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BOOK REVIEW: Threads

Threads: My Life Behind the Seams in the High-Stakes World of Fashion
By Joseph Abboud with Ellen Stern (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 2004).

Guys, Joseph Abboud knows how it is.

“Most guys want to look good,” explains Abboud, the founder of JA Apparel, whose love for his hometown Boston sports teams might be only thing that eclipses his passion for fine clothing, as we learn after reading his fun and informative autobiography, Threads. “Picking clothes that look good, grooming, staying in shape are important to guys, but, they don’t want to look like they care too much about it.”

Abboud has direct, no-nonsense fashion advice for men in the new year.
“In 2005, there are three essentials that have to be in every guy’s wardrobe,” said Abboud from his Fifth Avenue office earlier this month. “First, start with a great dark suit. Next, a great blue blazer. That’s every guy’s go-to jacket, perfect for every occasion, what I like to call the John Havlicek – the great sixth man off the bench on the basketball team and in your wardrobe. The last thing is a great worn leather jacket. It makes every guy look like the American hero.”

For more helpful hints and stories from Abboud on sports, business and life, you can pick up Threads, co-written with GQ Magazine’s Ellen Stern, and add it to your bookshelf ensemble.

Of all people, TV sportscasters provided Abboud with his big break soon after Abboud launched his menswear collection in the mid-1980s. At that juncture, few associated sports announcers with haute couture, especially after years of watching ABC’s Monday Night Football announcing crew in their loud mustard yellow sport coats.

Yet the day in the mid 1980s NBC’s Bryant Gumbel saw samples of Abboud’s clothing line, sportswear in sports would change forever.

“Bryant had a good style sense, and he knew what he liked, and didn’t like,” Abboud recalled of their initial contact. Gumbel was immediately sold on Abboud and started wearing only Abboud clotheing for his television assignments in sports and news. Soon two more national sports announcers – Bob Costas and Jim Nantz – followed suit. Then, NBC’s TV executives awarded Abboud the clothing contract for the 1988 Summer Olympics, and Abboud’s men’s collection has only gained in popularity since.

It’s obvious why Abboud’s sensible approach would appeal to Gumbel, Costas and Nantz.

“Giving fashion advice, picking out clothes should be fun, and you can’t make it too esoteric, or else you will lose someone’s interest,” Abboud said.

Abboud’s standard formalwear recommendation to men is a navy chalk stripe suit with a soft butter-yellow vest, a white shirt and silver tie – the way the chairman of the board dresses in the musical, “How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying.” Here is the next piece of practical advice from Abboud: “any woman will tell you that the sexiest guy in the room is the guy in the gray flannel suit.”

But Gumbel, Costas, Nantz and sportscasters were also comfortable wearing Abboud’s threads because they were crafted by designer with a passion for sports, particularly Boston sports. Indeed, the only thing these sportscasters had to know about Abboud was the reason why he was late for his own wedding ceremony: Abboud could not break himself away from a TV set broadcasting the epic Boston Celtics-Phoenix Suns game in the 1976 NBA Finals, a game that went to three overtimes until it was decided, and incidentally, Havlicek’s last Championship series with the Celtics.

But love of fine men’s clothing has had an equally powerful hold on Abboud. During his high school years, Abboud worked weekdays at Thom McAn and Anderson Little, and on Saturdays, he would take the train into Boston’s Downtown Crossing shopping district to study the men’s clothing on display at Jordan Marsh and Filene’s. Appropriately, Abboud’s senior classmates at Roslindale High in 1968 selected Abboud as Best Dressed.
While at college at U-Mass Boston, Abboud remained a dedicated follower of fashion. Abboud and was a frequent customer at the well-known boutique, Louis Boston, and, in a short amount of time, Abboud got to know the threads as well as the staff at Louis Boston, and was hired on a part time basis.

The Louis Boston taste was not for everyone, especially a $12 tie with a purple clock design that three thugs noticed on Abboud one morning on his way to work, a great story from Threads.

“‘You know what,’ says one. ‘I don’t like that tie.’ I ignore him. ‘You hear me? I don’t like that tie.’ I keep walking. But it’s early on a Saturday and there’s no one else around.

He grabs the tie and I smack him – right in the face. Suddenly, the other two join the battle and I’m fighting all three. I’m getting pummeled. Am I going to get my nose broken, my arm, my jaw? I don’t care! All I’m thinking is, ‘Please, please, God, don’t let me bleed on the tie!”

When Abboud graduated from U-Mass, he was set on taking a high school teaching position in Brookline, but all that changed when Louis Boston offered Abboud a full time sales job.

The sales job soon evolved into an apprenticeship to becoming a fashion designer. Abboud chose what clothing Louis Boston would sell, what would appear in Louis Boston store window displays, and even modeled clothes in Louis Boston catalogues.

Through his work at Louis Boston, Abboud came into contact with the top contemporary designers, and, Ralph Lauren ultimately selected the young man who fought to defend his purple tie to join the Ralph Lauren-Polo design team.

The worklife at Ralph Lauren was exciting but frenetic. Abboud said that he ate far more lunches of peaches and cottage cheese at the office than fillet mignon at the chic restaurant 21.

But Abboud’s work at Ralph Lauren motivated him to fly solo and create his own fashion line. In the beginning, there was turbulence, particularly in an early contract with Neiman Marcus.

Abboud promised Nieman Marcus a new set of men’s sport coats using Italian open weave fabric, and Abboud, in the interest of being on time, decided not test the threads before delivering them to Nieman Marcus.

A Major Blunder.
“The patternmakers (at Abboud’s New Bedford plant) hadn’t allowed for enough seam, so the stitchers sewed the fabric too close to the edge and it started to shred. If a guy stretched his shoulder blades, the jacket would split…. It would have been nice to blame somebody but the slippage was nobody’s fault. These were newly developed fabrics and nobody knew yet how to work with them.”

The lesson learned – it’s great to deliver a product on time, but it is better to be sure to deliver a great product.

Another business lesson from Threads is that you never lose a customer forever. With time and effort, Abboud regained the faith of Nieman Marcus by rebuilding his personal rapport with upper management.
But, Abboud made another misstep with Nieman Marcus – in the mid 1990s, Abboud doggedly pursued another womenswear client, Saks, and left some important negotiations with Nieman Marcus to one of his associates. Nieman Marcus caught wind of this later, was offended again, and took its business elsewhere. A lesson on the importance of the personal touch.

That was one of a few defeats Abboud candidly admits in Threads. Another occurred in the early 1990s at a major Abboud womenswear fashion show.

Every designer of womenswear wants a star client – Coco Chanel could wear her own suits, but designers fight for position in the wardrobe of a Jackie Kennedy, or to be the gownmaker for a best actress nominee gliding down the red carpet to the Oscars.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell could have been the “It” girl for Abboud womenswear. Could have been, because, as Abboud explains, Campbell did not appear as promised at a fashion show, a major loss in revenue – $250,000 for the show – and a blow to Abboud’s prestige.

Designers, fashion mavens and the trade press didn’t pummel him with fists, like
the kids on the subway who didn’t like Abboud’s purple tie, but their comments were cutting nonetheless.

Years after deciding against a teaching career, Abboud is happy to return to the classroom, and give advice to undergraduate and graduate students a draw from lessons.

January 24, 2005
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