NEW YORK — The invitation to Joseph Abboud’s fall runway show is engraved on a simulated marble arch — a design that could easily be mistaken for a tombstone.
“Maybe it’s prophetic,” he said with a laugh.
Today, the designer who is known for his modern take on classic American men’s wear will celebrate his 30th anniversary with a collection that he will showcase inside a Gothic church — hence the arch — on Lexington Avenue here.
While there will be some of Abboud’s trademark earth tones and textured, nubby fabrics in the fall line, this collection will be a bit of a departure for the designer. It’s inspired by American Gothic literature from writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and, as a result, will be dark and mysterious.
“It’s the darker side of Joseph Abboud,” he said. “The show will be sinister but in a theatrical way. There’s so much architectural clothing in the line, so we’re using saturated colors, which is a little unusual for us.”
Mixing things up is just one of the skills Abboud has acquired over his past three decades in the men’s wear business. Like most careers, his has seen its share of ups and downs — including enough legal battles to create a TV miniseries — but today, he’s firmly entrenched within the friendly confines of Tailored Brands where he serves as its chief creative officer. And his Joseph Abboud label is contributing more than $500 million in retail sales to the former Men’s Wearhouse.
Born in Boston 66 years ago to a working-class Lebanese Catholic family, Abboud originally thought his career path would lead him to become a teacher, in large part to please his mother. His father, a master mechanic, was permanently injured after a car accident and spent much of his life in a wheelchair. To make ends meet, his mother held two jobs, including one as a seamstress, stitching piecework at home. That was the future designer’s first exposure to the apparel business.
“I always loved clothes,” he said during an interview at his Seventh Avenue studio. “I grew up in a blue-collar family, but I loved old movies and seeing all those dashing leading men.”
So it’s no surprise that Abboud sought out the retail business at a young age.
While in high school, he worked first for Thom McAn dyeing women’s shoes and then the Anderson-Little men’s store, where he sold suits for $69.50. “I was getting paid to be involved with what I loved more than anything on earth: clothes,” Abboud writes in his book, “Threads,” published in 2004.
But it wasn’t until his first year in college when he took a job at Louis Boston, that his future began to crystallize.
Abboud, who had spent countless hours peering through the window at Louis’ luxurious merchandise, joined the storied specialty store as a part-time salesman. His instructions were simple, he recalls: “Be well dressed, behave like a gentleman and keep your shoes shined,” the designer said. “I made $2.58 an hour and I spent it all on clothes.”
Although he was being paid to sell, it soon became clear that he had a discerning eye for fashion. Louis’ owner, the feisty, opinionated and often controversial merchant prince Murray Pearlstein, made Abboud a buyer at the age of 23. “I loved him like a father, but he was like a drill sergeant,” Abboud said.
Together they traveled to Europe and the newly minted buyer got an education on the ins and out of the industry.
“I had to do everything,” he recalled. “Place orders, put the merchandise on the shelves, do the visuals and then on Saturdays, I had to sell it.”
Things went on that way for several years, but Abboud started to get antsy. “I didn’t want to wake up at 60 or 65 and be handed a gold watch and a thank-you card,” he said.
So he decided to leave.
His exit strategy took him to Southwick, a tailored clothing manufacturer in nearby Lawrence, Mass. But “instead of jumping on the fast track to a glowing future, I was ready to jump out the window,” he writes.
Then, when the future looked dim, “Ralph called.”
Abboud had gotten to know Ralph Lauren during his time at Louis. But rather than being offered a design position, he was brought on as Northeast salesman.
“You’ll never find anyone more disciplined,” Abboud said. “He was — and is — the standard by which men’s wear is judged.”
After a year of schlepping samples to specialty stores up and down the East Coast, Lauren offered Abboud the position of associate director of men’s wear design, and it was off to the races.
“If Louis had been college, then Ralph Lauren was graduate school,” he writes.
But as educational and awe-inspiring as it was to work for the master of American men’s wear, it was all about fitting into Ralph Lauren’s vision. And Abboud had the itch to carve out his own niche.
So when he was approached by Barry Bricken in 1984 about joining his firm and creating a label under the Abboud name, he took the plunge.
One problem: He never got it in writing.
“He was my friend; he was at my wedding,” Abboud related. “And the thought of doing a Joseph Abboud collection was very appealing. So I took the job.”
He set out to design a collection, but it had Bricken’s name on it, not his. Feeling betrayed, it was time to move on again — a little older and a whole lot wiser about the ways of the world.
