All About Abboud: Fashion Slickster Loves to Make Big Jocks Look Good

It was the sunny opening day of Fashion Week, and the frenzy was already at full pitch in Bryant Park. Away from the tents, a small crowd of fashion people and celebrities sipped sangria and nibbled hors d’oeuvres to the sounds of a Latin lounge band while contemplating a lineup of male models dressed in sky- and earth-tone linens and silks.

The soothing scene was the designer Joseph Abboud’s spring “fashion event.” Instead of the glitz and adrenaline of a runway show, he had decided to introduce his spring 2001 collection of men’s clothes on Sept. 14 with a mellow island-themed luncheon on the rooftop terrace of the Bryant Park Grill.

It was a fit setting for showing off the Joseph Abboud brand, which typically has been more about relaxed, low-profile style than splash. Aimed at the regular guy-despite their $695-to-$850-a-suit price tag-Abboud clothes are, in the words of Joseph Abboud Apparel Corporation’s new president and chief operating officer, Bob Wichser, “understandable and non-threatening.” Men say Abboud-wear is comfortable, both in fit and style, placing those wearing it in a fashion zone on the edgier side of Brooks Brothers, a few notches below Ermenegildo Zegna and several steps shy of Giorgio Armani.

That may be the perfect place to be for a guy from Boston who is passionate about the Boston Red Sox and still faithful to his New England roots. For all his sports and celebrity friends-Don Imus, Bo Dietl, Bryant Gumbel, Red Sox star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra-Joseph Abboud has remained a low-key presence in a fashion world of Tom Ford–style hoopla.

He has, nonetheless, managed to sell $250 million worth of suits, ties, jackets, slacks, sweaters and accessories a year. He lives in a big stone French-style farmhouse that he built in Bedford, N.Y. And his influence can be seen every night in millions of homes tuned to Bob Costas and the other NBC sports anchors hosting the Sydney Olympics, all of whom are wearing Joseph Abboud from head to toe. The intelligent, simple cut of the suits, the earth tones, the well-dressed but comfortable look are all light years away from the Century 21 salesman’s jackets of years past. CBS’s NFL sports team wears Abboud as well.

Yet, for all his success, Mr. Abboud has remained below the radar-so much so that, this past June, when he sold his company’s name to GFT International Network, the apparel branch of the Italian media and fashion conglomerate Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali, for $65 million, the sale went virtually unmentioned. But the deal signals a significant makeover for the company. As a projected investment of $50 million is pumped into the Abboud label, including the planned launch of a Manhattan flagship store in 2001, the sleeper company might be awakening to a much more visible Madison Avenue future.

A higher-profile, upscale Joseph Abboud brand is on the way, and the Fashion Week event seemed to offer a hint of things to come. Two dozen models stood in relaxed poses in front of a white backdrop framed by a few palm fronds, wearing the Latin-inspired looks of the collection. The clothes were loose, sleek and comfortable: tan, coffee- and tobacco-colored linen and wool suits over linen shirts, cotton camp shirts and woven-suede sandals.

Mr. Gumbel was there, dressed in a glen plaid suit and sunglasses from Abboud, gamely quipping for reporters on his long-term friendship and fashion partnership with the designer. Mr. Gumbel’s girlfriend, Hillary Quinlan, held his arm protectively, silently taking in the model lineup.

Jose Conseco and Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees towered elegantly in tailored pieces from Abboud’s earlier collections, but went for the most part utterly unrecognized by the fashion people, who were more interested in the peppered tuna canapés and in fingering the suit fabrics on the real-life mannequins.

Kim Cattrall, the actress, was also there. A friend and fan of Mr. Abboud’s for the sake of her shopping-averse husband, she managed, nonetheless, to commit an uncomfortable Fashion Week faux pas when she didn’t recognize Ron Galotti, former publisher of Vogue , current executive at Talk and the real-life model for the Mr. Big character in Sex and the City, Ms. Cattrall’s show. But Mr. Galotti, perhaps softened by the band’s pleasantly syncopated rendition of “I’ll Just Do the Cha-Cha-Cha,” seemed amused.

No Cappuccino Suits

“Updated conservative” is how Joseph Bonafede, a men’s suit specialist at Bloomingdale’s, describes the Joseph Abboud look. Standing in the middle of Bloomingdale’s separate Abboud selection, next to the Canali suits, Mr. Bonafede explained what the buyer of an Abboud suit looks for. “He’s newly established but doing well for himself, and he’s looking for a little more versatility in his wardrobe,” he said. “You know, ‘If I have to wear a suit, I want it to be a more casual suit.'”

But an Abboud suit is no “cappuccino suit,” Mr. Bonafede said, referring to some edgier DKNY suits favored more by the downtown man than the Joseph Abboud man.

And who is the Abboud man? Well, if he is anything like Mr. Abboud himself, he likes sports. He relates to sports figures, picks up cues from them. Mr. Abboud, perhaps more than any other designer, has made a business of that.

