The next wave

American designer Joseph Abboud on menswearʼs future. And his own.

Just days after announcing that he’s leaving his position as HMX creative director (and a week before he announced he was joining The Men’s Wearhouse as creative director), menswear designer Joseph Abboud sat down with MR to share his perspective on the industry. One of America’s most consistent and well-respected designers, Abboud predicts growth in menswear comparable to the 1970s!

From where this optimism? By most accounts, fourth quarter menswear business is just okay…
The excitement is about attitude: young guys want to dress well. They care about clothes! My daughters are both in college and I see how these guys are dressing, how important the right clothes are to them.

If this is true, why isn’t business better?
One reason could be an overemphasis on slim fit. Look at young men in America today: so many have broad shoulders and chests. They can’t get into slim suits and they’re not finding clothing that fits them.

Another reason: a changing business model. When I started my business in 1987, there were at least 30 major department stores and thousands of independents. Today, there are only a handful of national department stores, even fewer regionals and independents. Which means there are far too few specialty stores to give big enough orders to propel new menswear designers. We need this creative component to drive new opportunities. That said, vertical retailing continues to grow. Clearly, the traditional wholesale/retail model has to change. To be successful, we can’t look to the past; we have to come up with a vertical proposition to sell consumers directly. After 25 years in the industry, it’s very clear to me…

But isn’t most of what you do based on the vendor-to-retailer-to-consumer model?
That’s part of the reason I’m moving on. I made the decision to leave HMX months before the bankruptcy, but it was a tough decision. The people there are wonderful, totally passionate about product. And their heritage brands, Hart Shaffner Marx and Hickey Freeman, are second to none.

Will you still do the Black Brown collection for Lord & Taylor?
It’s a joyous collaboration and a relationship I treasure. Black Brown—incredible product at value prices—is a $200 million brand in just five years. We’re adding a capsule women’s collection for fall 2013 and a more upscale anniversary collection (European piece goods, U.S. and European production) in men’s. There’s international potential and maybe a direct-to-consumer component down the road.

Where do you see men’s fashion going in 2013 and beyond?
I think we need to redefine the word fashion in menswear: it’s not about trendy items, it’s how you wear your clothes. Today, fit defines fashion, but that’s cyclical too. I believe younger guys are leaning more traditional, with perhaps a new color palette. It’s the innovation based on tradition that’s men’s fashion. Once you step outside that, you’re in women’s territory.

Is price important to younger customers?
Price is a big deal for them: the reality is that most can’t afford the better suits we’re showing. I know it’s ancient history, but when I was a buyer for Louis Boston in the 1970s working with Murray Pearlstein, he realized this and created Down, a 500 square foot young men’s shop in the basement with a real sense of theater. He understood that you can’t just blend in cheaper suits with luxury; you’ve got to create a separate environment that talks to your target customer. We sold thousands and thousands of skinny suits at $125 retail (probably comparable to $395 today). Murray was a visionary; retailers today should have that kind of courage.

But I’m optimistic. I was recently shopping downtown Manhattan and I came across a separate tailored clothing section in AllSaints, a store that’s devoted to goth. If goth guys are wearing suits, it’s a sign from the gods that tailored clothing is back!

What’s next for Joseph Abboud?
I just bought an old waterworks tower in Chestnut Hill (built in 1887, the year Hart Schaffner Marx was founded, which was karma for me) that I’m working with Restoration Hardware to restore. So there will likely be a collaboration with them, plus Black Brown, plus I’m playing with a few other ideas and totally loving the journey.

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