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Volume 46, Number 4July/August 1995

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The Mystery of Color

Written by Brian Clark
Photographed by Peter Essick

Joseph Abboud is thinking.

His left index finger and thumb are on his forehead; a frown crosses his face. He leans forward on a table strewn with sketches and fabric samples, listening intently as his staff designers discuss the next line of J.O.E.—Just One Earth— sportswear.

He rocks back in his chair, hands under his arms now. Silently, he takes in the discussion of colors, collars, shades, yarns, threads and textures. Then, as if a dam has broken, he bursts into rapid-fire comments and sharp questions.

"We need to have a natural color in these knit shirts that will go with the pants," he says, pointing to some fabric swatches. "I like the stony hue of this group. But I want to see this in jute and melange."

The designers nod and take notes. The session moves on and picks up steam again.

"Time out, time out," he barks, growing slightly irritated. "Are you telling me this is the color before the yarn is dyed?"

Pointing to another shirt, he says, "That looks good. Can we have that in a short-sleeved polo and that other in a long sleeve with a round Henley collar?"

Later, the frown returns. "I don't like that stripe. Take that off the table. I said I wanted linen in this group."

In his New York offices above Fifth Avenue, most days are pressure cookers, he admits. But then Joseph Abboud is not only the most prominent Arab-American in high fashion today: He is one of the most prominent—and still promising—designers around.

It was in 1986 that he launched his company, called simply "Joseph Abboud." Two years later, he won the Cutty Sark Award for most promising US menswear design. In 1989, he earned the Woolmark Award for distinguished fashion. In both 1990 and 1991, he took the prestigious Designer of the Year Award for menswear from the Council of Fashion Designers.

"I've been blessed with a lot of success," Abboud says modestly. "Creating clothes will always be something of a mystery to me. But I think my best work is yet to come."

Abboud's company now also makes women's clothes, bathwear, ties, shoes, cologne and eyeglass frames. This year, it will notch up sales of more than $75 million worldwide. The Abboud label can be found from Tokyo to New York, and from Riyadh to Sydney and Buenos Aires.

Still, he keeps only a single retail store—in Boston, his home town. It's on Newbury Street, a short distance from Boston Common and cheek-to-jowl with other, better-known fashion outlets such as Giorgio Armani, Alfred Dunhill and Charles Sumner.

It was not far from here that Abboud grew up as the son of second-generation Lebanese parents, in the city's rough-and-tumble South End. Mara, one of his three sisters, recalls that their parents spoke Arabic when they didn't want the kids to know what they were discussing. Joseph attended predominantly Irish-Catholic schools.

"It was a mixed neighborhood," he recalled. "There were kids of all races, even a few Arabs. I never felt any sort of discrimination as a child, though sometimes kids would say 'What's a Lebanese?'"

Even as a child, Abboud says, he was opinionated and stubborn about what clothes he wanted to wear, but he had no plans, growing up, to work in the fashion industry.

"I've always loved clothes," he says. "But as for a career, I thought I'd be teaching comparative literature at some small college in New England at this point in my life. I'd always sketched a little, but I never took any design courses.

"When I was a kid, I was much more into football and baseball than design. Fashion wasn't part of my life at all."

But while a student at the University of Massachusetts, Abboud worked part-time at Louis of Boston, a local clothing store, just a stone's throw from where his own shop now stands. He graduated with honors, and went off to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. It was there that he became enamored with the sophisticated elegance of European style.

"After Europe, I sort of made a left turn," he says. "I figured I could always go back to graduate school." He took a full-time job with Louis of Boston and stayed until 1980, working as buyer, merchandiser and eventually coordinator of promotion and advertising.

In 1981, he jumped to Polo/Ralph Lauren, where he worked directly with Lauren as director of menswear design. Over the next four years, he refined his personal vision of men's style, and by 1986 he felt ready to go out on his own.

"I wondered, 'Am I any good?'" he says, "and then I figured, 'How will I know if I don't give it a shot?'"

Abboud admits there were sleepless nights during which doubts plagued him. "'Does anyone really need my clothing?' I wondered, and 'Will people buy a product with my name on it?'"

But the public was receptive.

"For some reason, we hit a nerve," he says. "We sold to the best stores, and people bought what I'd designed. The response was extremely satisfying. The sweaters sold out so quickly I didn't know what hit me. Then, after the clothes succeeded, we had to build a company. That's been the hard part." The market, says Abboud, was ready for a change. "The choices were a flashy European look versus a Brooks Brothers look, which I thought was too boyish. And my look, well, it was a compilation of what I'd learned and what I'd grown up with. Lauren's look was not mine. I don't want to criticize, and I'm very fond of Ralph, but it was too Ivy League. I had to step outside that company to express myself."

Abboud says his overriding philosophy is simple: "It's my responsibility to make people look and feel better. It's not about perpetuating my name."

Still, Abboud knows his name is meaningful to some people. "Arab-Americans have told me they're proud of me. And in other countries where I have had shows, Arabs and people of Arab descent have said the same thing. I'm not a nationalist, but I'm glad I can make them feel proud."

