WM catches up with the menswear designer at his bespoke Bedford estate and shares a sneak peek of Abboud’s post-pandemic paradigm that may just mark the end of the sloppy-sweats-and-hoodie look.
I’ve heard that unpaved or dirt roads are a thing in the hamlet of Bedford, a kind of reverse status symbol that whispers, “Yes, this is actually the country, even though it’s only an hour from Midtown,” and now I’ve finally found myself on one that is long, hilly, and surprisingly bumpy. Eventually, I come upon the entrance to celebrated menswear designer Joseph Abboud’s home, marked by a pair of imposing iron gates flanked by oversize urns and intricate stonework sporting a profusion of pure, white flowering plants. (The vibe is a cross between, “Welcome, invited guests!” and “If you’re looking to borrow a cup of sugar, we only have organic honey.) Fortunately, the meandering quarter-mile-long driveway, dotted with Italianate sculptures, more urns, vibrant plantings, and yet another set of gates midway through, is surfaced with stylish tumbled-brick pavers that make for a smoother ride.
As I pull up to the front of Abboud’s home, I can’t help feeling that this is a capital “E” estate. Yet its owner, who’s waiting for me out front, is as unpretentious as I remember him from when we sat down together 10 years ago, in his former studio/office a few miles away. Though built about 30 years ago on eight wooded acres, the 10,000-square-foot home known as Swallow Ridge feels like it’s been there forever. Abboud describes its architectural style as Northern French Country, perhaps something you’d find on the rocky coast of Brittany a century or so ago. Tucked seamlessly into its natural surroundings, it features its own stunning seascape behind the home as the property dips in stages to a lake. After a tour of his colorful gardens in the rear of the property, where we descend a set of tricky stone steps to admire the spectacular view of the pool and the large lake beyond, Abboud welcomes me inside the home that he says offers him a peaceful respite from the frenetic fashion industry.
While the house took three years to build, it’s taken 30 years and counting to acquire its special accents, artwork, and furnishings, he notes. Featuring six stone fireplaces, the interior, which Abboud describes as “rugged rather than refined,” has a hand-finished feel and features lots of natural materials, with floors of heart pine from 100-year-old trees harvested from the floor of the Mississippi River and stones like limestone and madras slate; wood beams; handwrought ironwork; and walls of both stone and Venetian plaster. We sit down to chat in his cozy sunroom, facing each other in a pair of comfy taupe-colored brushed velvet chairs, a cowhide rug tossed at our feet. Tall windows frame a breathtaking view of the rear hillside and the shimmering lake in the distance.
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Abboud is clad in classic, timeless items of his own design — ivory jeans that are about six years old, a brushed-cotton camel and indigo chambray vest circa 2012, a white T-shirt, and a knotted linen bandana in neutrals. His accessories include a handsome Tudor watch with a brown face, a few beaded bracelets in natural colors, and a pair of moccasins in muted browns and tans made of old repurposed kilim rugs from Turkey. “I like light, natural colors for men,” he says.
The designer has had a remarkable career. He moved to New York from his native Boston in 1981 to work for fellow Bedford resident Ralph Lauren and became his associate director of menswear design. In 1987, Abboud launched his own label and soon became the first person to ever win the esteemed Council of Fashion Design’s “Designer of the Year” award for two consecutive years (1989, 1990). Abboud has a sterling reputation in what can be a tough industry. Not only is he charming, but the words most often used to describe him by friends and associates are “humble,” “hardworking,” and of course, “wildly talented” (see what others have to say about Abboud in the sidebar to the right). “Everything Joseph encounters in life has an artistic bent to it,” says his sister, Mara Abboud, a California-based artist. “His love of design and beauty goes far beyond his career as a fashion designer. It is evident in every aspect of his life. Although we had limited means growing up,” she continues, “our parents encouraged us to pursue all of our dreams.”
While self-made and uber-successful, the designer doesn’t appear to have surrounded himself with “people” (or, if so, they are remarkably inobtrusive). In setting up our interview, I am never shunted to a PR person or personal assistant; Abboud makes all the arrangements himself, then answers all my texts within hours. David Doty, president of the National Arts Club, a group that is expected to present him with a coveted Medal of Honor within the next year, observes he’s also not afraid to do his own schlepping. After Abboud spoke at an event at that prestigious organization’s headquarters last winter, says Doty, he came back a few days later to personally pick up the mannequins he had used for his presentation and toss them into the back of his own SUV.
The last time we spoke, in 2013, Abboud was chief creative director of Men’s Warehouse, owned by Tailored Brands, the group that bought his former company and brand for $97.5 million. He was working a punishing 9-to-7 schedule, commuting to Manhattan, and traveling extensively. But in an act of astounding timing, when his contract expired at the end of January 2020 — right before the U.S. shut down — he decided not to renew it. Like many of us, Abboud hunkered down in his home during the pandemic with his family — his wife of 47 years, Lynn, and his two grown daughters, an interior designer and one who does social media for a vintage jewelry line, plus both of their then-fiancés, now husbands. “It was wonderful to have that time with family and to bond,” he says, adding that he fell in love with his home all over again. But while some of us baked sourdough bread or streamed endless British police procedurals, Abboud reviewed his personal 35-year archive of about 1,000 pieces of apparel and tens of thousands of fabric swatches and pondered the future of the men’s fashion industry.
