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Project Comeback

Boston-born fashion designer Joseph Abboud ended a bitter dispute with his former company, snapped up a Fall River factory, and is set to launch an ambitious new men's label. There's just one catch: He can't use his famous name on his clothes.

Designer Joseph Abboud in his newly acquired Fall River factory where workers turn out high-end dress shirts.
Designer Joseph Abboud in his newly acquired Fall River factory where workers turn out high-end dress shirts. (Photo by Peter Tannenbaum)

On a warm August day, Joseph Abboud epitomizes casual chic in a fitted-just-so linen blazer, broken-in pair of tight jeans, and artfully folded polka-dot pocket square. Other than the gray hair, the 57-year-old Abboud looks pretty much as he did in the late 1980s, when his sophisticated menswear made him one of the country's hottest designers. He credits his Lebanese heritage for his tanned, unlined skin, while his outfit represents the same European-meets-American fine tailoring that became his signature style decades ago. But the article of clothing Abboud is most jazzed about today is his impeccable houndstooth dress shirt of polished Italian cotton. You see, it was made just a few feet from where he's standing at the moment, right in the middle of a Fall River textile mill. It's a factory the Boston-born designer purchased lock, stock, and sewing machine just weeks earlier as part of his reentry into men's fashion. You hadn't noticed his absence? Two years ago, Abboud walked away from JA Apparel, the company he started and that currently has worldwide sales of roughly $300 million, after years of bitter disputes with investors and CEOs. While JA Apparel still trots out the Joseph Abboud name on its men's suits, sportswear, and accessories, the actual Joseph Abboud is legally prohibited from using his name on the label of his own new brand.

He isn't the only high-profile designer no longer associated with his or her namesake brand. While many do well with their investors – like Sigrid Olsen, whose company was purchased by Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1999 – others feud quite publicly, often quitting or being fired. Jil Sander and Helmut Lang are two recent examples; both are in fashion limbo.

Not Abboud. He is coming back to a business he loves – after the expiration of a non-compete agreement – and has also saved the jobs of the more than 140 workers buzzing around him at the former Alden Street Shirt Factory. When Abboud entered the picture, the textile operation was days away from shutting down. The designer is almost giddy as he strolls around the airy, light-filled building, stopping to caress fabrics and chat with his new employees about their highly skilled handiwork. The factory is all his, no investors.

Likewise, Abboud is striking out alone on his upscale menswear collection, called "jaz," that will debut next fall with much higher price points than JA Apparel's Joseph Abboud line. He's entering the ascending luxury market, and to succeed, he'll have to persuade men to pick jaz over beloved brands like Armani, Zegna, and Ralph Lauren. Some observers have wondered why he didn't just retire, rather than embark on such a formidable task. But they don't know Abboud.

When I covered fashion in the 1980s, I remember Joseph Abboud as a real revolutionary – not in the sense of shrunken suits or in-your-face punk, but in creating a fresh approach to fashion for regular guys. His combination of European elegance and classic American fit carved out an entirely new category in menswear that struck an immediate chord. It was quintessential Abboud, mixing the sensibilities he learned as a buyer for Louis Boston and as a designer for Polo/Ralph Lauren. "I became famous way before metrosexuals existed," Abboud jokes. "I set the tone for guys being a little bit more sexual and sensual, but still looking masculine. And you didn't need to look like a runway model to get compliments from your clothes." Abboud's sophisticated color palette and rich fabric mixes were chic yet easy to wear. His clothes were favored not by rock stars but by newscasters and sports figures like Bryant Gumbel, Tom Brokaw, and Nomar Garciaparra. He was the first to win prestigious back-to-back awards as Best Menswear Designer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, he became a regular on Imus in the Morning, and he even garnered a mention on a Seinfeld episode.

