Interview with legendary designer, Joseph Abboud

Photo via Jill Homiak

Photo via Jill Homiak

This past summer we created a special collection of Men's Kilim Loafers, Travel Duffles, and Weekenders for Joseph Abboud's SS17 runway show. We then created another collection to be sold exclusively in his flagship store at 424 Madison Avenue, at 49th street.  During this process of picking out beautiful Kilims, supple leathers, and classic silhouettes I got to know Joseph, and what a kind, wonderful person he is.  Read our full interview below.

Milicent Armstrong: What is your favorite Artemis product you own?

Joseph Abboud: Ah ha! My favorite are the slippers that I bought when I was in Nantucket!  There was color/pattern that I liked- the best of every pair, and they just happened to be my size.

M: That was a really lucky day for me too!

J: It was a lucky day for both of us and I love them.  I’ve had people stop me on the street and say “I love your outfit and especially love your shoes”.  And it’s really flattering.  It’s really nice to have someone appreciate that and whenever I wear them it makes my outfit really special.

M: What makes you feel drawn to Kilims?

J:  There are so many reasons.  What’s beautiful about Kilims is that, especially once they get old and faded, the nuance of color is beautiful. You can’t even describe how beautiful the colors are. They go from brown to red to orange. Or the neutrals go from cream to olive…I mean they’re absolutely unpredictable colors. And if in your mind’s eye you were doing a color combination wouldn’t do those, but because of the age and the fact that there is an artisan feel to them- you can see that there’s humanity in them. They’re absolutely amazing.  It’s becoming harder and harder to find them in the kind of colors I love. They are all very much the colors we chose to do our shoes in (referring to the special Artemis x Joseph Abboud Collection).  There’s something emotional about them. They have a history and heritage.

M: Who is your favorite womenswear designer?

J: Well I have a few. One of my most favorite designers of all time is Norma Kamali. Norma Kamali is probably not one of the names that you would immediately recognize. I always loved her because she had this organic approach to style and as a personality I love Norma as she is, she’s a charming, beautiful, dynamic designer who doesn’t look for the spotlight and she’s an amazing talent.

J: And another one who was enormously talented was Geoffrey Beene. There are people who just rise above the others and Jeffery was one of the greatest womenswear designers in American history.  And while I’m at it, I have an enormous affection for Ralph Lauren.  I worked for him and I always thought what he did for American menswear and American fashion was incredible.

M: What is your favorite book?

J: My favorite book is from Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast.  Because I lived in Paris when I was at the Sorbonne and I felt a little bit like Ernest Hemingway then. There’s a wonderful quote- “If you are lucky enough to live in Paris as a young man, it stays with you for the rest of your life, like a movable feast.”   And so that was a very important part in my life and in my development when I was kind of learning about style and you know for a kid from Boston end up living in Paris was quite a thing then.

M That will actually lead me into my next question which is what was the biggest take away or the most important thing you learned at the Sorbonne in Paris and how would you say it has influenced your work?

J: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Boston, and Paris opened my eyes to cultural beauty, architecture, style and fashion. You have to you have to remember back at that time we didn’t have the internet or instant gratification. The worlds were very different.  I just saw a whole world of beauty and style that I really fell in love.  When I came back I began my career understanding that I wanted to be exposed to that kind of world.

M: What is your best work habit?

J: Follow-through. It’s finishing projects. There’s a certain discipline that you need to do it now rather than put it off. My feeling is that if I have a task or a job, I want to get to it and do it. And so I have this great sense of accomplishment when I finish something as simple as picking my color palettes for next season or going through my Italian fabrics and making my final selections. I never feel rested until it’s done. I’m kind of task oriented that way.

M: A lot of my friends and readers are young and are starting their own businesses.  Do you have any advice for them?

J: For people who are building brands, know who you are and what you stand for. That’s a very important thing. And I always say this to my customers and the people who work for me, “you can’t be all things to all people.” You just can’t be. People appreciate clarity and they respect you for it.  That’s how great brands are built, by having a vision and sticking to your vision and believing in your own vision.

M: If you could have a billboard anywhere in the world, that said anything, what would you say? What would you want your message to be?

J: “To thine own self, be true.”  Be who you are. In the fashion world, it’s very easy to be seduced by the press, but you have to know your place in the universe and you have to know who you are. You are always subject to critics and it’s very easy to say “What am I doing wrong?” or “Should I change?” You have to be true to yourself. That is the best piece of advice I’ve ever had, and whenever I teach classes or teach courses to creative people, and I used to teach a course called the Management of Creativity, and I always said that to my students. Know yourself, be true to yourself, and believe in yourself…it’s the most important thing. Especially in the world of creativity and building businesses as entrepreneurs, we can always learn things but you really have to have your own solid core of what you believe in and that is yourself.  

