“My goal [is] to elevate American men in a global world of fashion,”Joseph Abboud said one recent steamy summer afternoon. And by all accounts the fashion icon and designer has done just that. His brand, Joseph Abboud, marked its 30th year in the fashion industry in January.
But, if you think Mr. Abboud’s lifetime in fashion has always been an easy road, it hasn’t. In 2000, he sold his trade marks to a private equity firm, which meant he lost control over the label that bore his name. He was reunited with his namesake brand in August 2013 when Tailored Brands Inc. (then Men’s Wearhouse) acquired JA Holding Inc. Two years later he opened his flagship store, an elegant 4,300 square foot menswear emporium on ultra exclusive Madison Avenue in New York City.
I sat down with a gracious, warm Mr. Abboud in his flagship store before his photo shoot for this magazine. We talked about his life in fashion, the importance of dressing well in today’s hyper casual world, and what it takes to succeed in the fashion business. Over the course of our conversation, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was taking a victory lap in life as only a man who has overcome so many obstacles could do. That, and it felt like his advice was as much a treaty on how to live a good life as it was about fashion.
Leif: First of all, 30 years of the Joseph Abboud brand. Congratulations! How does that feel?
JA: Thank you so much. Sometimes it seems like a minute, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime. It’s been an adventure! I’ve enjoyed the process [and] always said no one goes through life undefeated. There are moments when you find challenges are really tough and have to find the inner strength to move beyond them.
Leif: Tell us how your brand has evolved over the last 30 years.
JA: When I created the brand, we coined the new phrase “modern American.” At that time, there were the traditional preppy brands and there were the Euro brands. So most American men, looked like they were still in university. Now, we’ve got new generations of young guys discovering our brand.
Leif: That must be interesting to watch because Millenials approach things so differently.
JA: And so FAST. And the great thing about the Millennials is that they’ve now discovered that dressing up is fun. The young guy is going out, buying suits because he wants to, not because he has to. I haven’t seen the men’s wear industry this exciting since the early 70s.
Leif: Are you saying that the suit is back?
JA: The suit never left. Really what’s happened is, in the 60s and 70s, it was the uniform. Now the suit is really a lifestyle piece. So a guy might go out on a Saturday night and take his gray flannel suit and wear it with a black turtleneck. All of sudden he’s James Bond.
Leif: Is that what you mean when you say, “the hero dresses like the hero.”
JA: Right. When a guy walks in with a well-tailored suit, and the right shirt and tie, you get the whole image. That’s what men’s wear is about. The guy has to look like he belongs to his clothes.
Leif: What are the essentials every man should have in his closet?
JA: I think about the five easy pieces: The navy suit, the gray suit, the navy blazer, the white shirt, and the perfect leather jacket. Those pieces will cover you in just about any occasion. Then you build your wardrobe around that by adding versatile pieces [that work in more than one] season.
Leif: Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
JA: The inspirations the fun part, because it can be anywhere. It can be a beach in Nantucket, a trip to Tokyo, or in the Highlands of Scotland. I’ve never worried about having a good idea. I’ve always worried, can I execute it?
Leif: What are some of the broad trends that you are paying attention to in 2017?
JA: The uniform is gone, so that trend is individual style, that’s why the custom business is so important. Our custom business is extremely healthy. That factory in Massachusetts, where we have 750 people, we make about a thousand custom suits a week. It’s more democratic, it used to be that it was for the uber-elite to make custom suits, but now it’s available to a lot of guys at more price points.
Leif: What do you look for in the young designers that you hire?
JA: A lot of designers would look at a young designer’s portfolio, and if it didn’t mirror what the designer wanted for his or her company, they wouldn’t hire those people. I’ve always looked at their thought process. Because basically designing is problem-solving.
Leif: Outside of fashion, who or what currently inspires you?
JA: I’m in love with Turner Classic Movies. Because the black and white films, especially some of the Alfred Hitchcock films, there’s such an elegance to it. Getting dressed in a tuxedo to go to dinner, I love that. There’s a romance to it.
Leif: What advice would you have for say, a young high school kid who maybe is interested in fashion but doesn’t quite know how to get into the field?
JA: I’ve always said to the students, you have to get a job at retail first. Learn where the battles won or lost. Go to Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom’s or one of our Men’s Warehouse stores, and work for a while and understand what it’s like when the customer meets the retailer. If you’re going to be successful, you have to design for the consumer.
Leif: What about a young designer who has done that and is now coming out of a school and approaching, say, a Joseph Abboud?
JA: Whenever I can I interview young designers out of schools. It comes back to being practical about your designs. When I worked for Ralph Lauren, I designed for Ralph Lauren. As long as I am working at Ralph Lauren it’s not about Joseph Abboud. I’m working for Ralph and my goal every day is to design what I think he would want and present it to him.
Leif: Thank you for your time and congratulations again on all your success!
JA: My pleasure. And, you guys [who wear our brand] are my heroes because you make us successful.