THE CASHMERE PHILOSOPHER

“I was walking up Fifth Avenue,” fashion designer Joseph Abboud says, “and I’m watching this guy walking towards me, and I see one of my older sweaters.” Seeing vintage Joseph Abboud pieces on the streets is like seeing “old friends,” he says.

“Now, it was a natural linen sweater that I remember from one of my first collections. It had to be 20 years old. And I’m walking, and I’m just looking. And I go, God, that sweater still looks great!”

A natural tastemaker with an affinity for American classic-cool style, Abboud chose to step away a few years ago from the men’s and women’s lines that still bear his name and slip into a new role, running a retail powerhouse as president and chief creative director of the HMX Group’s portfolio of brands, including standout lines such as Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx. With an extensive career that began at legendary specialty store LouisBoston, Abboud knows what men want and sells more investment pieces than edgy quickly come, quickly go garments. Indeed, his appreciation for top-notch quality is apparent in everything from his design work to his stunning Bedford Village office and nearby home in Bedford.

“I have an obligation to anybody that buys anything that I design to give the best product, the best quality, the best design. I don’t want to design sensational clothes, and so I will never put anything in my collections where I think, ‘Oh no, don’t let me say I’ve designed that!’”

There’s an undeniable art to what Abboud does. Yet it’s not just art for art’s sake. He takes real pride in “putting in an honest day’s work” and teaching his kids, Lila, 20, and Ari, 17, to do the same.

“This is not about celebrity and this is not about fame. Maybe for some people it is. But for me, it’s about being good at my job.”

The man behind the brand

At the HMX Group, Abboud has once again gained creative control of his work, something that was missing during his last years at his own company. Joseph Abboud, the brand, was highly successful. With it, Abboud became the first designer to win a Council of Fashion Designers of America award for best menswear two years in a row.

But, that’s just it. While great at design, Abboud found himself spending 95 percent of his time on business issues, leases and employee contracts. In 2000, he sold his trademarks, “idealistically” thinking, “Maybe I could just get all of that operational and organizational stuff off my plate and just focus on what I’m good at… With so many young entrepreneurs and designers, who have to manage both, it’s really difficult, and in today’s economic climate, it’s virtually impossible.”

Yet designing for the company during the five-year agreement period that followed, Abboud found he “couldn’t be as effective in that environment where there’s always tension and dynamics.” So he sold his namesake and moved on. “I look back on it as a way of giving me the creative freedom I really needed.”

Today, his mantra – borrowed from an Inc. magazine headline on Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival  – is, “Creativity drives profit.”

“Look at Steve Jobs. It wasn’t that he built a business plan. He built a dream, he built an idea and then the rest of the support surrounded it. It wasn’t that the support system was there and then he came up with the idea. Creativity drives profit. To me, it’s all about doing that, and that’s what I love doing, driving ideas that build businesses.”

Now happily creative and business-savvy at the HMX Group, Abboud has learned to “separate out personal taste for the integrity of the brand.” While he adds his own flavor to brands, he knows “if I made everything look like me, Joseph Abboud, it would all be one thing. We need to make each brand have its own DNA.”

Abboud doesn’t talk about being inspired by icons, but by visions of “who is that guy?” wearing each of HMX’s brands.

“Hickey Freeman Mahogany is our ultimate luxury American collection. We own a factory in Rochester – think about this – we make our tailored clothing in America still. It is the crown jewel of American manufacturing, akin to what comes from Savile Row,” he says with gusto. “It is a dying art and yet our business is growing.”

The Mahogany shopper is “worldly. He’s not boyish. He’s mannish. He’s not über-preppy, but more sophisticated and more establishment.”

Then there’s Hickey Freeman Sterling, a new and less expensive division.

“It has a more forward, more spirited, let’s say, a more international approach to American style with more washed fabrics and interesting color palates.”

Abboud thinks and designs in terms of “psychographics” rather than demographics, noting that a lean fit could appeal to “a 45-year-old or 52-year-old guy who’s in great shape.”

But as with mothers who make the mistake of dressing like their daughters, Abboud says the same rule applies to men.

“They have to say, ‘I want to be modern, I want to be contemporary. But I don’t want to dress like I’m 21,’ because our brands are really for that 35- to 55-year-old guy.”

Meanwhile, the more all-American, traditional Hart Schaffner Marx is for “the 30-something young executive who’s not the boss yet, but who’s wanting to be the boss in Greenwich and Rye or a great young lawyer in Westchester.”

The line will ring in its 125th birthday with a limited edition collection of iconic menswear pieces, including the perfect double-breasted navy blazer, black and tweed jacket and gray flannel suit every man should own.

“People forget those things are what make a closet great… It’s so relevant. All we need to do is give it a twist for our time.”

And good design comes out of a good workplace, he says.

“One key thing for me, and I think for most creative people, is that surroundings are so important.”

Gaston’s lair

The HMX Group’s Park Avenue office offers Abboud an impressive and rare direct view of the top of Grand Central Terminal, its Beaux Arts sculpture of Mercury, the god of commerce, atop the entrance. But this native Bostonian has never been a city boy. When he briefly lived in Manhattan, he said, “I can’t think that there’s 17 apartments above me where people are doing exactly the same thing!” He often retreats to his private office, his “sanctuary” in the Herringbone building in Bedford Village.

