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Suiting up: Joseph Abboud aims to take designer menswear mainstream

Designer Joseph Abboud at the New Bedford factory he has operated for 30 years.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Designer Joseph Abboud at the New Bedford factory he has operated for 30 years.

NEW BEDFORD — It’s a sweltering morning on the factory floor, but menswear designer Joseph Abboud has barely broken a sweat. Dressed in a white linen jacket, canvas vest, and striped cotton shirt, the silver-haired Abboud darts about, clutching seamstresses in quick hugs as they stitch the shoulders and arms of his suit jackets. All around him, hangers carrying half-assembled garments glide on a track along the ceiling, moving from station to station. 

“Be careful, you might be hit by a suit,” Abboud says with an impish grin as he ducks under a rack of Italian cashmere blends. 

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Joseph Abboud label, and the New Bedford factory has never been busier.

Abboud, a 67-year-old Boston native, got his start on the floor of Louis Boston in his teens, then launched his design career under the tutelage of Ralph Lauren. While many of his contemporaries are closing stores, Abboud says he is a man in full, cutting a new path to meet the demands of a shifting industry.

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After three decades designing menswear — which includes seven years when a legal battle with his former partners left him unable to design clothing under his own name — Abboud is now the chief creative director of Tailored Brands, the parent company of Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank. In 2013, the company reunited him with his name, and now is the exclusive retailer of the Joseph Abboud line.

“I think he’s probably the most talented menswear designer alive today,” said Karen Alberg Grossman, the editor of MR Magazine, a menswear industry trade publication. “This is an interesting place for him right now. He’s bringing a very upscale designer sensibility available to mainstream men.”

A worker operated a sewing machine at the New Bedford factory.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A worker operated a sewing machine at the New Bedford factory.

Despite its reputation for mid-priced, sensible staples, Men’s Wearhouse has struggled with sales in the past several years, and last year it closed 240 stores and saw a 59 percent drop-off in its stock price. So the company is now betting big on bespoke tailoring — and on Abboud. This fall, he’ll return to Boylston Street with a Joseph Abboud shop inside a Men’s Wearhouse. The store-within-a-store at 376 Boylston will be the company’s first custom-tailoring atelier and will have its own street entrance.

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Tailored Brands’ chief executive, Doug Ewert, credits Abboud’s attention to detail and knowledge of fit with bringing a new vision to the company.

“His inspiration has really helped us elevate the quality of the product that we carry,” he said.

Until it acquired Abboud’s New Bedford factory in 2013, the company had not experimented with made-to-measure tailoring. But in the first quarter of this year, custom suiting represented 15 percent of sales in the company’s top 50 stores, Ewert said. The store-within-a-store concept is the company’s attempt to “democratize custom clothing.” 

“We can sell the custom suit for about the same price of one off the wall,” Ewert said.

Abboud said the modern machinery in his factory will give the company an edge, and custom clothing now accounts for more than 35 percent of his factory’s output. And selling his suits directly, without a department store markup, means a better value for customers, he said.

“We can do a custom suit, for a rush charge, in 10 days,” he said. “Amazon get out of the way,” he joked, taking a jab at the e-commerce giant, which recently started selling its own line of button-down shirts. 

In the battle for the custom suit market, Abboud appears to have another advantage over many of the Internet retailers and startups: Men’s Wearhouse already has more than 750 stores with tailors on hand. When you’re dropping several hundred dollars for a personalized jacket and pants, Abboud said, you shouldn’t have to send it back in the mail if it doesn’t fit flawlessly. 

The sprawling 200,000-square-foot factory is busier than ever.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The sprawling 200,000-square-foot factory is busier than ever.

But that doesn’t mean the Boylston Street store won’t have competition. In addition to the Back Bay’s traditional haberdashers, online sellers such as Bonobos, Alton Lane, and Indochino have set up brick-and-mortar shops along Newbury Street. Hive & Colony uses 3-D scanning technology in its Copley Place menswear shop, and the local startup Blank Label has two showrooms, in the Financial District and Fort Point area. The Dutch company SuitSupply — whose $614 design famously tied a $3,625 Armani suit in a blind quality test — will be opening on Newbury early next year. 

Allen Questrom, who carried Abboud’s collections while he helmed Barneys, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus, said Tailored Brands is smart to associate Abboud’s established reputation with custom ordering, as menswear startups might promise precision, but the reality often comes up short. “A suit is very difficult to order. About 50 to 60 percent come back because they don’t fit.” 

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

But whether a younger audience will turn to Men’s Wearhouse for bespoke suits is still unclear.

“I understand that Men’s Wearhouse wanted a name that there was some recognition with,” said Mark-Evan Blackman, who oversees the menswear department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “But to the millennial, the name means nothing.”

Like others in the industry, Blackman said he was surprised when Abboud, who had long inhabited New York’s celebrity fashion circles, signed up to work for Men’s Wearhouse.

But Abboud sees his role with Men’s Wearhouse as a continuation of his life’s work.

“I’ve fought my whole life trying to get boys to dress like men,” he said.

As the son of Lebanese immigrants who spent the first few years of his childhood in the South End, he remembers Boylston Street as a demarcation between the haves and have-nots. “You cross Boylston Street and you enter a world that was a completely different world than the one that I grew up in,” he said.

Opening his new store there will be a sort of homecoming, one that he hopes will have an impact.

“At this point in my career I can help American men,” he said. “And I think if they get to know who I am, they’ll know I’m a regular Joe.” 

“I’ve fought my whole life trying to get boys to dress like men,” said Abboud. Above: Abboud at his Boston home.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

“I’ve fought my whole life trying to get boys to dress like men,” said Abboud. Above: Abboud at his Boston home.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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