“I remember Barry telling me I’d never get a better job,” he said, “but I left anyway. I couldn’t let him define who I was.”
His next step was to join Freedberg of Boston under whose auspices — at long last — he created the first Joseph Abboud collection. It launched in spring 1987.
His claim to fame was updated preppy, a suit with a natural shoulder in fabrics that were classic with a twist. Jackets were soft, non-vented and unlined. And he complemented those suits with textured sweaters and dress shirts with soft collars and no pockets. The first fall collection was inspired by Hollywood in the Forties and included linen glen plaid double-breasted suits and linen ties in what would become his signature earth tone color palette.
A bit out-of-the-box for the time, the collection soon attracted the attention of some big names, notably Bergdorf Goodman’s president Dawn Mello who offered him a boutique at the famed New York store.
Around this time, Chanel also tapped the designer to create a collection of furnishings and neckwear, so his career was definitely moving in the right direction.
But it wasn’t long until the wheels came off again.
When Abboud joined Freedberg, he had negotiated no contract. Once the collection started selling, the owner, Milton Freedberg, approached the designer asking him to sign papers allowing Freedberg to register the Abboud trademark exclusively, meaning that the company would own his name.
It was at this time that Abboud met Guido Petruzzi of Gruppo Finanziario Tessile, the company behind Giorgio Armani, Ungaro and Valentino. At its peak, GFT was the world’s largest manufacturer of designer apparel and is credited with single-handedly revolutionizing how high-end clothing was created, marketed and distributed.
Petruzzi was looking to add American brands to the company’s portfolio and Abboud fit the bill.
Although his move to leave Freedberg led to a lawsuit, the two parties settled and Abboud became part of the GFT family on April 1, 1988, with Petruzzi as chief executive officer and Abboud as executive vice president and designer.
“It was like a video game,” he said, “going from one level to the next. Marco Rivetti [GFT’s president] was a true visionary.”
Rivetti also “had a big appetite for buying factories,” Abboud said, including one in New Bedford, Mass., where the Abboud collection would be produced. (The plant continues to operate and manufacture the Abboud brand today. It was part of the $97.5 million acquisition of JA Apparel by Men’s Wearhouse in 2013.)
The GFT years were heady ones for the boy from Boston.
Elaborate runway shows, industry awards, television appearances, radio broadcasts, celebrity friends. Under GFT, the Abboud brand grew to a $125 million business and he became a household name.
His label expanded into subcategories include Joe, a casual sportswear line, as well as women’s wear. He became a regular on the Don Imus radio show, was hanging out with Wynton Marsalis, and even got to throw out the first pitch for his beloved Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston — still a highlight of his life.
He won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Best Menswear Designer award in 1989 and again the next year. He staged his first women’s show in 1992 and even opened a flagship on Newbury Street in Boston in 1990.
But GFT started to experience financial difficulties in the late Nineties and Abboud’s life changed forever.
In 2000, the designer entered into a sale and purchase agreement with RCS Media Group, the successor to GFT, to sell his trademarks for $65.5 million. He signed a non-compete contract and agreed to stay on through 2007 to provide creative services.
Abboud writes that the sale was his attempt to focus on the creative and not the business side of his brand. “But sometimes dreams turn into nightmares,” he wrote. “The decision to divorce myself from the business side unexpectedly blew up in my face.”
Things started to go south pretty quickly and by 2002, the lawsuits started. Abboud wanted to be freed from his non-compete and he also sued the company’s president, Bob Wichser, personally, alleging that he had lost the creative control of the Joseph Abboud line.
RCS wanted to exit the fashion industry and in 2004 sold JA Apparel to J.W. Childs, a private equity firm. Abboud left soon after and started working on the creation of a new label, prompting a lawsuit from his former company alleging trademark infringement and breach of contract.
A district court originally ruled for JA Apparel, but the decision was reversed on appeal, allowing Abboud the rights to use his personal name.
“It got really nasty,” the designer said, “but in life, you either curl up in a fetal position or you say, ‘F–k you.’”
Confusion reigned for several years as Abboud attempted to launch Jaz, “a new composition by Joseph Abboud,” as JA Apparel was marketing the Joseph Abboud collection.
Jaz never experienced the same success as his original collection and in 2010, HMX Group brought Abboud on board as president and chief creative director and to provide design direction for the company’s portfolio of brands including Hickey Freeman, Hart Schaffner Marx, Coppley, Bobby Jones, Exclusively Misook, Simply Blue and Monarchy.
That lasted two years until HMX Group filed bankruptcy and Abboud resigned. HMX ultimately sold its assets to Authentic Brands Group, which licensed the rights to the brands.
