Interview with Legendary Designer Joseph Abboud

Joseph Abboud wearing Artemis Design Co. mens kilim loafers

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, on 49th street.  During the 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 conversation 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, you 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 a 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. 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 Geoffrey 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 to 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 remember back at that time we didn’t have the internet or instant gratification. The world was very different. [In Paris] I just saw a whole world of beauty and style that I really fell in love with.  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 l
ike 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.

Model in Joseph Abboud's runway show wearing mens kilim loafers and carrying a kilim bag

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

Photo credit: Images 1 & 2 from Joseph Abboud