Joseph Abboud: The creative component

In his new role at Men’s Wearhouse, Joseph Abboud combines retail, sourcing and design.

Joseph Abboud, who was named creative director at Men’s Wearhouse in December, is invigorated not only by his new position, but by the current state of menswear. Abboud began his career at Louis Boston and became a designer at Polo Ralph Lauren in the 1980s. He launched his own, eponymous line in 1986 (although he is no longer affiliated with the brand). In August 2008, he began designing the Black Brown 1826 line for Lord & Taylor, a project he will continue. Here, Abboud shares how he plans to lead Men’s Wearhouse into the fashionable future.

JosephAbboud-Jan2013-sliderWhy Men’s Wearhouse? The biggest challenge for any designer or brand is getting their message to the end user. Brands often get edited by retailers, which becomes a barrier in reaching the end consumer. At Men’s Wearhouse, we’re able to go directly to consumers and offer better quality and pricing. If we have an idea, we can create it for 600 stores. So it’s not like “let’s create an idea and hope some of the retailers will buy it.” Let’s create an idea and take it, unedited, right to the consumer.

I’m also launching Jaz, a modern American lifestyle collection, exclusively at Men’s Wearhouse. [Editor’s note: Jaz originally launched in 2007, but Jack Victor, which held the tailored clothing license, let it expire in 2010.] Our first collection is for spring ’14 and it gives us a chance to take a designer brand directly to the customer. Men’s Wearhouse and George Zimmer have done an extraordinary job in terms of advertising, marketing and creating a presence. This is Men’s Wearhouse’s 40th anniversary, so you have to give George an enormous amount of credit for his vision and what he’s built. This is a $2.5 billion company and you don’t get there by accident.

Will you do anything other than Jaz? When I met with George Zimmer and Doug Ewert we discussed how I could build a creative support system for the company. I’m going to implement a design discipline for all of the private brands (Jaz, Egara, Pronto Uomo, etc.). We’ll establish the DNA for each one and define the customer. We’re hiring a creative team and building an extraordinary design studio in New York.

What was your perception of Men’s Wearhouse before you started? Over the years, you had to start paying attention to the power of Men’s Wearhouse and if you weren’t on the inside, you didn’t quite understand the dynamics of how they were so successful. Perhaps, for some people, Men’s Wearhouse connoted discount or lower price, but I was so amazed when I got inside, in terms of the quality of product, the service, the attention to detail and the strength of their manufacturing capabilities. When we buy something, we can buy tens of thousands of something, not 50 or 100. So my perception changed when I saw what they’re actually capable of doing. The sourcing structure at Men’s Wearhouse is the best I’ve ever worked with in my entire career. In terms of the factories: the ability to get the product made the way we want, all of the technical support, the relationships we have with mills, the large quantities. The quality and integrity that goes into our products is like a best kept secret. And that’s what my job is: to get that message across, not as a sales person but as someone who really believes in product.

What’s in store for spring ’14? I’m still a believer in seasonal dressing. Of course you have geography to deal with, but the young guy isn’t stuck with all of the stigmas of what we learned growing up: “Oh you can’t sell tweeds because they’re heavy…” The young guy is gravitating towards a lot of authentic fabrics like linen and seersucker in the summer, herringbone, Harris tweeds and flannel in the winter. He’s not hung up on the idea that he needs a year-round suit. I believe 20 percent of our mix should be seasonal because otherwise menswear gets very boring. It’s great to have a beautiful navy suit, but how are we going to get a guy to buy other things?

We also need to show these guys how to wear tailored clothing with sportswear (e.g. a linen jacket with jeans and sneakers). You can do a lot of different things with clothes, yet men tend to get [tunnel vision], wearing their clothes only a certain way. What we’re going to do is educate the consumer about concepts and trends (e.g. the navy blazer: every guy should have one but why is he going to want ours?). We’re going to also give a lot of authentic, credible information to the consumer. It was more difficult for pre-internet generations to get information, but now you can Google anything.

Discuss the current state of menswear. Menswear hasn’t been this exciting since the late 1970s. If you look back, the styles then were really awful, but they were fun and energetic. Guys want to get dressed on their own terms. They’re not fashionistas—they’re dressing to look good. Europe has done a great job in teaching young men that style is a part of their lives, not an isolated thing. We need to do that in the U.S., too.

Your crystal ball for Men’s Wearhouse? We’re coming into another huge growth spurt in menswear. And we’re [Men’s Wearhouse] in a place where all the parts seem to be aligned: the young guy’s mentality, price/value, marketing and advertising, etc. We have the vehicle to get it done, so taking this whole idea of where menswear is going and coupling it with the strength of Men’s Wearhouse, we’ve got a 747 that can really lift off the ground. This company is very people- and family-oriented. I love what I do, but my family is first and this company feels that way too. Men’s Wearhouse is also task-oriented, not hourly-driven, so if you have happy people who are comfortable where they are, they produce better. I want a happy design team because then they’ll be more creative. I want to teach, not just the creative process, but the creative discipline to my team: how to think about, design and develop a brand. I want them to learn how to think, not just how to sketch or pick a color, but how to be problem solvers. It’s amazing because when you work with young designers, you end up learning so much more than what you teach.

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