M: That’s great advice.  What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned in life, anything that kind of jumped out at you.

J: The most unexpected thing was, just when you think you know that everything is going right…something can go wrong. Nobody goes through life undefeated. I think the character that we have is based on our ability to face adversity and recover from it. You think everything is going to sail smoothly along and then all of a sudden, something throws an incredible monkey wrench in it. I’ve always found that nothing is for sure and nothing is guaranteed.

M: Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t cover and you would like the readers to know about?

J: What I would tell young entrepreneurs is to really, look at what they want to do and ask themselves, “is this a better option than what’s out there?”  If you are going to create a great DNA for your brand, then you are going to define that. If you try to do what everyone else does then they are going to say, what do I need you for? You need to create your own DNA and your own space. Young entrepreneurs really need to think about that and be intelligent.  Intellect and creativity equals success. You can’t just be smart and you can’t just be creative to be successful.

When I started my business in 1987 I came out with a new Joseph Abboud Navy Blazer. Now all the navy blazers at that time were a certain cut and they all had gold buttons on them and they were all very preppy. When launched my Navy Blazer I had a different navy fabric, I had a little more sensual silhouette, I changed the buttons to being horn instead of being brass or gold. And if I had come out with a navy blazer that was like everyone else’s navy blazer, what would they have needed me for? So that’s the point of difference that you need in a business and it’s very important to have that point of difference, to be able to break into a market that already exists. If you’re just the same as everyone else, then what do they need you for?

M: Do you have a favorite gift that you like to give to people.

J: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.  It was given to me when I left Polo-Ralph Lauren to start my own company, and it was one of the greatest gifts I’d ever gotten from somebody.  It’s about being true to yourself and who you are and what you believe in, and it’s such a powerful message.

A favorite look from the SS17 Joseph Abboud runway show, featuring Artemis Design Co. shoes and travel bags. Photo from Joseph Abboud. 

A favorite look from the SS17 Joseph Abboud runway show, featuring Artemis Design Co. shoes and travel bags. Photo from Joseph Abboud. 

The Artemis Design Co. city guide to ISTANBUL

EAT & DRINK

Fresh juices- On every corner, and in every neighborhood freshly squeezed juice is plentiful! The most common juices you’ll find are orange and pomegranate, but specialty shops will have all sorts of fruits available. I love to order it “mixed” (orange + pomegranate).  It’s about 5TL a glass, or about a $1.50.

Fish restaurants- Some of the most delicious and fresh fish that I’ve ever had has been in Istanbul.  They serve the fish whole and perfectly grilled, with a half a  lemon to drizzle on top.  Avoid the touristy spots under the Galata bridge, and head for one of the locals' favorite spots. Here are some of my favorite spots that I’ve been to with friends from Istanbul.

  • Karışma Sen- I went here on my most recent trip with a Turkish friend who recommended it. It’s right near Sultanahmet, so very easy to take a cab or walk. I’d recommend trying as many of the Meze’s as possible, and of course, the grilled fish.

  • Sunset- On the modern side. Very fancy with delicious food, beautiful people and incredible views of the city.

  • Istanbul Halic Sosyal Tesisleri- A delicious and classic Turkish fish restaurant, right on the Bosphorus. 

360 for drinks- This restaurant/bar has 360 degree views of Istanbul that are stunning.  I like to go just before sunset, order one of their signature cocktails (the food is nothing to write home about), and sit outside to enjoy the views on their patio.  Watching the sun cast a golden hue on the beautiful domed architecture of the mosques, while listening to the day’s last call to prayer echoing all around you is nothing short of magical.  

Pera Palas for afternoon tea- One of the oldest and most storied hotels in Istanbul, this is where Agatha Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written, and where Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock frequented on their trips to Istanbul.  The afternoon tea is everything you could ever hope for and more.  Perfect and beautiful little pastries, homemade confections, delicious tea sandwiches, and perfectly brewed pots of tea all set in a spectacular room with a singing pianist.  Being here for tea time makes you feel like a character in the Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

Here are some photos from one of my visits- the pink velvet furniture, waitresses uniforms, and tea cakes are all drool worthy. 