Outside the world of fashion, Abboud first caught the public eye in 1992, when the CBS television network commissioned him to design clothes for the network's male reporters during the Winter Olympics in the French Alps. The network came back to him in March of this year to request outfits for male announcers at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's men's basketball championships.

On another US network, Bryant Gumbel, host of NBC's "Today" program, is both a fan of Abboud's styles and a personal friend. "I like Joe's stuff because it has a modern, with-it look," he says. Abboud "doesn't make it look like you're trying too hard. I also like the overall quality. His stuff lasts. In fact, I have some things I keep wearing that I'm sure he wishes I'd give away."

Fit and trim at 45, Abboud himself has a quick, friendly smile, and he wears his own clothing well. His black hair flecked with gray, Abboud wears a white shirt with a band collar open at the neck that contrasts pleasantly with his olive skin. Over the shirt he wears a charcoal vest. His pants are black, his belt brown with a silver buckle, and he wears dark half-boots with black socks.

"Where do I get my ideas?" he asks. "I walk down a street in Paris and get 17 great ideas. Or I can be on vacation in Nantucket and ideas will flood my brain. I might pick up a stone and be inspired by the colors. I'll put some wax on the rock so it will keep the color it had when it was wet. If you look at a stone, you'll see it's never one color. You see the grain, the texture, the marbling. I take a bag of rocks, a black-and-brown group, a tan group, a russet group, and I have plenty of ideas for my color palette."

In the lobby of his New York offices hangs a Bedouin tapestry, and in his own personal office Abboud keeps fabrics draped over a couch.

"Something about that tapestry appealed to me. And my office, well, more than a few people have said it looks like a tent. I don't know about that," he says, chuckling.

Most of the colors in Abboud's collection are variations on low-key earth tones, not unlike beach, sand or desert. He uses natural fabrics and emphasizes texture.

"My passion and spirit and sense of fashion is Mediterranean," he says. "I've never been to the Middle East, but deep down inside, I know I'm drawn to the colors of the desert. I know I am inspired by the mystery of color. And I use what seem to be my innate instincts and my heritage as integral parts of my design arsenal."

John Mather, fashion editor of Esquire, has long been impressed by Abboud. "He is a premier American designer, one of the true bright lights," he says. "He understands how men want to dress. It's something of an updated traditional look that works very well. His tailoring is impeccable.

"Designing menswear is tough. You can't be too left-of-center and you can't be boring," he says. "Joseph has been a big advocate of dressing down while wearing a jacket, yet he also creates clothes for men who want to dress up. And he does a great job with women's clothing. He does it all well."

It was in 1990 that Abboud released his first women's collection. Like his men's clothes, it used warm, earthy colors, textured fabrics and a look intended to last longer than a season or two.

As Abboud has expanded further into fragrances, sunglasses and a bed-and-bath collection, he has continued to pile up the accolades.

In 1993, he was honored by the Japanese government and the Association of Total Fashion in Osaka. Last year he received the Neckwear Association of America's special achievement award for his necktie designs. And in May, he was among 11 US designers honored at the US Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He was chosen by a board of fashion editors and fashion executives.

"It seemed right to go into the home-and-bath market because a lot of what I do transcends categories," he says. "I'm fascinated by textiles, their variations and how they feel and look. Textures are like people's lives. They also enhance the artist's pallet by creating variations of shadow and light."

Last July, when Abboud's menswear debuted in Australia, he took advantage of his stay there to seek out the Lebanese-Australian side of his family tree.

"It was the most significant trip of my life," says Abboud. "I found family I never knew I had."

Abboud's grandmother, Theresa Fakhry, emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1889 with her father and uncle, who started a clothing manufacturing company called Latoof and Callil. On a return visit to Lebanon, she met the barber who became Abboud's grandfather, and Theresa emigrated again, this time to the United States.

To the family in Australia, it was as if she had disappeared, Abboud says, and beside her name on the family tree was a question mark.

That was the story Abboud told at dinner with some Australian business friends, and to his astonishment, one of them knew of the now-defunct Latoof and Callil company, and was able to put Abboud in touch with Melbourne architect Richard Fakhry, who turned out to be Abboud's third cousin.

"It was amazing," Abboud says. "My cousin even had photographs of my grandmother from her time in Australia. And I found out that my grandfather's family had descendants in Australia, too, so I was able to introduce the families of my grandparents to each other." Abboud, of course, filled his newfound cousins in on what had happened to his grandmother—their "Aunt Theresa"—after she went to America, and also told them of his own two girls, aged three and one, the elder named Lila after his mother.

"It took 86 years and some 12,000 miles of travel, but I found a big part of my Lebanese heritage in Australia—my kids' great-grandparents."

"I want my kids to know where they came from," he says. "As for me, I'd like to do a fashion show in Lebanon and have my clothes sold in stores there, in the land of my ancestors."

Brian Clark contributes frequently toAramco World from his base in Olympia, Washington.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the July/August 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1995 images.