We missed Sigourney Weaver by a day. Oh well. As much as we felt like heading to the beach today, the siren’s call of Michael’s beckoned, so we made our way to 55th and Fifth for our weekly Wednesday lunch. The scene was bustling with a smattering of famous faces (Jerry Springer and Harold Ford Jr.) among the media mavens and everything was decidedly more upbeat than it’s been all winter. It turns out spring may actually happen after all.
I was joined today by legendary menswear designer Joseph Abboud, who I first met several years ago when I was a fledgling reporter at People. I had been given, as my first assignment, the then-impossible task of landing an interview with Bryant Gumbel, who was not exactly feeling warm and fuzzy towards reporters at the time. After not having much success getting Bryant on the phone, I turned to calling his friends, Joseph among them. I had pretty much resigned myself to having to turn in a write-around when Joseph came to the rescue. After our chat, he told me he’d suggest that Bryant talk to me. And voilà ! I got the story.
When our mutual friend Judy Twersky suggested we all get together for lunch, I jumped at the chance, since it’s been years since I’ve seen Joseph. He arrived at the stroke of noon, looking as dapper as ever in a suit of his own design (gorgeous grey Italian cashmere) and it was as if we’d just spoken last week. “Italians do everything beautifully,” he said when I complimented him. “Their country is beautiful, the people are beautiful, the food is a amazing, but God wanted to prove they’re not divine, so they can’t sew on a button,” he told me with a laugh. “With our Italian partners we had a big problem with the buttons.” I knew we’d have plenty to talk about.
Joseph has always been incredibly warm and approachable — not exactly the qualities you find in abundance in the fashion business. A true gentleman, he’s a great supporter of fashion and the industry has returned the favor in kind. He was the first to be named Menswear Designer of the Year for two consecutive years by the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA). On March 27, he’ll unveil his new flagship store on Madison Avenue, which will feature the Joseph Abboud Collection, as well as custom clothing in Zegna and Loro Piana fabrics, which will be made in his own factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “It’s an American Savile Row,” he told me. “This one of the most exciting times ever to be in the fashion industry.” It certainly is for Joseph. Having had his brand go through several incarnations (“In our world, survival is success”), he is now happily part of Men’s Wearhouse and couldn’t be happier. “A public company with a strategic vision for the future is the best place for a brand instead of with investment bankers who use you as a stock to trade.”
I was fascinated to learn that the menswear business is experiencing something of a renaissance, thanks to twentysomethings whose fathers have embraced the ‘Casual Friday’ ethos and constantly underdress. “These guys are dressing up not because they need to, but because they want to.” With his decades in the business, Joseph says, “It’s about credibility and young thinking, but not about being young. The 25-year-old and the 55-year-old both need to know the same things about fashion.” When it comes to tapping into what the younger customers want, he laughingly told me that his two twentysomething daughters and their boyfriends provide an in-house focus group for any and all things related to millennials. “I get instant feedback. They’re plugged into everything!”
The company is relying heavily on television commercials (there’s also a social media campaign and blog) to promote the Joseph Abboud brand featuring Joseph, but he dismisses the notion that he’s a celebrity to the customer. In fact, he believes the whole concept of dressing celebrities has become “so diffuse” and, in menswear at least, doesn’t have the same impact it once did. He should know. Joseph was first introduced to a mass audience when he dressed Bryant Gumbel for the Olympics in 1988. (He dressed him for many years after that and for the record, thinks the BMW commercial Bryant did with his former “Today” show co-host Katie Couric, lampooning their cluelessness about the Internet in 1994, was very well done. “They both look great!”) Then Joseph went on to dress virtually every NFL sportscaster, including Bob Costas for fourteen years which, in turn, helped make him the go-to label for well-dressed men all over the country. He rightly believes it takes a lot more to earn customer loyalty these days. “There’s still a lot of nineties thinking around, but things have changed. The customer is very smart and wants to be treated with respect. It’s more about great service and a great product now.”
So perhaps there’s no better messenger than the designer himself to spread the word on his television show. Having done a few pilots for PBS year ago, Joseph told me he’s more focused on his brand, but he might be interested in doing a show for “real guys with information that applies to their real life,” if the right opportunity were to come along. He understands that the show would have to appeal to women, too. “Because women have a big influence on the way the men in their lives dress.” See, I told you he was a very smart man.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Producer Freddie Gershon
2. PR maven Maury Rogoff (sporting her signature stilettos) and fashionista Mickey Ateyeh
3. Casting director extraordinaire Bonnie Timmerman
4. Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff and my Greenwich neighbor Jerry Springer
5. The early show: Harold Ford; Second seating: agent Wayne Kabak
6. Harold Holzer and Spencer Sharp
7. Marilyn Crawford
8. Producer John Hart
9. Michael Peterson (brother of Holly) and Michael Carlisle
11. Author Pamela Keogh (long time no see!) and Adam Pincus enjoying their burgers
12. Moira Forbes
14. Brett Schenck of Hart Schaffner Marx, who stopped by our table to say hello to Joseph
15. Peter Price
16. Neil Lasher
17. Scott Singer
18. LAK PR CEO’s Lisa Linden and political consultant Eldin Villafane
20. Producer Joan Gelman
22. Aliya Sahari
23. Attorney Larry Meyer
24. Beverly Camhe
25. Noble Smith — What a great name!
27. Joseph Abboud, Judy Twersky and yours truly
81. Vogue‘s Ashley McDermott
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.