Mr. Abboud first dressed Bryant Gumbel for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul (in 17 separate outfits), and dressed the hosts of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, and the 1994 Games in Norway. After this summer’s Olympics in Australia, where NBC hosts Bob Costas, Harry Smith, Ahmad Rashad, Jim Lampley and Pat O’Brien are wearing Abboud, he’ll be dressing them again for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The designer has also dressed CBS’s NFL sports anchors, and the company has sponsored past NCAA championships and outfitted its staff.

“It’s a great way to get to a guy,” Mr. Abboud said over the conga beat in the background, explaining the relationship between sports and sales. “Guys associate with that, and they understand that, ‘if these guys can do it, I can do it.'”

Robert Lohrer, an editor of the Daily News Record , the main trade publication for men’s fashion, nodded affirmatively. “I can say for a fact that men take their style cues from the sports anchors at night,” he said with a hint of resignation. “ESPN comes on in the bar, and guys are staring at it.”

Mr. Abboud, who is 50, comes from regular-guy origins himself and has deliberately eschewed the fashion-industry scene. He’s lean and tawny, with curly salt-and-pepper hair, and for his show he wore an unassuming navy-over-gray combination of jacket and slacks. He grew up just outside of Boston, put himself through the University of Massachusetts and then worked his way up in fashion at Louis Boston, the city’s upscale clothier, from salesperson to head of promotion and advertising in eight years. He moved to New York in 1980 to work for Polo Ralph Lauren and, after a five-year stint in sales and as director of menswear design, started his own line.

In New York, he pals around with Mr. Gumbel and Mr. Imus. “After I started my own collection, someone from Saks sent [Mr. Imus] a jacket or something. I called him up and we bantered over the phone, and over the years he’s been very supportive of me and he’s been a very loyal guy,” Mr. Abboud said. Mr. Abboud often accompanies Bo Dietl-whom he met on Mr. Imus’ show-to a back room at the Four Seasons. “It’s a bunch of guys and we get together and have dinner,” Mr. Abboud said. “Steve Witkoff-a big real estate developer-he’s there, too. We have a few laughs, we have Monday Night Football . Bo has a big heart.” Mr. Abboud has also joined the former NYPD detective’s regular Thursday table at Rao’s, the celebrity-packed East Harlem shrine to lemon chicken.

Sports are such a big part of Mr. Abboud’s draw that he invited Bernie Williams and Jose Canseco to his Fashion Week event. “I’m a huge Red Sox fan-I was at two of the three games [versus the Yankees] over the weekend at Fenway Park,” Mr. Abboud said. “These guys just happen to be great guys. One thing about this Yankees team you gotta say is, they’re a great group of guys, from Joe Torre to Bernie to Jose. It’s not like the Yankees in the 70’s if you were a Red Sox fan-you really hated them. These guys are class acts.”

Moving On Up

Of course, now Mr. Abboud is a really rich regular guy. With $65 million in his pocket from his company’s sale, he remains on as creative director, ensuring the business will maintain his DNA. But he has happily relinquished his part in the day-to-day operational duties. Those have been passed on to Bob Wichser, who worked with Mr. Abboud for many years when GFTNet was the company’s partner and principal licensee. Mr. Wichser intends to scale up big-time-on the buzz and on the business.

“We’re looking to raise the bar,” Mr. Wichser declared, “in terms of what we do with the store, the advertising, strategically raising our price points and positioning.”

Until now, Joseph Abboud has been run as a stable of about 25 licensed lines for everything from clothing, dress shirts, neckwear, sportswear, shoes, golf apparel, women’s wear and home furnishings. The business has been profitable overall, but not always reliable. A 1990 attempt at a freestanding Newbury Street store in Boston was unsuccessful, as were several more recent retail stores in Florida run by a licensee. GFTNet, which also owns the Valentino fashion house and is a Calvin Klein men’s wear licensee, had the license for Joseph Abboud’s men’s apparel, which generated most of Abboud’s business. It made strategic sense for the former partner to take over the business.

Mr. Wichser’s No. 1 goal for the restructured company: a 7,500-square-foot New York flagship on either Madison or Fifth avenues for the fall of 2001. They’re scouting out spaces now. “It’s going to become the template for our future direction,” Mr. Wichser predicted as he began reeling off the big plans. “Once we establish that New York store, our plan is to roll out 10 to 12 stores all around the country.”

Mr. Wichser sees big, he sees upscale, and mostly he sees lifestyle, that very popular Madison Avenue formula, à la Polo and Donna Karan, that sells you not just clothes and shoes and sheets, but a whole idea of the life embodied by a brand. In the spring, Joseph Abboud introduced a higher-priced Black Label division; the new line’s suits will run from $895 to $1,300. The Abboud home line debuted this fall, and they’ll be making its development a priority. And there are long-term plans for a women’s division in 2002.

“The customer is the same. How we address that customer will change,” Mr. Wichser said, describing the new Abboud message. Indeed, for the immediate future, much of GFTNet’s planned $50 million investment will go to high-profile national advertising to get the word out to the Abboud man-about just how glamorous and desirable the regular-guy lifestyle really is.