Behind the Seams with Joseph Abboud
The menswear designer on Bedford, Boston, baseball, and his local life.
It’s a gorgeous Friday morning in early August as I zip up I-684 to Bedford with Lily, one of our summer interns, next to me in the front seat. Lily is from Manhattan so I’m trying to explain the whole Bedford vibe. “It’s a bit like Hollywood East but without all the flash,” I say. “It attracts all the mega-celebs who want a more laid-back luxury,” I add, tossing out the laundry list of high profile denizens: Richard Gere, Ralph Lauren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Martha Stewart, new kids on the block Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds—and renowned men’s fashion designer Joseph Abboud, to whose office we are headed. We pass horses grazing in pastures behind low white wooden fences and some weathered barns and houses framed by crumbling old stone walls and then we come upon sleepy little Bedford Village.
Here’s a grassy expanse and there’s a cluster of small buildings—all of life’s necessities: a gourmet shop, a monogrammed gift boutique, a movie theater, and, just farther up the road, Gere’s swanky Bedford Post Inn. “You have arrived,” my GPS announces at a two-story white clapboard Colonial building. We swing around back, as instructed, and, as I pull in next to a sexy little bronze-colored BMW convertible sports car with its top down, a back door opens and Abboud greets us like some dear friends whose visit he’s eagerly anticipating. Having just finished his very candid memoir, Threads: My life Behind the Seams in the High-Stakes World of Fashion, at 11:15 the night before, I do feel as if I know him far better than my typical interview subject.
“What’s he like?” my sister asks later, after reminding me yet again that her husband has a couple of his shirts—information that I keep to myself during the interview. “Charming,” is my answer. Abboud is warm, friendly, and very much a gentleman. So much so that before I can dash off a thank-you-for-your-time email the following Monday, the designer calls me instead to say how much he enjoyed our chat and the direction of my questioning. Nice.
But back to this summer Friday. With no entourage in sight—no assistant, no over-eager PR person, not even an intern—Abboud ushers us inside, fretting all the while that he can’t offer us a cold drink because the office kitchen hasn’t been stocked. But would we like him to run over to the Meetinghouse Food and Spirits across the street to pick something up, he asks? It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. And while he seems quite sincere—the wealthy, world-famous designer is shaping up to be the prototypical Mr. Nice Guy—I’m eager to get started and so decline. As I set up my laptop and tape recorders, he asks Lily about her plans to return to college. Nice.
The designer—a Boston boy, born and bred—lounging in his new pied-à-terre in that city, a 126-year-old-tower reconfigured as a five-floor apartment. photo this page by eric roth
Fit and attractive, Abboud is clad entirely in Black Brown 1826, the collection he has been designing for the past six years. He’s wearing the label’s jeans in bone denim and a fresh white linen shirt. He’s paired these with an old pair of Tod's loafers—sans socks—and a “gutsy” aviator-type watch with a leather band from Breitling’s vintage-inspired collection. “It tans like your skin does,” Abboud says. “I like things that are a little more timeless. That’s why I like style more than I like fashion because style is kind of a timeless thing.” Later in the interview, Abboud notes that, “The best-looking guys are the ones that look like they don’t try too hard and are at ease and comfortable in their clothes.” Abboud looks comfortable.
And he makes me feel comfortable as well, almost like we’re two parents who recognize each other from school functions and who’ve bumped into each other at Starbucks.
But, of course, we’re clearly not in Starbucks. Where we are is Abboud’s professional pied-à-terre, just three miles from the home where he and his wife, Lynn—they celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary earlier in the summer—raised their daughters, Ari, 19, a sophomore at Boston College, and Lila, a recent BC grad who works for the Boston Bruins. The downstairs meeting space where we are seated evokes a horse country lodge with its fireplace, antlers, and wooden beams. Abboud uses unusual combinations in the interiors—to enter, we walk through a pair of mahogany gates with wrought-iron work that hail from a Southern plantation—with “color and texture as the thread to pull it all together,” he explains, describing the style as neoclassical. “I’m not a modernist,” he says. “I like a sense of tradition.”
So that is how my laptop comes to rest on a nine-foot-long, hammered-zinc-topped table with a base made from old English rectory pews that the designer uncovered at Avantgarden in neighboring Pound Ridge. Nearby is a big copper mirror that hung in the original Rialto Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. And the green tobacco-colored leather chairs we sit in? They once graced an old Chicago men’s club. Abboud purchased the chairs, more than a century old, at auction 15 years ago. Given the fascinating provenance of its contents, I am eager to know more about the building itself, expecting a charming back-story about it once having being a historic tavern. “Oh this? It was a gas station,” Abboud replies cheerily.
Portrait of the young man whose dreams were coming true—Abboud surrounded by models Appolonia (left) and Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger’s ex. photo courtesy of joseph abboud
A natural raconteur, Abboud speaks with the soft traces of a Boston accent, a tribute to his beloved hometown. As we chat, he tells of the time fellow resident and former employer Ralph Lauren happened to be driving by, saw Abboud, and popped his head inside the building. “He very much liked what he saw,” he says. Abboud calls Lauren his design icon. “He is amazing. He is so dedicated and so true to his brand and he’s brilliant at it.”
Before joining Ralph Lauren in 1981, where he ultimately became associate director of menswear design, Abboud had spent most of his career at Louis Boston, the very fashionable men’s boutique; he started working there part-time when he was 16 and credits that experience as fundamental to his career. He is equally appreciative of the time he spent at Ralph Lauren. “It was a great five years. I loved working for Ralph and always had a great relationship with him,” he says, “but I left because I thought there was a different point of view that I wanted to explore.” Abboud launched his own label in 1986 and, not long after—in 1989 and 1990—became the first designer to win the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) award for Best Menswear Designer two years in a row.