“The impeccable world of fashion was in total chaos and professionally, all the rules of the last 35 years went out the window. Creatively, I was trying to figure out the landscape,” he continues. “With every meeting on Zoom, we didn’t know what the new dress code for men’s wear was going to be. You couldn’t just rely on what was — you needed a new paradigm for how men would dress appropriately for the new world around them.” In fashion, he says, you’re always trying to look where the customer is going before they know themselves.
Abboud says that his new label, Spirytus, is about dressing for yourself — fashion for the inside rather than the outside.
Abboud set out to develop a new collection that better reflected the sea change in men’s fashion. His new label, Spirytus, is, he says, about dressing for yourself — fashion for the inside rather than the outside. Spirytus will be limited edition — say 16 or 24 of one cable-knit sweater instead of hundreds of one style — wearable art, handmade by artisans, probably in Europe, from luxurious organic fabrics like cotton, linen, cashmere, wool, and silk in shades of natural colors, such as ivory, tan, and brown. Like the materials he surrounds himself with in his home, along with his down-to-earth manner, Abboud is all about being all-natural.
A “lifestyle brand,” Spirytus will debut, tentatively, in the fall of 2024 with menswear like sweaters, shirts, soft jackets, and pants but may eventually include womenswear, home products, etc. While price points are to be determined, “I don’t believe people should pay for a label,” he says. “They should be paying for a product with the price determined by its value and quality.” What it won’t include, he adds, are big logos, $2,000 designer sweatshirts, or even the suits Abboud has been known for. “Conspicuous consumption is a thing of past,” he says. “This new paradigm is more spiritual to reflect who we are now. It’s more personal, not pretentious, and designed to make men feel empowered.” Thanks to COVID, some young men don’t have any “genetic fashion memory,” he adds, so the brand helps them look and thus feel their best. Rather than marketing via the traditional wholesale/retail model, Abboud anticipates selling direct to the consumer, with a website and perhaps an online magazine and/or blog — and perhaps a retail space/design studio in Northern Westchester or Fairfield County.
While not working on bringing Spirytus to life, Abboud enjoys playing squash at the nearby Saw Mill Club, gardening (“It’s nature’s fashion show, and who else but God could design a better color palette?”), and going up to Boston, where he keeps a townhome he renovated from a 136-year-old former tower, to watch his beloved Red Sox. But it’s clear that he thrives on working and the design process. “It’s very rewarding to think through a creative concept and bring it to life,” he says. Does he have any plans to retire? “You don’t retire from who you are,” he says with a smile.
Others on Abboud
Friends and associates weigh in on what has made Abboud such a huge presence in menswear.
Jonathan Greller, past president of Saks Off 5TH and current President of Consortium Brand Partners:
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“I remember sitting with Joseph in Paris when our team called us, and he quickly sketched three different labels for our dress-shirt program, right at the café. Joseph is reliable, dedicated, committed, and truly talented. He brings ideas to life and always ensured we were putting the consumer at the center. He understands the customer.”
Reem Acra, fashion designer known for her eponymous bridal gown line and ready-to-wear collection:
“Joseph is a gentleman and has a graceful way about him. He knows what he likes and knows how to blend texture, patterns, and colors; he has a strong sensibility about color.”
David Doty, President of the National Arts Club, New York:
“Joseph and his designs capture the spirt of the man and the moment, making him a contemporary artist in clothing materials. Known for the finest cuts and finest material, and using color, texture, and cut to express his vision, not only is he brilliant, but he is also kind, humble, thoughtful, and willing.”
Karen Alberg Grossman, Editor-in-Chief, MR Magazine, the industry’s leading publication for menswear:
“He is by far the most talented menswear designer I know, always creating elegant men’s fashion that real men can relate to. Joseph chooses beautiful luxury fabrics in rich earth tones and neutral shades. His look is sophisticated but not contrived and always recognizable. What’s more, he is the most genuine person I know — caring and totally unpretentious.”
Abboud’s Top 6 in the Fashion World:
“He was a brilliant futurist who designed until he was well into his 90s. I knew him as the ultimate genius and had the good fortune to design a number of his collections in the United States.”
“Her name is synonymous with fashion to this very day! I loved her obsession with English tweeds, and I designed Chanel’s Men’s neckwear and accessories in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
“Of course, he is truly the father of modern American menswear. He paved the way for so many of us, and I had the privilege to work for him for five years.”
“The most renowned Italian designer of them all, he has brought a beautiful and consistent sense of style to the fashion world for almost 50 years, with his Milanese chic and global appeal.”
“The man and not the brand — we lost him too soon and thus never saw the full potential of his genius. He brought a fresh sensibility to American fashion.”
“One of the boldest and most innovative designers of our time, her creativity in womenswear is unparalleled! She is, quite simply, brilliant, and perhaps my most favorite designer of today.”
A former WM features editor, Rye-based freelancer Laurie Yarnell writes frequently about county notables for the magazine. Her past profile subjects include Hank Azaria, Georgina Bloomberg, Rupert Holmes, and Sunny Hostin.