Shortly after Tailored Brands’ sale of the Joseph Abboud trademarks to WHP Global for $115 million, MR sat down with the celebrated designer in his beautiful Bedford, New York showroom. For the second time in his career, Abboud is separated from the successful namesake brand that he diligently nurtured for many years. But with a surprising lack of anger or sadness, Abboud says he feels liberated, speaking excitedly about new opportunities, and about fundamental changes in the business.
Q: Were you at all involved in Tailored Brands’ decision to sell the Joseph Abboud brand? How do you feel about the sale?
A: No, I was not involved. But for the record, Tailored Brands did not sell the brand, they sold the trademarks. There’s a big distinction: I can still use my name and my image to promote anything I might create down the road. They sold the label, I still own my name. Tailored Brands will continue to sell Joseph Abboud product, but instead of owning the trademark, they are now a licensee.
Also, for the record, I had sent a letter to Dinesh Lathi (Tailored Brands CEO) back in July 2019 explaining why I was not planning to stay past my contract expiration end-January. It had become clear at that point that the company was no longer interested in financing the collection, the fashion shows, or the retail component of the Joseph Abboud brand. I’m not saying they were right or wrong: it was what they felt they had to do economically. But I didn’t see the point of staying on to design basic product. The vision I shared with Men’s Wearhouse when I joined in 2012 had changed over the years; it seemed the right time for me to move on.
Q: But your fabulous Madison Avenue store! And your beloved New Bedford factory! Do you worry about the brand moving forward without you?
A: The store closing is a bit heartbreaking: it gave the brand a true designer presence and crystalized our DNA. A lot of heart and soul went into that store and a lot of theater. I love that part of the business!
The factory, which remains part of Tailored Brands, will always be close to my heart. I was just there a few days ago to say goodbye to many friends. But here’s the thing: it’s kind of like raising a child. Even though you can’t control their destiny, you always want the best for them. That’s how I feel about the factory and the brand. My vision has always been to create modern clothing that makes men look and feel great. I’ve been focused on the customer since my first days on the selling floor at Louis Boston. My mission for the past 30 years has been attainable luxury and that’s still what I want to create, whether it’s with a Joseph Abboud label or another label. And of course, I worry about the integrity of the brand, with or without me.
Q: Would you consider working with WHP Global on your namesake brand?
A: I don’t know what the future holds; Yehuda Shmidman seems like a very nice guy with plans for international and category expansion. But at this point, I’m going to let the future come to me, rather than chase after it. I feel I’m at the peak of my game, with so many fresh ideas, recently influenced by a millennial generation with a different attitude toward clothing. Young consumers are smarter than ever; they look beyond the label. They want relevance and value, not price or status.
Fortunately, my gratification has always come from building a business rather than name recognition. I’m very proud that since I’ve had my own label, we’ve sold more than five million suits from the New Bedford factory. We also built a $250 million Black/Brown business at Lord & Taylor/Hudsons Bay without my name. Is there a greater reward than people appreciating your work? It’s the creative process that drives me.
Q: I’m looking at this 1991 catalog of your women’s fashion: everything in it (the soft neutrals, the drape-y knits, the sumptuous outerwear) looks like you could present it for fall 2020…
A: I’ve always believed in menswear-inspired women’s fashion. Women tend to be seduced by quality fabrics and menswear patterns. I designed Abboud women’s wear for 10 years when GFT had factories; it was in every door of Neiman’s and Saks. And don’t forget, I spent several years in the late ’80s/early ’90s working at Chanel. I believe that designing women’s has made me better at men’s…
Q: Which would you prefer?
A: I’m not in a hurry to decide. But I do believe in a heritage influence for both men’s and women’s this season. I was in Japan last year with my daughter Lila (who’s been a top stylist at the Madison Ave store) visiting some of the 100 concept shops we established with Japanese partners. Walking through one of the shops, I spotted this fabulous trench coat on a mannequin. It was a perfect British khaki and the leather belt buckle was a bit worn. I stopped to touch it and noticed a small sign explaining that the coat had belonged to Paul Stuart founder Cliff Grodd. I actually felt Cliff’s presence in that coat: touching the past is connecting to the future.
But the one thing I’ve learned over the years: just when you think you know where fashion is going, it goes somewhere else. When everyone says a certain look is the future, something else comes along six months later…
Q: Your clothing has always had a recognizable DNA; what do you consider your creative edge?
A: I think it’s part intuition, and part a quest to keep learning, especially from young people. Murray Pearlstein, my first mentor (followed by Ralph Lauren) and founder of Louis Boston where I worked for 12 years, once told menswear writer Clara Hancox that I have native talent, that I open his eyes to ideas he’d never thought about. That was the greatest compliment he ever gave me, and I was only in my 20s! In the hope that there’s still truth to his assessment, I’m feeling both confident and energized about the future. The best is yet to come.