Joltin' Joe: Joseph Abboud's Big Comeback
By Christian Chensvold
If all goes according to plan, Joseph Abboud will make a return to the New York runway next year after a six-year absence. It will be a symbolic act of rebirth for the 24-year-old American menswear brand that, like a reptile shedding its skin to evolve and thrive in a new landscape, is simultaneously wiping clean its image as the default suitmaker for the fashion-clueless, while rapidly expanding its product offering, licenses and foreign markets.
"The comeback is going to be big," says Bernardo Rojo, who was promoted to creative director this summer after five years on the design team. "What I want is for people to see what a guy walking down the street is wearing and say, 'That's Joseph Abboud.' "
Right now most people on the street might wonder, "Who is Joseph Abboud?" The company's founder is a Lebanese American menswear designer who began his career at famed retailer Louis Boston, joined Ralph Lauren in 1981 (eventually becoming associate director of menswear design), and launched his own label in 1986. He was the first person to win the CFDA's Best Menswear Designer two years in a row. In 2000 he sold the brand to an Italian publishing company; it was purchased again in 2004 by J.W. Chiles Inc., a Boston-based private equity fund. Now known as JA Apparel Corp., the company boasts gross annual revenues of some $400 million.
Will the real Joseph Abboud customer please stand up?
At some point along the way, the Joseph Abboud brand fell into a kind of slump -- almost a punchline, in fact, for the style savvy. The company admits its core customer has been a 35-55 year old "meat and potatoes" kind of regular joe who needs a suit for work, but who has little appreciation -- and tolerance -- for bold tailoring and contemporary fashion. Though it now offers clothing and accessories in a range of categories, the brand has been best known for its suits, which had come to feature an almost fossilized silhouette in the early '90s Armani mode, characterized by a full chest, low gorge and armhole, long length, minimal shaping, and no vents. Trousers were pleated, baggy and with a wide thigh. The customer base, Rojo notes, has always been in places like Sacramento, Dallas and Cleveland -- not SoHo and West Hollywood.
But that is all now a thing of the past: The new silhouette is contemporary and "relevant," a word Rojo uses frequently. Starting with the Spring 2010 season, Rojo began making bold changes in the JA Collection, the brand's top line. Suits sell at Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, priced between $700 and $1,100. The new suit has higher armholes and gorge, narrower shoulder points, shorter length, waist suppression and side vents. Trousers are trimmer and flat front. The result is that the slim-fit model of four years ago is the standard model of today. Customers may not understand all these tailoring tinkerings, but Rojo says they'll feel better, younger and -- there's that word again -- more relevant. "Our guy is not interested in tailored clothing as body covering any more. He wants it to augment who he is, and to feel sexy."
The changes are even more pronounced in this fall's collection, and a year from now, Rojo says, Joseph Abboud will begin to look like a cohesive brand with a unified look and a fresh point of view across all product categories. Reaction so far from retailers has been "extraordinary," Rojo says.
If Joseph Abboud the brand is changing, it's because its core customer is not such a Regular Joe anymore. "I think we'd underestimated the customer, thinking that he didn't know fashion," Rojo says. "We had sort of played safe, not just from the design point of view, but the buyers and everybody, who thought they knew our customer, but were underestimating him."
The fresh approach not only fits a brand in need of a makeover, but the economy as well. During the panic following the economic swan dive of October 2008, many buyers played it ultra conservative, ironically hurting sales even more because there was nothing to spark consumers' interest. "That was the first thing I wanted to change," says Rojo, "that in tough times you have to offer newness and relevance."
Tony Sapienza echoes the sentiment. The new CEO, who was appointed September 8, has spent 13 years with Joseph Abboud as COO running its New Bedford, MA factory (he will maintain that title and divide his time between New Bedford and New York). "Coming out of a recessionary period, it's a great opportunity to be colorful, new, different, and to strut a little bit," he says. "And it's important for us to do that. We're going to be out there being very aggressive about the products created by our new design team."
Extending the brand to pots and pans
And expect those products to be multifarious. JA Apparel takes a true lifestyle approach to licensing. Whereas other menswear brands might offer simply wallets and ties, Joseph Abboud has a line of cookware with a "masculine sensibility," after demographic research revealed its customer likes to cook. The company is currently looking for licensing deals in the bicycle and automotive sectors. "I'm very much product focused," says Sapienza. "That's what's important to us, that's what sells, and that's what we're going to emphasize."
International expansion is also booming. The brand has been popular in Japan for 12 years, while last year the company entered China, which is sees as a major market in the next few years.
Still made in the USA
But while China may be on the map as a target market, there are no plans to move suit manufacturing there. Tapping into the "made in America" zeitgeist is tops on the company's list (JA Apparel even likes to use the term "heritage," although it was only founded in 1986). When the company was bought in 2004, part of the deal included the company's New Bedford, MA factory, which originally belonged to GFT, the American license agent for brands such as Valentino, Emmanuel Ungaro and Giorgio Armani. The factory employs 550 and is characterized by low turnover and workers from several generations of the same family. In 2009, an arduous year for apparel companies, to say the least, JA Apparel invested seven figures in its factory to speed up production of the 250,000 suits and sportcoats it makes annually.
Controlling manufacturing allows the company to cater to independent retailers and small orders, which can be turned around in just a couple of weeks. "Even though labor costs in America are higher than elsewhere," says Sapienza, "we still think it's great that if you have a little shop and need 11 suits, we can make 11 suits for you and ship it in two weeks. Even though you pay a little bit more, you have no leftovers, since we cut to order."
Also, with no large foreign manufacturing commitments, Joseph Abboud doesn't have to settle for a small percentage of full-price sales at retail with the rest in markdowns. Less commitment and lower inventories mean more sales at full price. And part of Obama's economic bailout package included a five-year moratorium on tariffs of woolen goods imported into the United States. This allows the company to source fabrics duty-free from top Italian mills such as Ermenegildo Zegna and Loro Piana. "It's been a huge boom to the business," explains Sapienza, "because the competitors who are bringing in garments made in Europe are paying 20 percent extra just for duty, and we don't pay that."
The result of all this is a half-canvassed suit that is value for the money. "I think I'm offering $1,200 suits at $700," Sapienza says, noting that nearly all competitors at that price point are offering fused garments.
Beyond the suits
But while suits will always be a big part of the company, it knows it can't rely on them anymore. In 2004, suits and sportcoats comprised 50 percent of sales. Today it's less than 15 percent, thanks to new categories, licensing, a booming boys' business as Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, and the smash-hit Joe line at JC Penney, whose success had the company up in 2009 when most others were woefully down.
And citing a study that found that 70 percent of men's clothing purchases are for sportswear, Sapienza says the company plans to emphasize its more casual clothing, including unconstructed fusion jackets -- part sport coat and part casual jacket -- that men can throw on with jeans for weekend dining excursions, which are more in tune with how guys want to dress today. And the company has expanded how it views business dress. Once the exclusive domain of suits and sportcoats, Joseph Abboud now includes shirts and pants -- an "explosive business' -- in a broader category it calls "wear to work," to address the more relaxed dress codes in today's offices.
In fashion as in life, the only constant is change, something the team at Joseph Abboud has finally come around to realize after years of resisting it. "I don't think the consumer realizes how much he is changing in the course of his day-to-day existence," says Sapienza. "There are very few people who are wearing what they wore 10 years ago."
Christian Chensvold is an Apparel Contributing Writer covering men's fashion and the apparel industry, and also runs the blog Ivy-Style.com.