30 years later, Joseph Abboud looks back at his brand in New Bedford

Posted Dec 29, 2017 at 4:57 PM
Updated Dec 29, 2017 at 5:38 PM

Joseph Abboud celebrated his 30th anniversary of clothing manufacturing in the city in 2017.

Abboud told stories of many smiles and some tears during the three decades. The clothing designer shared some of those moments as well as his favorite designs recently with the Standard-Times.

How has the industry evolved in the past 30 years?

The industry has really evolved in that there are fewer and fewer great men’s specialty stores and there are fewer and fewer department stores. So as part of Tailored Brands, our opportunity to be vertical is really, really important. So I see the changing landscape where there are so many holes in terms of where great retail is and we’ve tried to fill that gap with our Men’s Wearhouse stores as well as we’ve got our classic store on Madison Avenue. But we are retailers at heart, so we can go direct to the consumer. I can see that as the big play now. When I started, there were so many more people to sell. Now it’s a much different game.

What are some of your favorite memories in New Bedford?

I’ve got a lot of them. I may have said this to you when we’ve spoken before. When I cross the Massachusetts border and I’m driving on 195, you know, it’s really, I’m coming home. I always feel like I’m coming home. And a lot of magic happens in that factory in New Bedford. In a weird way, it’s where I feel my most comfortable in terms of creating the tailored clothing because I’m working closely with (Senior Vice President of Design & Quality) Salvatore Mellace and my team there. I’ve been doing that for so long there’s a comfort level. And every time I go to the factory, I discover something new that we can do there. It is really kind of a magical place.

Tony Sapienza described a moment where you returned to the industry after a brief hiatus and it was specifically in New Bedford that brought some tears. What was that moment like?

It’s so interesting because, I’m a fairly emotional guy. I always try to keep it in check but I am. The day that I walked back into that factory and they were all there to welcome me back in open arms grabbed me by surprise. I was really touched by it. I really did choke up on that because they were there, the same people that I had left were there to welcome me back. It was really like coming home again. You know, I’ll never forget that. I love the people in New Bedford, and the people in our factory. They’re such hard workers. They’re so dedicated. And they go into our stores, and they throw their chests out, and say, ‘I made that lapel’ or ‘I made that sleeve.’ They take such pride in what they do that it means so much to me. I’m so proud of them.

When was that?

I would say, oh, probably in 2013.

How long had you been away?

I would say, it was about, about eight years or so. So it was a while. But the factory continued to uphold the standards and the DNA of the Joseph Abboud brand and what I had created. I feel forever grateful. Because the real strength of our brand and the real anchor of our company is that factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, of the Joseph Abboud business. We have over 750 people there.

Why do you think that is?

Well, we started the business as an American designer with an American factory. And my partners who were Italian back then, they were also involved with Giorgio Armani and Valentino and they always believed that the designer should be making in the country he was from. So with Giorgio Armani making in Italy was important, and as we started and formed our business they really believed and I was 100 percent in agreement that we should make in America. As an American designer, we are the largest tailored clothing company in North America. We are the largest importing manufacturer of the finest Italian goods from Italy. Our custom business has really grown dramatically. We’re so proud of the quality of the fabrics we use but the quality of what we make with our New Bedford folks. To be the largest in North America under a designer name is pretty special.

I have to go back for one second. The 8-year hiatus, why did you step away?

There were some issues that I had with the prior management where I thought the brand was going in the wrong direction. I felt that it was time for me to walk away from it because I couldn’t support it or endorse it. But as Tailored Brands came in and we partnered on the idea of making Joseph Abboud the premier American designer brand and the idea that the factory was at the core of it, was so appealing. It was a wonderful homecoming.

That leads right into my next question, 30 years ago what did you envision from the brand and how does that compare to the reality of today?

The DNA is still very much the same, which is a modern American collection for all Americans. An inclusionary brand that was not a preppy traditional ivy league brand but a more modern worldly brand but still wasn’t some pseudo-European thing. It was truly an American brand. And that’s what it is today and I’m so proud of it. And so proud of the people, everyone who is involved. A lot of it is, obviously the strength of that is through our customers, it’s at the factory and the dedicated workforce that we have in New Bedford.

Something that popped out about your favorite lines was not only the designs but some of the textures. How do you go about picking some of those textures?

