Comeback: Designer Joseph Abboud

President and creative director for HMX and designer for Lord & Taylor’s private brand, Joseph Abboud’s influence keeps growing.

Joseph Abboud has found his place in the universe. Relaxed and contented in his beautiful Park Avenue studio surrounded by thousands of swatches of luxury fabrics, Abboud is clearly in his element, always happiest when he’s designing. (“I could sit for days in a room with swatches; just bring me an occasional pizza…”) Just back from Europe and on his way to host a retail charity event, Abboud chats with MR about the court battle for his name, his current passions and ambitions.

On his court battle with JA Apparel: It was never about the money; it was always the principle. I knew what I’d sold (a trademark) and what I didn’t sell (my name). Do I regret selling it? No, because I had every intention of staying at JA Apparel. What I intended was to free myself from things like leases and computers and negotiations in order to concentrate on design. (At that point, I was spending 90 percent of my time on tasks that had nothing to do with design.) And while it’s now water under the bridge, what it did accomplish was to establish a designer’s creative rights. It was not an easy process for me: it was two years of fighting, of getting the appellate courts to see the injustice of the original decision. It took tremendous intestinal fortitude but I didn’t roll up into a fetal position and as a result, I’ve been able to advise young designers on how to approach partnerships. Of course I’m delighted that I ended up where I knew I was supposed to be, but bottom line, I never wanted to infringe on their trademark: that’s the trademark I sold! I just didn’t want to be trivialized, marginalized like I didn’t exist.

In an important sense, it was a landmark case, a first amendment issue: If someone creates something, people have a right to know who created it. On the basis of that, we won. And in the end what I learned was how much I love what I do: not for the glory, not for the money, but for the actual process of designing.

On what he’s learned from mentors: From Louis Boston founder Murray Pearlstein, the most brilliant merchant I know (despite the fact that he was crazy enough to give me a $7 million OTB when I was 22!), I learned creative courage: if you believe in something, show it like you mean it! From Ralph Lauren, who I worked with for almost five years, I learned about the power of a brand: about creating a brand’s DNA, knowing exactly what it is and what it isn’t, believing in it and being fiercely protective of it. (I ultimately left Ralph because I had a different creative viewpoint but he was my graduate school, my MBA, and I’m forever grateful for all I learned.)

Guido Petruzzi was my angel in many ways: a brilliant architect of designer businesses, he came to me and asked me to partner with GFT. (Back then, GFT picked you; you didn’t pick them.) No one better understood the designer world; he gave us the space and the fertile environment in which to create. It’s hard to believe that two billion dollar empire is gone…

On the new HMX: My job here is to create a talent pool, to teach young designers how to think. At the moment, we’re working on three or four exciting new initiatives (Palm Beach could be the next Abercrombie if we do it right) in addition to growing our core brands. Our factories are near capacity. We have a great relationship with the unions: they are our partners, our assets. We make almost 500,000 suits and sportcoats a year, all right here in North America. And as production and shipping costs rise around the world, our domestic factories become more of an asset.

On his relationship with Doug Williams: He is a great friend and perfect partner because we get each other. We both acknowledge that what he does, I couldn’t do and what I do, he couldn’t do. We both operate organically: largely by instinct. And we agree on the important things, like being the licensor, not the licensee.

On the relationship between big stores and their vendors: There’s a healthy tension today between retailers and manufacturers and that’s okay. But unless it’s healthy, it’s a disaster. Because bottom line, we both need to be profitable; we need to survive together. Yes of course the big stores are protected for much of their risk taking but if those are the rules we have to play by, we’ll play by them. But they need to let us survive so we can work for them and with them. The best advice I ever got was from Murray Pearlstein: he taught me never to make too good a deal. If you destroy your source, you destroy your business.

Retailers need more creative courage. It’s time for stores to stand up for what they believe in, to create more point of difference between their store and the competition. I also believe we need new specialty store concepts to balance the majors. It’s important that we help cultivate and support new retailers with new ideas.

