Joseph Abboud on the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor, Menswear and His Next Chapter

The National Arts Club has been awarding its Medal of Honor to some of fashion’s biggest names since 2003, starting with Geoffrey Beene and including Carolina Herrera, Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali and Anna Sui. But it has never honored a menswear designer.

That will change Friday night when Joseph Abboud is singled out for his illustrious career in the men’s industry.

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The designer, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, got his start in fashion at the Louis Boston men’s store in his hometown before working for Ralph Lauren as a menswear designer. He launched his namesake brand in 1987.

Abboud’s distinct aesthetic of impeccably produced modern classics resulted in many other awards over the years, including the Cutty Sark Award for Most Promising Menswear Designer and two consecutive CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year nods. But this award from the National Arts Club is especially poignant because it honors not only his work but his art, he said.

The organization first got acquainted with Abboud when he used its Gramercy Park South headquarters — the striking former Samuel Tilden Mansion, circa 1840 — for a photo shoot. It didn’t take long for the group to ask him to headline an “Evening With Joseph Abboud,” where he brought along a couple of outfits to flank the stage where he was speaking.

“They really loved the clothing and said, ‘This is not just fashion, it’s art’,” Abboud recalled.

Joseph Abboud Men's Fall 2019
This look from the fall 2019 show will be part of the exhibition at the National Arts Club.

His name was then floated in front of the Medal of Honor committee and he was unanimously selected as a recipient.

“Tennessee Williams, Salvador Dalí and Joseph Abboud,” he said with a laugh in ticking off the names of other Medal of Honor recipients. “Which one of these doesn’t go with the others?

“But I’m thrilled. This sounds a little obnoxious, but of all the awards I’ve won — the CFDA awards, the Cutty Sark Award — there’s something really special about this one, because it recognizes my work for its artistic approach. That’s very flattering and very humbling from an organization like that.”

Although Abboud wouldn’t characterize himself an artist per se, he said, “I consider myself artistic, because creating for me is like breathing. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. And it doesn’t matter under what label. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the garden or designing homes, my life is my artistic approach to things. Landscaping is like a fashion show in nature to me. I love that. I’ve always tried to separate who I am from the label I created. It’s my child and I love it. I brought it to life and it’s done literally billions of dollars worth of business and I’m very proud of that. But that was a trademark and a business and this is much more personal as to who I am.”

Abboud sold his label to an investment group in 2000 for $65 million and it has changed hands several times over the years. It is currently owned by WHP Global and he is no longer involved.

Although Abboud has spent his entire career in menswear, he believes that the category never gets enough credit. “Menswear designers are stepchildren. It’s always been about womenswear. It’s about red carpet. Men get some notable mentions, but it’s never really about them. And menswear operates under a whole different set of concepts. What is fashion, what’s on the runway, where is the demand? Women are so much more inventive, so much more accepting of new ideas than guys are. We get trapped in a time zone.”

Many of the designers creating menswear today push the envelope on what defines the category, and not surprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with Abboud.

“I’ve always had this problem of experimental menswear,” he said. “What I’ve seen in the last few years I’ve not been inspired by. When I see clothes that are unrealistic and unwearable — I can appreciate the art, but I have no respect for the sensibility or the practicality. It just makes no sense to me. I’ve spent my entire career trying to make men feel better about themselves, to make men handsome and appealing — but for their everyday lives, not for the runway.

“I’ve always wanted to stay away from the theatrics and just make beautiful men’s clothes people would enjoy wear. That’s always kind of been my mantra.”

Joseph Abboud Men's Fall 2019
The designer intentionally created pieces that looked worn.

He knows there are talented young designers out there, but unfortunately, they have a hard time gaining traction. “If you look at when Ralph Lauren started in 1967, there were about 5,000 great men’s specialty stores and probably around 250 department stores in the U.S.,” he said. “How many are left?” The Barneys New Yorks, Louis Bostons, Charivaris and other outlets for creative men’s designs have all disappeared, and the “merchant princes” — such as Fred Pressman of Barneys, Murray Pearlstein of Louis, Cliff Grodd of Paul Stuart and Wilkes Bashford — have all passed. “They took chances and they got recognition for it,” he said.

