Photo of Joseph Abboud at his desk and still life image courtesy of The 88

By Preston Fassel

They’re shiftless. They’re lazy. They dress weird, drive strange cars, listen to deviant music and have even weirder friends. Maybe your children know one; maybe one of your children IS one. No, I’m not talking about jazz musicians, greasers, hippies or even Gen-Xers. I’m talking about Millennials, those individuals (including myself) born between 1980 and 2000 and the latest cause celeb in generational warfare. Like countless youths before, we’ve been marginalized with all sorts of negative stereotypes; in addition to those listed above, there’s the ever present stereotype of entitlement, not to mention the accusations of parasitism, narcissism and arrogance. To hear most pundits, commentators and talking heads tell it, Millennials are pretty much the worst people in the history of ever.

Which is why we’re losing their business.

“That is a huge consumer group,” says Joseph Abboud, perhaps one of the most valuable names in American fashion and the man behind Altair’s Joseph Abboud collection. Rather than look upon the next generation as a blight on the face of the Earth, he has a much more optimistic view: They’re simply misunderstood. Indeed, while the thrift-shop and cheap-car fascination of the Millennials has been viewed by many as evidence of financial irresponsibility, Abboud sees it as wise decision-making.

“They’re much more discerning in how they spend their money,” says Abboud, assessing the buying ethic of Millennials, who—as many are oft to forget amongst the firestorm of generational hate—are faced with poorer job prospects, a more worthless dollar, higher debt and less opportunity for upward mobility than any generation since the Depression. Additionally, as Abboud reminds us, “We’ve been through a recession.” Taking this background into consideration, the Millennial buying mindset begins to make sense. “Most of them have a limited amount of discretionary income,” Abboud says. “They’ve got to spend their money smartly. And they’re armed with information, and they’re gonna do that. Here’s what I honestly believe: You can’t fool them… They are way too smart. The brands that are successful are successful because they’re honest.” So how does retail fashion differ now as opposed to before the recession? “Before the serious recession, it was conspicuous consumption—the more you paid for it, the prouder you were. That was short-lived; because what ended up happening was, you go into recessions, that price value thing keeps coming back and constantly haunting everybody. You have to give the value and quality for the price they pay; and that’s a very important mindset for me. The best product at the best price; and that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest.”

It’s a part of a wholesale refutation of the consumer ethics that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s, a rejection of the mindset and values Millennials hold responsible for what they see as the undesirable state of the modern world. That rejection though, isn’t a total dismissal of all that has come before, as many might suspect; it is, rather, as Abboud sees it, a yearning for something older and more reliable that got lost amidst the pursuit of material wealth: not a sense of group identity, but self-identity.

“What I notice about this generation is their hunger for heritage, custom tailoring, really mensy stuff,” Abboud says. “Whereas his counterparts two or three generations prior were all looking to get casual—the Baby Boomers—were trying to get where they didn’t have to get dressed up. And these Millennials are getting dressed up… the advantage they have today is there’s so much information readily accessible to them about style… that young guy is doing research, and he’s trying to determine what his own personal style is. And when he feels that confidence, he’s going to do research on brands and what they represent, and he’s going to look for a deeper meaning in the product he buys.”

How then, does one reach a generation that has worked to so radically isolate themselves from the past 20-plus years of conventional design and marketing? Abboud thinks that the key is in assisting Millennials in their pursuit of that self-identity and the confidence that goes with it. “One of our philosophies is, I don’t want to make men look like boys, I want to make boys look like men. I’ve always thought there should be more sophistication in the American design community in terms of color and shape, and I sort of love beautifully masculine shapes every guy can wear and that aren’t too overpowering. The guy has the leading role, while all of his clothes and accessories are the supporting players. So when you design something from my perspective, it isn’t about making him feel better because he’s wearing Joseph Abboud; it’s about him having his own personal style.”

For his own part, Abboud is applying that philosophy to his latest eyewear collection from Altair; Herringbone, a distinctly low-key line that allows wearers to tailor it to their own personal style, rather than allow the frames to dictate their appearance. Differentiating the line from past offerings, the new collection is defined by more subtle touches that add to their customizability. “To me, it’s about texture and dimension,” Abboud says. “We’ve lasered one of our herringbone patterns on the interior of the eyewear. Our new collection has a lot of taupes and browns; they’re very wearable, but they’re very new.” In a world dominated by blacks, the casually elegant offering of earth tones in eyewear is a unique way for the collection to not only stand out without standing out, but also quietly speak to Millennials in search of a way to similarly defy current optical convention.

So what’s the final verdict on the Millennial? “They’re much smarter. And he isn’t just going to buy products. He’s going to buy prices and style, and quality. You can’t stick your head in the sand. You have to go after them.” ■