Not surprisingly, he had been approached by investors. In 1988, JA Apparel was formed as a joint venture. Things went swimmingly in the beginning, but various changes in Abboud's financial partners presented problems. He found himself spending more time on administrative tasks and less time on designing. So in 2000, Abboud sold his trademarked name – arguably his most valuable asset – to his partners. Under the new agreement, he would stay at JA Apparel and devote himself to what he loved best: designing. At least that was the plan. What he didn't foresee was years of bitter lawsuits over creative control. When JA Apparel was sold to a new owner in 2004, he hoped the friction would end. The lawsuits ceased, but the disagreements didn't.

Marty Staff, the former head of Hugo Boss USA, became the new CEO. He had worked with Abboud years earlier at Ralph Lauren, so both parties had been optimistic. "Marty is in the larger-than-life category, to put it mildly," says David Lipke, deputy editor at DNR, the men's trade paper that covers the fashion industry with its sister publication, Women's Wear Daily. Lipke has been following this donnybrook since the beginning. "They were hoping to start with a clean slate," he says, "but pretty much right away there were problems between Marty and Joseph. It was right brain versus left brain, design versus commerce, and sales versus creativity."

Staff has always maintained that he wanted Abboud to stay. And, indeed, Abboud wasn't fired; he quit. Staff continues to run JA Apparel, which has experienced double-digit growth since Abboud left – "strong evidence that we are connecting with our extremely loyal customers," Chris Mumma, a company spokesman, says in a written statement.

"Fashion is driven by egos," says Lipke. "It was obvious it wasn't working. Marty was the CEO. He was running the show." Abboud adds: "Any powerful American brand has always embraced its designer. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I wouldn't be part of the company I built." But ironically, it was Abboud's signature style, observes Lipke, that Staff didn't see as part of the rejuvenation of the brand.

"I've never been about bright colors, big logos, and preppy styles," says Abboud, adding a Seinfeld-ian, "Not that there's anything wrong with them. It's just not my DNA."

July marked the end of the designer's two-year non-compete agreement, time he spent promoting his 2004 book, Threads: My Life Behind the Seams in the High-Stakes World of Fashion, and teaching a popular business course at Fordham University called The Marketing of Creativity. "I taught myself as I was teaching the course," says Abboud. "It sharpened my skills and gave me the luxury of stepping back and looking at the industry from 30,000 feet. I started to focus on where I saw a void in the market."

Abboud began work on a start-up menswear luxury brand, an uncommon situation, according to Lipke. "Most designers who sell their name don't come back," he says, adding that it's also quite rare that such a venture would be self-financed. "He did sell his company for $65 million, though," says Lipke. "It's not like he was left with nothing."

And Abboud was willing to put a big chunk of that money into his latest venture, even though he says many investors came calling. "I don't want anyone telling me what this brand is supposed to be," he says. No surprise there.

His early jaz decisions have been smart, says Lipke, explaining that Abboud has signed license agreements with established companies that will all take their creative direction from him while providing the infrastructure for producing and selling the product. "This makes it easy for Joseph to have a turnkey operation."

One of Abboud's first acquisitions was the Alden Street Shirt Factory in Fall River, about 15 miles from a JA Apparel factory in New Bedford that Abboud helped purchase while he was with his former company. The jobs he saved in Fall River belong to employees who treat one another like family – and, in many cases, are family. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives from the local Portuguese community have worked here for decades. General manager and former co-owner Albert Metivier, age 71, started as a presser at the factory 53 years ago. He met his wife, Laurie, there 47 years ago. She's now the quality control supervisor. John Oliveira, the cutting foreman, has put in 42 years; Eduarda Barbosa, supervisor of collars, cuffs, and sleeves, 37. Everyone breaks for lunch at the same time, enjoying one another's company in a homey, and remarkably roomy, 4,000-square-foot cafeteria outfi tted with long picnic tables and benches.

"It's probably the cleanest mill in the city," says Metivier, standing in a cutting room with not one fabric scrap on the floor. Along with his coworkers, Metivier clearly takes pride in the building, his job, and the highquality dress shirts they produce for prestigious stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. This day, they're working on private-label dress shirts for Nordstrom. "You can tell by their signature horizontal button hole at the bottom," he says.