I always say that the texture of your clothes is like the texture of your life. That has been for me, to add dimension and personality to every piece I design. I always have believed that we want to give the customer more. We don’t want to give them less. So fabric is very important. The color of fabric is important. The linings that we use. The layering. There’s a richness to it that’s very masculine and very American but very approachable.

When you think about the American man, who are your designing for? Is the business class? Is it the working class? Is the guy going on the airplane? When you envision a suit, who is it for?

I think I believe in, it’s an overused word, but lifestyle. You know, I don’t think of one particular guy. I think of how a guy lives his life. How does the American man live his life? He has needs for tuxedos. He has a need for a dark business suit. He has a need for a softly constructed jacket. So I design for his lifestyle. I always used to say, if I think I need it, I think a lot of other guys need it. So I kind of use my needs and requirements as a guideline to what I think guys might want to have from a color point of view, from a silhouette point of view, from dressy to casual, from tuxedos to T-shirts. I’ve always looked at, my job is to make American men look and feel better about themselves. And that’s what designers are supposed to do. It’s not an ode to me by any means. My job is to really kind of honor my customer and really give him stuff that works in his life. That’s why I think we’ve had such a long run is because we’ve been very dedicated to our customer and their needs. That’s why I don’t use a lot logos on my clothes because I think labels belong on the inside of clothing not on the outside.

One thing we learned about the favorite designs is the women’s line. How did that come about?

Oh, that was really a special moment. My partners were Italian back then. They had wonderful factories in Italy. Unfortunately when they went through their financial crisis, they closed those factories down. We had that women’s business for about 10 years. It was a really beautiful collection but the quality was impeccable. And to this day, I’ve never been able to find the level of quality and craftsmanship in our women’s wear. So I haven’t done it. It doesn’t mean we won’t.

And also when you’re designing women’s wear, it also keeps you sharper for men’s wear. It’s a different mindset when you’re designing for women. It does. It keeps you on a much more heightened plane when you’re being creative. I sort of miss that part of it.

How does the inspiration alter from designing something for a man and designing something for a woman?

The thing that drives my brand has always been the textures and the fabrics. So when we did our women’s wear, it was basically with rich sumptuous fabrics but of course (in) the appropriate women shapes. So it differs more in shape. And women are much more experimental and will try things quickly. They’re newer to products. So it really was an exciting time for me. Yeah, that part of it, I miss. And so many women come up to us and say, ‘When are you going to do your women’s line?’ Because they love our fabrics. Never say never.

When was the decade of women’s clothing?

That was probably from 1992 to about 2003, 2004 in that area. Like I said, it does keep you very sharp. It really does.

In keeping in the designs you sent us, one that really stuck out with us was in 2016, the model with the black suit, the black American flag over his shoulder and the finger-less gloves. Where did the inspiration from that come from?

That was all about being proud to make in America. That was a runway look. So when you have a chance to do theatrics — and that’s what shows are about. Shows do have to have some theater. They have to have some drama. But that was one of my favorite looks because that flag was made in New Bedford, Massachusetts. That flag was sewn from all of my tailored sewing fabrics, and we now currently sell those as limited edition in my Joseph Abboud store here in (New York City).

Why did you want to tell that story at that particular show?

That was one of the first shows that we had done in a long time. And I wanted everybody to know that New Bedford could be as creative as Milan. And that what we do out of the tailoring and the custom details, I mean that was a beautiful show in terms of the energy of what we created and just showing a range of what we do in our factory in New Bedford and the Joseph Abboud Factory.

In the future, what do you see from the brand moving forward?

We talk about this corporately and Doug (Ewert), our CEO who has been an enormous supporter of the brand, has said our goal is to make it a billion dollar brand. So that’s our goal and move forward every day and we continue to see growth. Listen, there’s no straight lines to success. There’s always challenges. It’s climbing Mount Everest really. It’s kind of the quest is always (difficult). I love the journey. To get there is great but the journey is also very exciting. What’s at the next horizon? That’s what it is for me. I’m still challenged by it. I feel at the top of my game because my experience really does help me in terms of the confidence in the creativity. And that’s a very important thing. Having the confidence to know that you’ve done this, you’ve been through cycles. So it allows you to have more confidence in what you believe in.