NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Joseph Abboud manufactures his fancy men’s suits in a low-rise, red brick building on the main industrial drag of this small town two hours from his native Boston. He made his name in fashion designing a soft-shoulder blazer — giving his customers the easy, sensual tailoring that the more famous Giorgio Armani gave everyone else. Over three decades, Abboud has been at both the peak of fashion — winning awards, making millions — as well as in the abyss, even losing the legal right to put his name on a garment of his own design. But through it all, Abboud has been consistent in one thing: his belief in the beauty, the glory and the enduring appeal of the suit.
The designer, 67, is sitting in a beige-walled conference room at the Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp. It’s a hot day. And Abboud, his silver hair curling away from his tanned and glistening face, is a study in taupe and ivory layers. Layers upon layers. Upon layers.
“Tailoring will never fall out of fashion. Never,” Abboud declares, as he thumps the table like a feverish evangelist. Tailoring is the foundation of all great menswear brands, Abboud says. It evolves, but it endures. Sport jackets dress up jeans. Suits gain fresh relevance when worn with T-shirts and sneakers.
And always, those suits, his suits, have been made in America.
The subject of where goods are manufactured has become part of a national conversation about economics, politics and patriotism. Three decades after an old textile mill was transformed into the Abboud garment factory, it churns out 300,000 suits a year. The demographics of its workforce have evolved. It has felt the impact of technology and globalism. But the factory has also become a marketing data point — a part of the brand’s origin story.
“I know I’m not always going to be the hottest designer, but I want to be the best designer I can be,” Abboud says. “We’re not the newest [brand], but we’re not ‘venerable’ yet.” The average price of a Joseph Abboud suit is about $895. Expensive, but not trophy tailoring on par with an Italian label such as Kiton with its $10,000 suits.
“I know my place in the universe,” he says. “I go to a fashion event, and I know I won’t be in the front row. And that’s okay.”
But Abboud is cheered as a local hero in New England (and he will tell you that). He mentions the Red Sox quite a lot. Local politicians troop through the factory praising American ingenuity.
Right now, where Abboud’s clothes are manufactured may be the best thing the brand has going for it in this athleisure-wearing, Bonobos-loving world. In surveys, millennials have said buying American-made products is important to them, even if those products cost more.
“It’s chic and cool to be made in America,” Abboud says.
As a young man growing up in a blue-collar family in the south end of Boston, Abboud was a clotheshound. He was obsessed with Louis Boston, one of the country’s premier specialty stores — on par with Barneys New York or Bergdorf Goodman. Eventually, he was able to afford to buy a gold club tie there for $5, and wore it to his junior prom.
In college, he studied comparative literature, thinking he’d have a better chance of teaching French than designing clothes. One day, he saw a man standing outside Louis directing the installation of a window display — and yelling in exasperation. “He was wearing a navy wool trench coat and Pierre Cardin hat,” Abboud recalls. “And I thought, ‘I want to be this guy when I grow up.’ ” The guy was Murray Pearlstein, the owner of Louis, and he became Abboud’s mentor.
Abboud took a job there while in college, then studied in Paris, worked at Ralph Lauren and eventually launched his namesake brand. His gentle aesthetic was a pleasant midpoint between the dramatic flair of Italian style and the preppiness of Lauren. He won awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and dressed Bryant Gumbel for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Then Gruppo GFT, a Turin-based fashion conglomerate came calling. At the time, it was the most prestigious manufacturer in menswear, producing lines by Armani, Valentino and others.
“I felt like the prettiest girl at the dance,” Abboud recalls. “They wanted to invest in an American company. They said, ‘We think an American designer should manufacture in America.’ ”
The idea was not only to streamline production; it was to capitalize on cultural authenticity. It’s an idea espoused in Europe by everyone from winemakers to textile producers — that history, ideals and values are bound to the products that are made there. Geography matters.
GFT created an American factory filled with Italian technology. Initially, almost 90 percent of the workers were of Portuguese descent, a population with deep roots in the region and the garment industry. The factory is now a mix of black, Hispanic and white men and women.
