In an exclusive Q&A with Renée Ward, Joseph Abboud, award-winning menswear designer and Chief Creative Director at Men’s Wearhouse shares how a part-time job in a men’s clothing store at 16, led to his love of the industry and his commitment to give back through the National Suit Drive.
This is the sixth in a series of articles about the “first paying jobs” of successful people, their advice for today’s teens, and the value of work early in life.
Abboud grew up in what he describes as a working class family. From the time he can remember his father was in and out of hospitals due to a work accident that broke his spinal cord and limited his ability to walk. As a result, his mom worked two jobs to support Abboud, and his three older sisters.
It seems to me that at a young age and even though he wasn't wealthy, he found a way to dress like it and ultimately become it.
Ward: How did you get your start in the fashion industry?
Abboud: At 16, the job that put me on the path to being a menswear designer was a part-time job at a local men’s store outside of Boston, MA where I lived called Surman’s. That’s where I started and I worked there a few hours each day after school and on weekends for several years learning the business.
Ward: How did you learn about this opportunity?
Abboud: I didn’t know that there was a job available. I loved to pass by and look at the displays in their windows and I thought maybe one day they’ll need a part-timer, so I went in and asked. Jack Surman, the owner of the store, was a very nice man and he was happy to have me.
Ward: What did you do?
Abboud: I received stock, put clothes out on display, folded shirts and sold items to the customers that came in.
Ward: Why did Surman hire you? I’m sure he could have picked someone else. Why you?
Abboud: I think he saw how much I loved clothes. That’s probably part of it. I was enthusiastic and he saw that. I think he sensed that it was an environment that I wanted to be in and he gave me a chance.
I think the other part came from the teachings of my first generation parents that it was important for my own self-worth and self-esteem to have a job. They reflected that in how much they appreciated having a job and respected their employers. It was part of my family’s culture, I embraced it and he could relate to that.
My upbringing was not very different from many working class families where parents strive to provide for their kids. I was taught from a very early age that I had to go out and earn a living and I had to contribute.
Of course my parents did the best they could but with four kids, not because it was mandated, we all felt the responsibility that we go out and work.
Being the youngest and the only son, I felt like I had four moms because all of them told me what to do.
Ward: So, you wanted to get away from the women in your life?
Abboud: (Laughter) You know it’s funny. I think learning to deal with women at a very young age is one of my valuable assets. I’ve been surrounded by women my whole life. My mom, my sisters, my wife, my two daughters, even my cat was a girl.
I do think in all seriousness that in the workforce men really do need to understand women in terms of how to be professional, demonstrate respect and equality in pay. I deal with a lot of women in the fashion business and I’m sure my background helps in that regard.
Ward: So how did your love of clothes come about?
Abboud: I don’t really know. I think because I loved movies. The actors had such glamour and elegance. They showcased a lifestyle that I didn’t live. I was in awe of how dynamic the men were in their beautiful suits and the way the women were glamorously dressed.
I saw that they went to great restaurants and they lived in beautiful homes and it was so appealing to me.
I also came to learn that dressing well opened the door in terms of getting a job which is a message for the young consumer today. Young men really need to understand how to present themselves well.
Ward: Why do you feel that’s important?
Abboud: First impressions are lasting. I know we are in the Internet information age and that resumes are transmitted electronically, but at some point, especially in the workplace there’s going to be that moment when you have to meet someone face-to-face. If you’re in a professional environment, you need to dress the part.
Ward: Did anything go wrong while you were working at Surman’s? If so, how did you handle it?
Abboud: No. It was a very natural fit for me. Jack Surman was my mentor. Years later I still had a wonderful relationship with him. When he saw me he’d always tell me how proud he was of me. He was really a nice man.
Ward: What did you learn from that job that has prepared you for what you are doing now?
Abboud: Well, it was just like any job in this industry. It began my process of understanding how the business works. I had to learn how to communicate favorably with a customer, how to show them the right things, and share the new trends in order to get them to buy.
Looking back on it, I learned how to present things simply, be polite and professional.
These skills are the same ones I use if I’m presenting a concept to a financial institution or an investor. So the fundamentals of what I learned back then, I still use today.
Ward: What advice do you have for teens and young adults today seeking their first jobs?
Abboud: As I mentioned, and surely because of the business I’m in, I believe you should always strive to make a good physical first impression. Within milliseconds and before you can stretch out your hand for a handshake, the other person is developing an impression of you.
You don’t have to be a fashion-plate, you just have to be well-dressed, that is, professionally attired understanding that you are putting yourself in front of someone to say, I would like you to hire me.
Of course the interview and follow up are also important.
Ward: Do you feel there’s a certain look that men need today when they hear the term “dress for success”? If so, has it changed over the years?
Abboud: The fundamentals have not changed. It may sound old-fashion but for a man it still comes down to the best quality and fitting suit you can come by, matching accessories, shoes shined, nails cut and clean, hair brushed or combed properly, you know, well-groomed.
Ward: What about tattoos and piercings?
Abboud: That’s an interesting thing. I guess a lot of people have issues one way or another. I’m in the world of design but still I’m not a big fan. Sometimes it’s done in an impetuous moment and it’s not so easy to turn that around. To that point my daughters don’t have them although they could have.
I suspect that if you’re working in an artistic field, it’s more acceptable than in the financial or medical fields.
Ward: Other advice?
Abboud: Yes. I’d like to tell young people that on the job, you have to prove yourself first and the rest will come. You’re not going to join a company in an entry-level position and become a vice-president the next day. It doesn’t work that way. You work your way up.
My daughters had jobs in their teen years. Not because my wife and I didn’t have the income to indulge them, but it was for their own sense of perspective of life. And, for them to understand what it is to earn a dollar. It’s not easy. There are no gifts sitting on a plate. My philosophy is that you have to give to get.
Ward: Is that then your motivation for the National Suit Drive?
Abboud: Yes. This is the seventh year of the drive which runs through this July. It’s our way of giving back to men who are unemployed but wanting to get back into the workforce who cannot afford quality workplace attire no matter what the price. So for us it’s a way to show our commitment to the industry that we are in and also give back to the community.
We’ve raised over 650,000 items of quality clothing over the years and passed to men who are needy. We see them stand up a little bit taller and feel a little bit better about themselves when they are well-dressed. The way they look is obviously one facet of importance to a potential employer.
Ward: Anything else?
Abboud: Let’s face it. Every day all of us get up in the morning and make a fashion decision.
What image am I going to project today? What am I going to wear? How will I be perceived if I wear this or that?
We make that decision every day.
Look, would we all like to hang around all day in our gym clothes? Of course. But if you’re in a professional or workplace environment and you need to impress someone, you should want to present yourself well.
So I ask you readers, do clothes make the man? Are you swayed one way or another by the way a man is dressed in a professional or workplace environment?
And, for teens looking for a job in the fashion industry, look for “Now Hiring” signs, show your enthusiasm and willingness to learn. Don't forget to dress appropriately for the role.
Not sure what you want to do or what kind of job to pursue? Take a look at the Association for Career and Technical Education’s (ACTE) career clusters and take a Career Clusters Interest Survey. This may help give you focus and direction in your job hunting. The Career Clusters Interest Survey