive that profit, Williams turned to the back office to search for savings. Shortly after joining, he closed the company’s “dusty” headquarters in Chicago and consolidated the five New York City offices under one roof on 42nd Street. With everyone in one place, he then set out to “establish a culture of excellence.”

Williams visited all of the company’s 1,700 employees and assured them that the new management team was committed to keeping the company in business. With the employees now firmly in his corner and Abboud in charge of the product, HMX was on solid footing once again.

“There’s nothing that we make that anyone has to buy,” Williams said. “So we have to evoke emotion and make people want to be part of the club we have.”

Responding to questions from the audience, Williams said that although Hickey Freeman operates four stores, these are viewed mainly as “laboratories” to test new offerings and should not be viewed as competitors to the company’s retail accounts. And asked about the Palm Beach label, which also has a rich history, Williams said the company shut it down but plans to reintroduce it as a luxury collection focusing on its strength in such staples as seersucker and khaki. “It’s a great name and a global opportunity,” Abboud said.