Take a factory tour with Metivier, and you'll never again question how a well-made shirt could retail for $200. There are about 65 steps involved in assembling each shirt, from fabric cutting to packaging, with 70 to 75 individual sets of hands touching every one of them. For example, the "collar cell," a team of workers and its machinery, is responsible for the fusing, shaping, and careful cropping of collar corners. "We've always been noted for our points," Metivier says while examining a perfectly angled collar piece.

Just weeks prior to this visit, Abboud had roughly four hours to decide the fate of all these workers. Robert Kidder, a business consultant and friend, called to tell him of the factory's scheduled closing and its potential worth to Abboud's new venture. By the time the designer had a chance to visit the facility, it was the night before the bank note was due. "It was eight at night, and I'm driving home," says Abboud. "I had to let them know by midnight, and I'm on the phone talking to my wife, then my lawyer, then Bob [Kidder], then my wife again." With a confirmation that Kidder would become president and Metivier would stay on as general manager, Abboud said he went with his gut – and part of his personal fortune – and bought the factory.

Laurie Metivier calls Abboud her "guardian angel." She's standing in front of an enormous American flag, one of dozens displayed throughout the mill. The message is clear. "In this new-world economy, we keep trying to fi nd our niche," says Fall River mayor Edward Lambert, "and that's in high-quality products recognized in this mill." Lambert, the mayor since 1996, says Abboud's confidence in the factory is very important to the city's families and its economy. He should know: His father worked at the mill as head sewing-machine mechanic for almost 20 years, and the mayor himself was a part-time employee throughout his teens.

Soon, the factor will add Abboud's jaz label to its high-end product lines. The name came out of a brainstorming session with Lynn, Abboud's wife of 31 years, and their daughters, Lila, 16, and Ari, 13. "They're a great focus group," he says with a laugh. "Jazz is quintessentially American and speaks to classics with an edge of improvisation," he explains, adding that he thought the word looked "snappier" minus one z. It also made it far easier to trademark.

A bigger issue is how and where he can use his own name to promote the line. Just days after Abboud's non-compete agreement was up, JA Apparel ran an ad in DNR stating, "The finest trademark lawyers in the world wear Joseph Abboud."

The preemptory ad was "a bit feisty," says attorney Lisa Pearson, a specialist in copyright and trademark issues and a partner at law firm Kilpatrick Stockton LLP in New York (who's not working with either clothing company). "It's a very complicated issue," Pearson says. "The test of trademark infringement is whether consumers are likely to be confused as to the source of the goods or their connection with the trademark owner." While a truthful factual statement is protected, she says, how much Abboud can rely on his own name in promotion will depend on the facts and circumstances.

For example, the original press material for jaz contained the line "a new composition by Joseph Abboud" (it no longer does). If the name "Joseph Abboud" is presented much more prominently than all the words around it, that might constitute trademark infringement, says Pearson. "But, on the other hand, if JA Apparel advertised its line in a way suggesting that Joseph Abboud is still designing it, Abboud might have false advertising and unfair competition claims against JA Apparel."

Earlier this month, JA Apparel filed a lawsuit against Abboud, citing trademark infringement and other claims, and Abboud is considering countersuing. "The public has a right to know who designs collections. I own my own publicity rights," Abboud says. "I just want to be judged on the quality of my work."

And that is indeed his biggest challenge, according to DNR's Lipke. Will Abboud be able to lure customers away from other luxury menswear designers? "Guys are very brand loyal," Lipke says. "It's hard to get them to try new stuff . . . . But if someone can do it, I think he can. He already did it once, and he's very well liked in the industry."

What's in a name? We'll soon see.

Tina Sutton writes "The Clothes We Wear" and the "Fashion Plates" columns for the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at tsutton@globe.com.

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