Joseph Abboud is about to be reunited with Joseph Abboud.
It has been eight years since the celebrated Boston fashion designer walked away from Joseph Abboud, his high-profile clothing label, in a nasty business divorce. So complete was the separation that Abboud’s former business partners sued to keep him from using his own name commercially.
The line of men’s tailored suits and jackets that made Abboud famous and wealthy continued on without his influence. The designer himself — recovering from what he once called a “near-death experience” — went to work behind the scenes in the fashion industry and most recently joined Men’s Wearhouse Inc. as chief creative director.
Abboud’s world changed last week, when the national retailer said it planned to buy his former company and brand for $97.5 million, reuniting him with the brand that bears his name.
“This is an emotional moment,” he said in an interview. “All of this feels like it was meant to be. If you could write it, it would sound like a fairy tale.”
‘He’s wanted this all these years. He’s able to have control again, at least creatively. For him, it’s coming full circle.’ — Jean Palmieri, Women’s Wear Daily, on Joseph Abboud.
Abboud, 63, did not seem like an obvious fit when he joined Men’s Wearhouse, a middle-market retailer, seven months ago. But the company offered him an unusual incentive: It would try to get back Abboud’s old brand if he agreed to take the job.
Recent designs he created for Men’s Wearhouse will be incorporated into the Joseph Abboud line next spring. Abboud said he expects to improve the quality of the label’s suits by using more expensive Italian fabrics and keep making them at the company’s New Bedford factory.
“He’s wanted this all these years,” said Jean Palmieri, senior editor for menswear for Women’s Wear Daily. “He’s able to have control again, at least creatively. For him, it’s coming full circle.”
Abboud, a Roslindale native, first fused his identity and work in a line of clothing in 1987, stepping out on his own after building a reputation working for Louis Boston and Polo Ralph Lauren. He bought the company factory in New Bedford, where workers began churning out his signature designs.
The Joseph Abboud brand landed in major department stores, from Saks and Nordstrom to Bergdorf Goodman. Abboud became the first person ever to be named best American menswear designer two years in a row.
But a familiar business problem — creative people butting heads with corporate managers — would set the man and his brand on separate paths. Seeking to escape administrative duties and focus solely on design, Abboud sold his trademark to business partners in 2000 for $65 million.
That decision didn’t achieve the kind of creative autonomy he sought. Abboud eventually sued his business partners for fraud and breach of contract, claiming the company tried to sabotage his role as creative director. His partners responded with legal action against him.
Abboud downplays those conflicts today, but he wrote about the raw feelings years ago in “Threads,” an autobiography about his fashion career. “The decision to divorce myself from the business side unexpectedly blew up in my face,” he wrote. “The creative freedom I thought I was getting turned out to be anything but.”
New investors later took control of the brand name but the same kind of problems persisted and Abboud left the business for good in 2005.
He remembers confidently striding out of his Manhattan office for the last time, only to be brought to tears when he saw a cleaning woman, Helena, who had worked at the company for 18 years.
Abboud stayed out of the fashion business for a few years and taught a class at Fordham University. When he was feeling down, Abboud found solace in his beloved Boston Red Sox.
“If I were in the middle of some kind of legal issue, I would get in my car and drive to Fenway,” said Abboud, who now lives in Bedford, N.Y., but keeps a townhouse in Chestnut Hill. “I’d get to the game early and sit in my seats, and say I’m home, I’m happy and I love it here. It was my therapy.”
Abboud returned to the fashion industry in 2007 with a new line, called jaz, that fizzled. He went on to design Lord & Taylor’s successful menswear line Black Brown 1826 and more recently became president of a company that designed clothes for Hart Schaffner Marx and Hickey Freeman.
Then executives from Men’s Wearhouse approached Abboud last year about the job leading a group of in-house designers developing private labels. That is when the possibility of acquiring the Joseph Abboud business popped up.
“Someone with Joe’s talent really helped us round out the team,” said chief executive Doug Ewert. “Along the way this opportunity came up and it seems like a perfect fit, a chance to reunite Joe with his brand and allow us to acquire an exclusive designer product that we can market.”
The acquisition will include Abboud’s old New Bedford factory, where 450 employees still work. The plant will allow Men’s Wearhouse to control every aspect of the line, from production, marketing, and sales.
By eliminating any middlemen, the price of the suits is expected to drop from about $800 now to around $500, Abboud said. The company also plans to ramp up production by 25 percent and return to the higher quality fabrics for which the designer is known.
Abboud said he is eager for the sale to conclude in the next few months and return to the factory to begin building a legacy for the Joseph Abboud brand. “I won’t be doing this forever,” he said. “The greatest legacy that I can have is to build a brand that lives beyond me and stays true to the DNA of the brand.”