IF truth be told, Joseph Abboud didn't always plan on being a clothing designer. ``I always envisioned myself as a teacher,'' says Mr. Abboud, who was named the 1990 Men's Wear designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
``I guess I'm a romantic at heart,'' he continues. ``I thought about: Wouldn't it be great to wear a tweed jacket with elbow patches and teach at a beautiful university in New England and really enlighten people's spirits?''
An ``intellectual approach to fashion'' has become a catchphrase for the award-winning Abboud, who has fast become known for his sophisticated classic American clothing with European flavor. Abboud sportswear and formalwear are sold in more than 200 stores throughout the United States and in Europe.
``He's added a lot to menswear fashion; he's one of the top designers,'' says Nonnie Moore, fashion director for Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ). Ms. Moore cites his ``wonderful fabrics and colors.''
Rich in earth tones and all-natural materials, Abboud's clothing is ``out there to be touched,'' the designer says, as he gives this writer a tour of the first Joseph Abboud retail store, which opened recently here in Boston. The next Abboud store will open in Rome.
Abboud's emergence comes at a good time: Fashion-consciouness among men is catching on in American [see article at left]. ``When American men start to reach out and touch fashion and style ... they like it if you make it sensible for them,'' says the personable designer in an interview on the store's terrace on a warm fall day.
``There's nothing greater than for a guy to walk into a room and someone says: `You know, that's a really beautiful suit. You really look great.' We all love that,'' says Abboud. ``Not that we need false flattery, but it's nice to feel good about what you're wearing.''
Being fashionable or stylish does not mean being a fashion victim, he points out. He believes a person should be concerned with image, but ``it certainly shouldn't consume you.''
Sophisticated but sensible style is something Abboud started cultivating 20 years ago as a University of Massachusetts student in a comparative literature program at the Sorbonne in Paris. ``I got a sense that the European men were much more sophisticated about things, and it didn't mean that they were any less masculine or any less interested in other things. [Fashion] was just a part of their life that was more developed than for the Americans.''
Bringing that aesthetic to American design later became his goal. ``I thought America has the most wholesome, beautiful people in the world, because we're so diverse, and that we should have our own sense of style,'' he says.
What does Abboud see men wearing in the '90s?
``The trends are for clothing to be more comfortable for the body but elegant at the same time. You're still dressed up, but you're relaxed,'' he says.
Abboud started designing with one person in mind: himself. ``I was my perfect customer ..., and I found out there were a lot of `me's' out there,'' he says with a grin.
``I was the kind of guy who loved the Red Sox and the Celtics, loved to fall asleep on the couch watching a football game,'' he continues. ``But at the same time I loved to go to museums. ... I can have just as much fun looking through beautiful art-books and designing as I can playing squash or working out....''
Physical fitness is a driving force in the evolution of menswear, he says. ``What has created a new market are Americans working out; they're in better shape.'' So the silhouettes of American clothing have changed, he says.
Asked to describe what he is wearing, Abboud looks and replies: ``This is my traveling country gentleman - somewhat dressed up, but not too dressed up.'' His double-breasted jacket is in soft ocher-colored tweed; his tie is a printed blend plaid; his trousers are washed corduroy; and his shirt is stone-washed chino.
``Now see, I'm still dressed up. I can go to a restaurant, can't I? Sometimes I wear this jacket with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, so it's very versatile.''
Abboud was born just a few miles from this very spot, in Boston's South End. Also located nearby is Louis, Boston, the elegant men's store where Abboud worked for many years as a buyer and merchandiser.
In the early '80s, he worked for Polo/Ralph Lauren as associate director of menswear design. ``What I really liked about Ralph was his thought-process and his adherence to what he believed in. That was a strong force in my life,'' says Abboud. Other positive influences include his professors at the University of Massachusetts and his parents, who ``gave me great, sound ethics about life.'' At present, he lives in upstate New York with his wife, Lynn.
Abboud spends a lot of time in Italy and in Scotland, working with mills to create cloth ``that has the look of tweeds but is easier to wear in the city. It's lighter, and it's drapier and touchier.''
What does he think about when he is designing? ``I like to appeal to a person's spirit and intellect but do it in a beautiful way, so there's an aesthetic there too,'' he says.
``I can visualize a whole look from a swatch this big,'' he says indicating the size of a quarter. ``I know what kind of shirt, shape of the collar, width of tie, ..., what kind of handkerchief; and I know that drape of the pants and where the pleats should be.''
The prices for Abboud clothing aren't exactly geared to those earning earning under $30,000, he says. ``Someone could walk in and buy a shirt for $50 or $60, if they want; there are also $1,000 cashmere sweaters here.
``The designer level is generally a more expensive level,'' he continues. ``It's because it's where the most innovative fabrics are done, the most expensive fabrics. ... We don't make [our clothing] in the Orient; we make a lot in Italy and Europe. We offer a tremendous value for what we give'' - sweaters are hand-knit in Scotland, for example - ``however, it is on a more expensive level. ... I've grown up in the better-quality market. I believe in quality and I think it's better to buy better but less. That's a European mentality. You don't have to have 12 suits, have six great suits....
Last February, Abboud debuted his first women's wear collection. ``I find that my women customers are ... not going to be dictated to. They're going to wear what they feel is right for them. The '60s, '70s, and '80s were not at all like that. It was very much a dictate as to what people were wearing, and people resent that.''