"I WANT to build a great raincoat," Joseph Abboud says to his design team. The setting is Abboud's twenty-seventh-floor office-studio on Fifth Avenue, and none of the floating company of four or five young men and women--bright, energetic, alive to the shades of Abboud's mood--who flit in and out of the meeting seem to find the statement remarkable. It's what they expect from Abboud, forty-four, an internationally known men's (and lately women's) fashion designer. He uses an argot of ambition rarely seen in interviews with artists or writers or filmmakers, who shrink from using the G-word about the products of their hands or hearts or eyes. Earlier, in an interview in his small, sample-strewn office, Abboud boasted proudly if mixaphorically, "We changed the face of neckwear," speaking of the earth-toned, intricately patterned ties whose designs he sketches insatiably--in doodles while he talks on the phone, in notebooks on long flights, and on the dissolving surfaces of his dreams. "Let's stay on the silk issue," Abboud says, as the raincoat meeting threatens to stray into wool. At another juncture: "Let's save that for the trouser discussion." In Joseph Abboud's world silk is an issue and trousers achieve the dignity of discussion.
Coming soon to a select group of stores across the country--"Fifty or sixty doors," Abboud says, in retail-speak--will be Abboud's "American Soft" collection of men's wear, a new look that he predicts will define "the way men will want to dress five or ten years down the road." Abboud is not alone on that road. Italian designers like Zegna and Armani pioneered the soft look, and the Americans Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are also going soft. This trend and Abboud's track record in the market argue that he may be right about what men will be wearing in the early 2000s. He has had his own label for nearly ten years; before that he designed for Ralph Lauren; before that he sold and bought clothes for Louis, Boston, the Tiffany of clothiers. The psychosexual reverberations of the rubric are unfortunate, though, for men's wear. Will future historians of this fin de siècle seize on "American Soft" as a text for our time? Abboud might have been wiser to run that one by the boys on Madison Avenue.