“Having an office that’s separated from the city is a really great thinking place. I can go there on a Sunday night in a rainstorm and put the fire on and just think.”

The two-story office, which was once a gas station, has an eclectic decor. There’s the set of 150-year-old Italian leather chairs found at an auction in Chicago that surround a long table with a zinc finish – the conference area. There are wrought iron and mahogany gates from a Savannah plantation that just happened to be the perfect fit for the high-ceilinged space. Abboud scored a massive mirror that used to rest outside the Rialto Theater down on Broadway and 42nd Street. Atop the mantle, there’s a gong Abboud will play if you ask him.

Says the designer, who had his struggles as the son of a chronically ill engineer, “I enjoy learning the stories behind eclectic objects we’re not used to… This gong was used to call dinner.”

His custom-built shelves are filled with honey-hued, wax-coated Danish books, which he can’t read, but certainly contribute to the polished-earthy feel. Throughout the office are Susan Fitzsimmons’ watercolor portraits of horses, found at the Armonk Outdoor Art Show and mounted by the Mount Kisco Frame Shop, each in a different but equally strong frame. He loves her interpretation of “the architecture” and movement of the species; and the brown tones are so very Abboud.

In his hilarious, oft self-effacing book, “Threads: My Life Behind the Seams in the High Stakes World of Fashion,” written with Ellen Stern, the reader instantly understands that Abboud really “gets” who he is, and is willing to poke fun at himself. In one scene, he depicts the fashion set during a runway show trying to guess at his garments, Is that the barley? Or is that the wheat? And, is that the chrome? Or is that the aluminum?

Looking up past the exposed beams, there are the antlers hanging in nooks just about everywhere.

“When my daughters were little, guess who I was? Gaston!” he says, referring to the macho suitor in “Beauty and The Beast.” Then Abboud even halfway-sings what is perhaps Gaston’s most famous line: “I use antlers in all of my decorating.”

Sometimes he finds things like a silver horse bit and asks himself, “Now what can I use this for?” The bit is nailed to a wood column and holds a gorgeous, sophisticated black and tweed jacket. There are also those other items that do not need practicality. They simply carry sentimental value and stories. Before his first-floor fireplace is a coffee table, whose sole purpose is seemingly to display awesome, sometimes ironic pieces like gold dice, an alabaster jar given to him when he opened his store in Rome and a dagger presented by the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Next to this collection is a small stand with framed black-and-white photographs, including one of his mother, a nurse from Boston who wore great lipstick.

“Oh, there are a lot of very cool things here,” he says.

He loves to bring European and Asian guests to this office to give them a real taste of Westchester that’s “out of a postcard.”

Home, snug home

Abboud’s passion for chic, thoughtful presentation is apparent in his dream house, a French country-style, eight-acre estate on Swallow Lake just down the street.

If he weren’t a fashion designer, he says he’d be a landscape architect designer. His favorite rooms are outside.

“I sort of built the property to have these places to escape, like private gardens overlooking the lake, fire-pits and stone benches and this wonderful iron archway.” (Think Maxfield Parrish.)

The house has an old, lodge-like feel to it, featuring interior stonewalls and South American ipe, or ironwood. This wood is so sturdy that saws kept breaking during construction, so most of the beams are all hand-hewn.

“I’m a Taurus, so I need to be grounded with this solid feel of materials around me that envelope me.” It is truly a “warm, inviting” spot to come home to after tireless business trips, with its all-natural colors of cinnamon, chestnut and amber and comforting fireplaces in every room.

“You know what it’s like in Westchester when it’s snowing and all you want to do is get home and tuck yourself in.”

In his home decor aesthetic, as with apparel design, Abboud says, “I don’t like formula. If I were to do a Southwestern house, it’s very easy to say, I know what all the Southwestern accents are. But for me, my house is really about the color and texture of things.”

Expect the unexpected, like a Japanese bronze lion – found at his kids’ Rippowam Cisqua School’s antique show – perched atop an Italian-carved table, or an Indonesian-carved table next to an English barrister’s desk. He relishes that “it’s unpredictable and yet there’s this wonderful harmony to it.”

Part of the thrill of decorating is the quest for “it” items, that, unlike trend-driven fashion, do not change seasonally but ideally last forever. It took him years to fill the house; not that he’s finished. He doesn’t like the idea of impatiently, thoughtlessly filling it for the sake of having a complete house right away.

“That’s kind of like instant oatmeal. I mean, I like instant oatmeal when you need it. But to me, part of the beauty is finding those pieces and going, ‘Oh my God, that works!’”

Abboud fell in love with three Dutch paisley shawls, in black, russet and brown and had them mounted on suede and framed in his stone dining room.

“Are they priceless? No. Are they expensive? Yes. But to me, my kids can have them if they want, and they’re just so unique.”

So, what goes on inside that stone dining room? Well, when Abboud does entertain, he and wife, Lynn – to whom he gives all the credit in the world – have the party catered by Bedford Gourmet so she can enjoy it, too, and friends like NBC’s Tom Brokaw stop by. Abboud designated Brokaw, in his cashmere jacket and turtleneck, “the perfect prop for the house.”

But typically, “and this might not sound so glamorous,” entertaining just means a nice family dinner, whose guests include feline Penny, “the queen of the house.”

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