Joseph Abboud: ‘Trying to Get Boys to Dress Like Men’

“There are no seasons anymore,” Joseph Abboud said one recent weekday morning as he prepared for his fall 2017 men’s wear show. “Fashion has become one long run-on sentence.”

Mr. Abboud, 66, understands better than most the vagaries of a notoriously fickle business. After spending much of the 1980s at Ralph Lauren, where he rose to associate director of men’s wear design, he started his namesake label in 1986 and introduced his first men’s wear line the next year.

Although he was named the men’s wear designer of the year two years in a row by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, he never quite joined the ranks of household-name American design stars like Calvin, Donna, Ralph or Tommy. Still, he staked a durable claim on the landscape of men’s fashion.

Having roots in a blue-collar family, “I thought that dressing well opened doors,” the designer Joseph Abboud said. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

His run of success was interrupted by some bumpy years when the designer waged a prolonged legal battle with the Italian conglomerate that manufactured his clothing and owned the rights to his name. Reunited with his brand in 2013, Mr. Abboud inaugurated an online business, opened a Madison Avenue flagship and wholeheartedly dove back into the fray with full-scale fashion shows.

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One of the few widely recognizable names on the roster of New York Fashion Week: Men’s — whose fourth installment will kick off Monday night with Mr. Abboud’s runway show — the designer shared his views of men’s fashion over a cup of English breakfast tea and an English muffin at Hamburger Heaven, an old-school Midtown coffee shop that is a landmark purveyor of unpretentious, quality fare, not unlike the designer himself.

Q. At the recent men’s wear shows in Europe, designers like Donatella Versace and others signaled a return to the suit, which many have pronounced dead. Yet you never really abandoned it, did you?

A. When I started out in the business, for example, every guy you saw on Metro-North would be in a suit and tie. Then, when we went through all those years of casual Friday and all that, when you couldn’t tell the C.E.O. from the guy delivering food, the pendulum was inevitably bound to swing back.

Is it almost as if, for millennial men, a suit holds the fascination of an “aha” moment?

I see a lot of young guys going back to the suit, but they’re doing it in a way that’s less of a uniform. I have two daughters in their 20s and I use their boyfriends as my focus group. What I see happening with them is that they’re into the heritage aspect of what custom tailoring is, of what Savile Row was. Guys who grew up on the internet are really into researching everything, every element, learning it for themselves.

Whereas, in previous generations, information about dress was, in a certain sense, passed down from father to son.

I come from a blue-collar family. My father worked at the American Can Company as a mechanic. He broke his back and was disabled, and the first memory I have of him is in the hospital. My mother was a working mother — she had two jobs. Everybody in the house had to help out. I was the first in my family to go to college and so, growing up, I thought that dressing well opened doors.

And did it?

For me it did. I’ve always loved fashion and I started working at [the Boston haberdashery] Louis Boston when I was 16. Later I went into the management training program and began to learn the business there. Already in high school, though, I’d been voted best-dressed, so the interest was always there. One irony is that, in my yearbook photo, I’m wearing a fawn-colored corduroy jacket with a black turtleneck — and I’m still wearing a black turtleneck now.

Is it accurate to say your approach to design is that of a traditionalist who is fashion-forward, though not so much as to scare off consumers?

When I got into the business, there was a very preppy point of view: saddle shoes and pink button-down shirts. There wasn’t a sophisticated American option. My goal was always to dress American men and make them feel better. Of course, at the time you had Armani, with the softer form of silhouette. Armani was a big thing in my world. He defined the ’80s and the ’90s. He was the standard-bearer. But on Wall Street at the time, if you wore Armani to work, they’d say, “Go home and take off your pajamas.”

So you found an opening between what Armani and others were doing and the man in the gray flannel suit?

You have to know your place in the universe. Preppy hung on so long, and I felt it tended to make American men look provincial. I thought, what can I add? How can I make a suit a little more fluid, sexier, less schoolboy? How can I get the natural-shoulder Ivy League guy to move a little bit? I found my white space there. I was one of the few designers who were anchored in tailoring. So if Armani was Europe, and Ralph Lauren was the United States, I was in the middle of the Atlantic.

And of the marketplace?

Look, the battle is won or lost at retail, not on the cover of magazines. So many press darlings have disappeared over the years. Where are they now? Men’s wear is much more exacting, much less romantic, than women’s wear; there is much less room to be creative.

Some might argue otherwise. Look at Dries Van Noten or Raf Simons and the fact that the growth of men’s wear has outpaced that of women’s wear for years.

Still, it always comes down to, “Are you creating fantasy or creating reality?” Women can get a scent of an idea and know how to interpret what they’re seeing, no matter how wild it looks on a runway. It’s different with guys. They need to be hit on the head. In men’s wear, small changes are huge: An eighth of an inch on a lapel is like an earthquake. So if you send a model onto a runway with no shirt and wearing war paint, the guys on Metro-North don’t know what’s going on. They can’t make that leap of faith.

True, but for a generation inured to fashion by social media, there seems to be a greater latitude for the outrageous, for stuff like Gucci’s fur-lined mules.

Yes, though sometimes in fashion we’re talking to ourselves. You get these moments where everyone is putting out an uber skinny silhouette — which feels a little old now — or suddenly things reverse and get too oversized.

Do you mean the business becomes hermetic?

There’s a guy in our factory in Massachusetts named Salvatore Mellace. He does all the paper, all the Joseph Abboud patterns. I’ve been working with him building our silhouettes for 30 years. And my very favorite part of what I do is sitting in the workroom with him, taking whatever ideas I have and interpreting them as practical realities.

So you see yourself as a romantic pragmatist?

For me, the most beautiful part of a man starts with the shoulders. If you lose the shape, you lose the body, and I like to track the body in my designs. I’m also someone who sees beauty in age, which is why I use models like Alex Lundqvist in my shows. I go back to pictures of Alex from the ’90s and I love seeing the way he has aged. I never wanted to play to the boy-clothes market. I’ve fought my whole life trying to get boys to dress like men.

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