But in a way, it was Lauren who brought Abboud to the County—when Abboud started to work for the designer, he needed to move from Boston to New York. When introduced to the area, it immediately felt right—unlike Manhattan, where he lived initially. “I needed green—I love to garden,” he explains, “and Westchester felt closer to home and our families because you didn’t have to go over a bridge or tunnel to get to Boston.” Plus, “If you’re going to live in the country, it should feel like you’re in the country,” he adds. “I sometimes say we are more New England than New England.” The couple’s first home here was a rustic farmhouse they built in Pound Ridge in 1984; they purchased eight acres on a lake in Bedford in 1993 where they built their current 10,000-square-foot French country home. It is there that Abboud—who says had he not been a designer, he’d have loved to have been a landscape architect—pursues his passion for gardening.
Abboud, a lifelong Red Sox fan, throwing out the first pitch at Boston’s Fenway Park on September 7, 2002—it was the Blue Jays versus the Sox, with 34,000 people in the stands. photo courtesy of joseph abboud
In what little downtime he has, Abboud also loves playing squash—in fact, he played this morning before our interview, at the Saw Mill Club East in Mount Kisco. Having started in his 20s, he now plays three or four times a week, often with longtime squash partner Martin Ford of Mount Kisco, who met him 20 years ago on the court. “Squash can get quite heated,” says Ford, “and I’ve never seen him lose his temper on the court—or off. What you see is what you get,” he continues. “He’s a genuine person with no airs.”
Perhaps that’s why the down-to-earth designer is so happy in Bedford. “It’s a charming place but it’s kind of low-key,” he says. “You don’t have to play any games. I just want it to be simple,” he adds. “I have enough high energy with what I do that I don’t need this to be that.” Indeed, Abboud sums up Bedford’s appeal for the celeb set thusly: “It’s a very peaceful and beautiful place and everybody’s pretty cool about everything.” It’s clear he sees his home “in the country” as a refuge from Manhattan. “Even if I come back late from the City, I always walk outside because the sky is so much clearer here and it’s just so beautiful,” he says. “What a contrast—44 miles away from my office is like worlds away. It’s like we should have to have a passport to go from Manhattan to Bedford; it’s such a different place.”
The horsey set backdrop of Bedford is also a very different place from the blue-collar Boston where Abboud was raised—and the designer is as refreshingly unvarnished about his beginnings as he is of this building’s history. And though he now plays squash and his daughters grew up riding their own ponies, his own background is decidedly more modest. He grew up in a working-class Catholic Lebanese family—his father was a master mechanic and his mother a seamstress—and he was the first person in his family to attend and graduate from a four-year college. He received a degree in English and French Comparative Literature from the University of Massachusetts-Boston; during college, he spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris on scholarship and calls the experience the defining one of his life. “People think I went there to learn draping,” says the designer, who is fluent in French, “but I actually studied 17th and 18th century literature,” he adds with a grin.
An unabashed romantic, Abboud grew up loving movies and had aspirations to live the glamorous life he saw depicted on the big screen. “I think being a kid in a working-class Boston family, you kind of dream about what life is like on the other side of Beacon Hill and the whole Boston Brahmin thing,” he recalls. He also realized “that dressing well opened doors. I think that comes from my parents being first-generation,” he explains, “and saying always make sure you look nice and presentable.” Not only were movies a portal into a different kind of world, they would serve as inspiration for his future collections. Years later, when Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne asked him if he ever wanted to be a movie star, “I said no. I didn’t want to be a movie star,” he recalls with a laugh. “I wanted to be those movie stars—and I wanted their clothes. I loved Errol Flynn’s movie They Died With Their Boots On because he has this great, fringed jacket that I wanted my entire life.”
The designer and his family in 2001: his wife, the former Lynn Weinstein; older daughter, Lila, named after his mother; and younger daughter, Ari. photo courtesy of joseph abboud
It’s been a little more than a decade since Westchester Magazine last sat down with Abboud and it’s been a hectic one for the designer professionally. Eight years ago, he was involved in what the press likes to call a messy “business divorce.” Abboud had sold his company, JA Apparel, and its trademarks, for $65 million in 2000; a second one, J.W. Childs Associates, then acquired the company for $73 million in 2004. Abboud, not pleased with the direction the company was going in, left JA Apparel in 2005. The messiness of the leave-taking concerns the erroneous assumption that Abboud had sold his name as well as the trademarks. “In 2000, I sold the trademarks but I didn’t sell my name,” he explains. “The second company claimed I did. That’s a very big distinction,” he continues. “After a two-year lawsuit, in 2009, we finally won.” And not only has Abboud’s name been legally restored to him, just after we spoke last summer, the official announcement was made that he was about to be reunited with the brand he started. Men’s Wearhouse, for which he has been chief creative director since December 2012, announced that it had purchased Abboud’s former company and its brand for $97.5 million. His name, brand, and company officially restored, Abboud says, “It was meant to be.”
Perhaps also meant to be, for this Boston boy, born and bred—and member of the Red Sox Nation who goes up to see his team play 15 or 20 times a year—is Abboud’s recent acquisition of a townhouse in his native city that’s a mere 12 minutes from Fenway Park. A 126-year-old tower, it now houses a five-floor apartment. It’s there that Abboud is headed after our interview; later tonight, he’ll catch a Sox game with Lila.
“When I’m back in Boston, I’ll drive though my old neighborhoods where I grew up and used to play baseball,” reflects Abboud. “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Joseph Abboud and we’re so proud of you’ or ‘I got married in one of your suits.’ It’s kind of like being part of the home team. It’s not curing a disease, but those things make you feel good.” Nice.