What's in a name? Well, if it's Joseph Abboud's, it's major talent coupled with a fair amount of frustration. That's because the revered Boston-born men's-wear designer sold his namesake label for a whopping $65-million back in 2000 and spent just five years working for the company that bought it before leaving. Last year, Men's Wearhouse, the retailer he had been working for, bought it back for $97.5-million. Finally, the 64-year-old Abboud can design under his own name once again, giving him a sense of satisfaction he finds exhilarating.
Of Lebanese descent and with a seamstress mother, Abboud began working in fashion when he was only 16. But it wasn't until he moved to Paris after college to study at The Sorbonne that he really fell in love with style. He worked for Ralph Lauren for five years before launching his brand in 1986. Abboud, whose label is synonymous with quality and fit, was in Toronto recently to show his latest men's collection. I caught up with the suave and affable designer to talk about the new excitement in men's wear, age-appropriate dressing and the importance of wardrobe fundamentals.
You have a 23-year-old daughter who wants to get into the men's fashion business. How does that make you feel?
I want my kids to find out who they are – not who I want them to be. So you let them discover through college and all of those things what they want to do. But she said, "You know dad, I just love what you do and I love how men dress." And it's such a joy when it comes back to you. Maybe it's in the genes, I don't know.
Maybe you made it look easy.
Well, we all try to make it look effortless. But a lot of work goes into it. I tell my kids that it's going to take hard work and discipline no matter what you do. Nobody goes through life undefeated – nobody does.
You entered into the fashion industry at a very different time.
Do you think your daughter will have an easier time of it or a harder one?
I think it's going to be harder. There's so much more information today: That's the good news. But the market is getting much more crowded. Retailers are putting a lot of pressure on new designers, and if you don't perform immediately, there is no gestation period. They're not going to give you time to see if you'll become successful. When Ralph Lauren launched his collection in 1967, there were no computers, there was no data processing. There were merchants, and the merchants had vision. Today, we are driven by the numbers and the bottom line and it doesn't allow the creative process to take its time and develop.
Another thing that's changed dramatically is the way that men view fashion. How would you say that's evolved?
I think men are the new women. Guys really care now. They never wanted to admit they cared early on but the younger consumer isn't shy or bashful. He's into grooming products. He wants to look good. He wants the suit. He wants that lean silhouette, and I love it! I haven't seen this young, under-30 generation be so excited about men's wear before. Men's wear has an exciting edge to it now, maybe even more so than women's wear.
Is there an easy style fix for a guy who doesn't have time to think about it?
Build the fundamentals in a wardrobe. If you're a young guy, have a beautiful grey flannel suit and a dark navy suit. Because in those suits, you can go to a wedding, a funeral – you can go to anything. And you'll always look great. The navy blazer, the perfect leather jacket, the right jean, the perfect white shirt – these are the essentials of a wardrobe.
How important is it to step out of one's comfort zone?
Men get to a certain age and they don't change their style. But women are continually evolving, so it is important. A guy gets comfortable in a suit he likes and doesn't ever want to change it, but it starts to look dated. It's really important to get the 40- to 55-year-old guy to continue to be current.
And if I would ask you to look into your crystal ball and speculate on where this whole thing might be going, what would you say?
We're kind of cyclical. Like right now, we're in this trim, slim, lean mode. I don't think that's going to change so quickly. Because men's wear moves glacially. So we're going to be a little slower. What I think is happening is the generation of texture and fabric. We're not going to be looking at primary colours any more. We're going to be looking at textures and artist's tones and half tones, interesting tones, where the fabric does a lot of the work. Because if you think about it, what do we have? We have suits, we have jeans, we have shirts. Women have so many different kinds of garments. Our range is much more limited. So we have to drive it through fabrics and through nuance.
And what about the notion of age-appropriate dressing for men?
I absolutely love it! I absolutely believe in that 100 per cent.
Not spirit-appropriate or body-appropriate?
It's good that you made that distinction. People think the skinny suit is for the young guy and the big suit is for the old guy. But there might be some older guys who are lean and in good shape, so it is about being body-appropriate. But then again, a guy doesn't want to look silly. How is he perceived? Does he look important? Does he look powerful? Does he look stylish? You don't want to look like a gigolo. I have spent my whole life trying to make boys look like men, not men look like boys. Women have to dress age appropriately as well, but they're much more sensitive about their body types and their style and what they can wear. They're more intuitive. Guys don't have that kind of initiative. So we just have to help them understand that you can still have great style, but if you're 45, you don't want to look like you're trying to be 25. Or if you're 55, you don't want to dress like you're 30. It just doesn't work.
Did this innate sense of style come naturally to you? I know you've worked in the business since you were very young …
I think it happened for me when I was living in Paris when I was 20. There was style in the streets! I was used to taking the subway in Boston, which was a very tough kind of environment. But I remember getting off the Metro in Paris, and the doors opened at the l'Opera stop and a man walked into the car in a tuxedo and a woman walked in wearing a gown. And I thought "Oh my God! Whatever this culture is, I want to be a part of it." So I thought that clothes could help you define your style. And I always thought that dressing well wasn't a bad thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.