Two months later, Abboud resurfaced at Men’s Wearhouse as chief creative director, bringing his Jaz label to the company and working to develop new brands for the men’s retail powerhouse.
But the creative position was just a precursor to a larger deal. In July 2013, Men’s Wearhouse signed a definitive agreement to acquire JA Holding Inc., a subsidiary of J.W. Childs Associates, for $97.5 million in cash. The deal included the factory in New Bedford.
The acquisition meant that after nearly a decade, Joseph Abboud the man was reunited with Joseph Abboud the brand.
“I’d been a fan of Joseph’s for many years,” said Doug Ewert, ceo of Tailored Brands. “When I was a tailored clothing buyer for Macy’s West 35 years ago, I bought Joseph Abboud product and put it in some of our stores.”
Ewert said Abboud’s design sensibility “is real, authentic men’s wear.” And bringing the brand into the company’s stable was “a fit for us strategically. It’s allowed us to attract a more-aspirational customer than we were seeing before.”
Before Abboud joined, Ewert said, “we had a relatively small business in suits out-the-door at $500. But with Joseph Abboud, we saw the ability to attract a new customer — and that’s just what we’re seeing.”
Today, the Joseph Abboud brand accounts for more than $500 million in sales for Tailored Brands — with another $100 million coming in through licensed partners. “So it’s a $600 million brand now,” Ewert said, “and we’ve said that eventually it will be a $1 billion business for us. It was only a $100 million brand when we bought it.”
A key differentiator, Ewert said, is the company’s ability to create a custom suit at the Massachusetts plant for as little as $795. “Custom is a big opportunity for our company,” he said. “We can make a suit that uses the highest quality Italian fabrics in our own factory with canvas construction. And we can deliver that suit in three weeks, or for a small up-charge, two weeks.“
That’s one reason that the company wanted to purchase the factory as well. When the Abboud brand was being shopped around a few years ago, there was interest, but the fact that the manufacturing plant was part of the deal scared a lot of people away.
“It’s a value-added proposition for us,” Ewert said. “Because of our scale, we can make it efficient. For most other brands, it’s feast or famine as demand goes up and down. But our demand is more steady state.” An added bonus is that the company can promote that the product is made in America, a key selling point today, particularly with Millennials — and in the new era of President Trump.
Looking ahead, Ewert said he sees major growth for the Abboud label at both the Men’s Wearhouse and Moores stores in Canada. In addition to the core product, the stores have also revived the Joe by Joseph Abboud label, which is more affordable and targeted to a younger guy, and it “democratizes Joseph as a design authority,” Ewert said.
The company has also replaced its founder and former spokesman, George Zimmer, with Abboud in some of its television advertising. “Joseph really resonates with our customer, too, and he’s a rock star in our stores,” Ewert said. “His influence is being felt throughout the company.”
Abboud feels like he’s found his forever home under the Tailored Clothing mantle. “Doug has allowed me to be me again.”
Over the past 30 years, there have been highlights: Bryant Gumbel choosing Abboud to wear at the 1988 Olympics was a turning point, he said, as was the creation of a distinctive silhouette. “In the first season, we sold 2,000 units. Last year, we sold almost 300,000,” he said.
But he’s also had his share of lowlights, notably the legal battles. “But I’m better off for it,” he said. “Survival is the new success story. Nobody goes through life undefeated. It’s all worked out, but there are some things that can really test your mettle.”
From Day One, Abboud said, his hope was to “make American men look better — not trivial or foolish. In an industry that is all about newness and hotness, I’ve never wanted to be the hottest designer. But I hope I’m remembered for my body of work. The biggest reward to me is people wearing my clothes.”
But in order to keep those Joseph Abboud clothes on today’s men, he knows he needs to adapt.
“The question is how to stay relevant and current,” he said. “It’s not about an age. People from 17 to 77 buy into the DNA. What I frown on is when fashion has no relation to reality.”
And tonight, Abboud will reveal the latest iteration of his life’s work.
Suits with brocade details, leather-trimmed blazers with cloud prints, jackets that are little broader with fuller trousers, shearlings and pony-skin overcoats in the season’s dark palette will share the runway with some of Abboud’s trademark pieces in his signature earth-tone palette — a little “devil-angel” moment, he said.
Now, after three decades in the industry, what’s ahead for him?
“I don’t know what’s over the next horizon,” he said, “but I’ve never felt more creative and confident. I just hope to continue to develop and grow and try to enjoy the process. I’m the happiest when I’m creating.”