Asitane restaurant- The restaurant serves Ottoman cuisines, and more specifically, they strictly follow historical recipes directly from the Royal Palace.  The dishes and flavors here are like nothing you have ever tasted before (think roasted whole sea bass stuffed with walnuts and rose water dressing).  In fact, they specialize in rediscovering “forgotten flavors”, combinations of foods that were served only to the Sultans around the 1600s.  The last time I had lunch here, I tried to order a cappuccino at the end of the meal- they replied that they couldn’t make it because milk frothers didn’t exist in the Ottoman times.

Tip- Asitane is located right next to the Chora museum (also on my list), so I’d recommend making a reservation for the restaurant on a day that the church is also open for viewing.  

Gulluoglu Baklava- Multiple locations and some of the best Baklava in Istanbul.  Delicious with a Turkish coffee or tea.

Cengelkoy Kokoreccisi- A famous little restaurant on the Asian side renowned for their stuffed mussels. You can stand outside and help yourself to a heap of these tasty little mussels.  The rice stuffing has all sorts of herbs and spices, and the flavors are delicious with a little lemon drizzled on top.  

DO & SEE

The Museum of Innocence- Based on the famous book, The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.  It's my favorite book and has become a favorite of everyone that I’ve recommended it to as well.  It is the most enchanting story about a wealthy man from Turkish society, who falls in love with a shopkeeper, and basically becomes so hopelessly in love with her that he creates a museum out of objects that remind him of her- I won't give anything else away!  The museum actually exists and is one of the most hidden gems in Istanbul.  Everyone I know who has gone has ended up going back again and again because it is so moving.  If you have time, you should buy and read the book before you leave, and don’t forget to bring your copy to the museum for free entrance (one book = one ticket to museum).  

Photos below are from the entrance of the museum, and yes those are cigarette butts! The writer collected over a thousand cigarette butts from the ashtray of his beloved. 

Beyoglu (neighborhood)- The neighborhood surrounding the Galata Tower, and one of my favorite spots in Istanbul. It’s a great place to stay, and also a fun area to walk around for shopping, dining, nightlife, and more.   There is a world famous jazz club called Nardi’s in this area.  Definitely buy tickets in advance if you’d like to go, because they tend to fill up.

Cihangir (neighborhood)- A very cool neighborhood filled with vintage and antique shops design stores, great little cafes and restaurants and art galleries.  It feels a little bit like the West Village in Manhattan. More here.

Istanbul Modern Museum- This world class museum has an impressive permanent collection of Turkish artists and also rotating contemporary shows.  Every time I go there is something new and fascinating happening here. I’d also really recommend visiting the museum cafe/restaurant for a drink or coffee. The views of the Bosphorus River are lovely.

Chora museum- You will have to take a taxi to get here, but it is worth it.  It is an old Christian church with some of the most beautiful mosaics in the world.  Make a reservation for Asitane before you go (at least a couple of weeks in advance) because they are located right next to the museum.

All of the popular monuments- The Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern- they are all must-see and absolutely breathtaking sites.

SHOPPING

The Grand Bazaar- The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest shopping centers in the world, and is the best place to find the perfect carpet or Kilim to bring home with you. It can be a bit overwhelming, as many of the shopkeepers will hassle you until you come into their shop. They’ll always offer something to drink, and I’d recommend the apple tea- it is sweet and delicious! It is so much fun to sit back, sip tea and listen to the different stories about the Kilims and the regions they are from.  It’s nearly impossible to leave the Grand Bazaar without at least one new Kilim.  Tip- they can often ship the carpet home for you, or pack it into it’s own little bag, all airplane ready. Tip 2- Definitely negotiate over the price of the carpet, but keep in mind that if you do make an offer and they accept, it is considered rude to not follow through with the purchase.

The Spice Bazaar- The Spice Bazaar, also called the Egyptian Bazaar is home to spices, teas, natural cosmetic products, and many other great and Turkish staples.  I love the selection of natural sea sponges and loofahs and always end up going home with at least a few new Turkish cosmetic products. There are delicious teas for whatever ails you, and spices you won’t find anywhere else in the world.  Not many people realize that there is a garden and pet bazaar right next to the spice bazaar. I love strolling through there to see the animals, and the interesting and different plant species.  

Kurukahveci Coffee- Located right next to the Spice bazaar- this coffee is some of the best in the world. There is always a fast moving line of locals lined up outside to buy their weekly coffee. You can view the beautiful and efficient operation through the glass windows- coffee being roasted and ground, and young men making and stacking neatly wrapped paper packets of the aromatic product.