Even so, there are other menswear designers that he admires, notably Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren. “I have enormous respect for Ralph Lauren because I worked for him and know him personally. He’s a menswear designer and he’s stayed very true to himself. And I love Giorgio Armani. He has a sensibility about men and knows how to make men more handsome. You can identify him by looking at the clothes, not the label, and that’s the true sign of greatness.”

Beyond that, “I don’t see anyone really making a mark on a new direction. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost hope because I think there will be a moment again when beautiful intelligent dressing will happen.”

During the black-tie Medal of Honor dinner, Abboud will be bringing 16 of his most creative looks that will be rigged up on mannequins for the attendees to see. Many of the looks are from his final runway show for the Joseph Abboud brand in 2019 when it was owned by Men’s Wearhouse parent Tailored Brands and he was chief creative officer. That show was staged on a pier at the South Street Seaport in New York and offered a vintage-inspired sartorial assortment of his trademark tailored clothing and luxury sportswear.

Among his personal guests at the dinner will be 10 of the artisan tailors from the Joseph Abboud factory in New Bedford, Mass., whom he credits with executing his designs. They include Salvatore Mellace, who served as the executive vice president of design and production for the plant.

“They’re the unsung heroes,” he said. “The glamour may be on the runway, but the real world is where it happened in New Bedford. The Joseph Abboud factory is more than just a place that made my clothes, it’s the place where I was the happiest and always got the most joy creatively. The last show was really the toughest one to design and the toughest one to manufacture.”

The show paid homage to Abboud’s immigrant roots and the outfits were intended to look slightly disheveled. “Salvatore took about 200 fully tailored jackets and pants home and put them in his washing machine so they had that kind of worn, just-came-off-the-ship-to-a-new-world look. I never forget the things that Salvatore did for me.”

During the event, Abboud will also be honored by his longtime friend, actor and author Chazz Palminteri. Although they lived near each other in Westchester, N.Y., Palminteri said he actually wore the designer’s clothes before they ever met. “He’s a man’s man,” the actor said. “His clothes are pure elegance.”

Although he could wear anything he wanted, he said the Abboud collection epitomizes his own sense of style. “Other things might be gorgeous, but they’re not me.” He’s especially fond of the designer’s black turtlenecks, suits and sport coats. “I love his sweaters too but when I go out, I know people will want to take photos with me and I like to look nice. Clothes make the man.” At the National Arts Club event, Palminteri will be wearing a custom tuxedo Abboud created for him.

Beyond the event, Abboud revealed that he’s got another trick up his sleeve: He’s putting the finishing touches on a new collection named Spirytus that he hopes to launch shortly. The name has just been trademarked in the U.S. and Japan.

In the brand’s mission statement, Abboud writes: “The world has recently seen a profound sea change in the way we live, the way we work, the way we play, and the way we embrace life in this new paradigm. And of course, the way we dress in this fascinating new world.”

He said he believes fashion today is about looking inward and dressing for yourself rather than the world at large. And Spirytus will offer “beautifully made pieces with an artisan hand, luxurious fabrics born from the earth, magnificent colors spewed from each of nature’s splendid seasons and clothes that I truly love wearing in the world of today.”

The plan is to launch the collection online. “If you look at brands that are successful, they present their own lines. The traditional wholesale-retail model is archaic,” he said.

Although the launch date is still being determined, Abboud is clear on one thing: Spirytus will offer his distinct take on menswear. “I have my teaching degree from the Sorbonne,” he said. “So I always thought my job was to educate men on how to dress and how to feel good about themselves. You know, the old line: Every time a guy puts on a tuxedo, he should feel like James Bond, even if he’s a construction worker.”

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