Computers drive the cutting and steaming of the fabric. But the gray-haired Salvatore Mellace, an Italian-born son of a master tailor who began working with Abboud when they were both young and dark-haired, makes sure the 1,000th suit of the day reflects the designer’s nuanced vision as well as the first. That creative expression is defined by soft shoulders, a rolled lapel, a silhouette that traces the body but doesn’t hug it.
Abboud does not countenance snug, skinny suits. Fashion be damned.
“There’s a point where they can’t get tighter or shorter,” he says. “When a 42 long doesn’t look good in his suit, something’s wrong.”
Massive bolts of fabric arrive at the 400,000-square-foot factory by the pallet, and a workman inspects each roll before it goes into production. Rolls upon rolls of flannel, worsted wool and cashmere are stacked in a space the size of a football field. With the windows open for ventilation, it’s comfortably lukewarm for the 760 people who work here.
The designer delights in the unglamorous garmento side of fashion — though walking the factory floor in his layers of cotton and linen, he looks more like a gentleman farmer admiring his acreage than a laborer who tills the soil. As Abboud glides between industrial sewing machines and Italian steamers, an elaborate overhead conveyor system zips half-finished suits around the room; one of them gently whacks him in the shoulder. The designer doesn’t miss a step.
For more than a decade, Abboud had nothing to do with the factory that bears his name or the clothes produced here. Between 2000 and 2013, Abboud sold his trademark for $65 million, sued GFT, left his brand, was sued for violating a noncompete clause and worked as a creative-director-for-hire. He finally came to rest at Tailored Brands when it bought his trademark and this factory for $97.5 million and hired him as chief creative director.
The $3 billion conglomerate also owns Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank. It’s a purveyor of suits for middle management, young careerists and executives who’d rather spend their salaries on technology, travel or their kids’ tuition than their wardrobes. The Abboud label, with about $600 million in retail sales, is sold through Men’s Wearhouse stores and the Joseph Abboud flagship on Madison Avenue, as well as online. If a customer shops the Men’s Wearhouse website for an Abboud suit, a banner proclaims: “Made in America of fine Italian fabrics.”
Manufacturing clothing or accessories in the United States is challenging, particularly for anyone aiming for a certain amount of finesse. The Shinola brand, for example, is built on the romance of industrial Detroit workmanship, even as it crafts its watches with foreign-manufactured mechanisms. As it expands into leather handbags and duffels, designers Richard Lambertson and John Truex struggle to find producers in the United States who can create the buttery-soft, boldly-colored leather that meets their standards. American leather mills typically churn out loafers and work boots that are more protective than innovative. U.S. tanneries are very good at black and brown, but orange is far outside their comfort zone.
Designers in New York thrill to the idea of being so close to their production facilities that they can monitor the manufacturing process by taking a short walk rather than an international flight. But they also lament the lack of technology to produce the superfine knitwear made in Europe.
In Abboud’s case, the luxurious textiles that fall on the body like a whisper, “are not made here in the States,” he says. His fabrics come from Italy.
Still, the factory allows Abboud to focus on custom tailoring, which has become more important as suits have transformed from mandatory business attire to fashion statements. Customers can get their suit in 21 days. Abboud’s custom business has tripled since 2013 and now makes up about 35 percent of the bottom line.
The designer celebrated his brand’s 30th anniversary by mounting his fall 2017 show in a decommissioned church in New York, with its Gothic altarpiece as his runway’s backdrop. The collection was strikingly dark for such a jubilant occasion, Abboud’s usual palette of earth tones overshadowed by black, charcoal gray and aubergine. As a string ensemble played in the shadows of the sanctuary, the burly models wound through the aisles. They wore shirts and pants layered with a vest or a sweater, a blazer and then an overcoat and sometimes, even a scarf.
“I loved my fall show,” Abboud says.
Aesthetically, the collection was notable for what it was not. Abboud did not follow the current industry practice of hiring gangly young men best categorized as androgynous or effeminate. The clothes didn’t offer a nod toward athletic apparel. Instead, it was a blend of gentleman lumberjack, Christian Grey and Morpheus.
In essence, Joseph Abboud exists in its own space. Not quite classic, but not quite embedded in the current mood. But wholly made in America.