On getting American men into fashion: My goal is for more men to embrace fashion and style rather than be afraid of it. As an industry, we’ve done a terrible job of conveying an appreciation for fine clothing. The Europeans grow up with it; it’s in their pasta. Here, we turn guys off with ridiculous runway presentations so they think fashion is totally frivolous. If you’re a major New York newspaper, don’t show a guy on a runway on a horse with war paint and expect that your reader is going to understand your message. Talk to guys in a language they understand.

I think the problem for most guys is not a lack of interest but rather a lack of confidence. So we need to bring them fashion that makes them look sexy and handsome in ways they can understand.

On his unique design sensibility: I sometimes describe myself as a “creative chameleon,” but the common themes across all my designs are beauty, sensuality and wearability.

On the future of tailored clothing: Tailored clothing is morphing from that Monday to Friday 9 to 5 suit into a multi-function lifestyle piece. It’s now about softness and deconstruction, the problem being that most men don’t understand that less can cost more… That said, a base in tailored clothing is not a bad thing for a menswear company: all the great men’s brands (Armani, Ralph Lauren) are anchored in tailored clothing, which allows licensing opportunities in shirts, ties and accessories. In our brands, clothing still dominates the mix but we’re moving toward more sportswear; our goal is 50/50. If manufacturers don’t evolve silhouettes and fabrics, we’re dead because men are wearing suits totally differently today.

On advertising to men: Take any two guys from any two backgrounds or income brackets and what’s their common denominator? Sports. So we believe in using sports personalities, not just for endorsements but for relationships. Like Yankees first baseman Mark Texeira who does the radio ads for Hart Schaffner Marx: it’s not about Buy One Suit, Get Six Free. It’s about the integrity of the brand, about history and heritage and pride. I mean look at the history of HSM: for more than a century, they’ve made suits for presidents, uniforms for soldiers in two world wars. And men really do care about these things. So I believe our sports marketing works because it’s based on authentic relationships rather than hired spokespeople. And our HSM business after those radio spots (we tag Nordstrom and other major retailers) really spikes: men go into the stores and ask for HSM; it’s been fantastic. Which is why Hickey Freeman is now doing Sunday Night Football with Bob Costas and why HMX brands will be doing the Olympics and hopefully the Super Bowl.

On happiness: I’m not much of socializer: I don’t have lots of friends, I don’t go to many events or parties beyond what I have to do. My real happiness is my work and my family. In fact, I had a great evening last night teaching my daughter Ari some tricks for memorizing the American presidents…

Last summer, my older daughter Lila interned at HMX. One of her jobs was to straighten out these boxes of old swatches and she came to me with this mushroom-colored Donegal piece of sweater that she thought I might like. It was so gorgeous that I built an entire collection around it; it was one of our deliveries for fall 2010. And the next time she was at our offices and saw that collection, she was beaming; she was like, “Daddy, I discovered that swatch!” Now that to me is happiness.

The world according to Joseph Abboud

Most proud of: My consistency.
Biggest regret: Not always trusting my instincts.
Might surprise people: My sense of humor.
Would change about self: My intensity: I’m often obsessive: I don’t let things go which is both a blessing and a curse. I’m also cursed with a great memory.
A wish: That more guys would enjoy the shopping experience, that they’d view it like getting a massage (which you can’t do online…)
A motto: Surround yourself with talented people and you’ll be better.
Another motto: Fight fiercely for what you believe in, but not combatively.
What keeps him grounded: My wife and two daughters.
Best part of job: Going out to stores and sharing my passion with the sellers.
Lessons learned: The battles are won and lost on the selling floor.
Another lesson: The product makes the label, not vice versa.
Outside project: I’m renovating an old building up in Boston. I love home and interior; Doug and I have plans to incorporate home into several of our lifestyle brands.
Other passions: Squash (3 to 4 times a week), and of course the Red Sox!

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