From NYC to New Orleans, New Bedford's unique brand finds a niche

By Brian J. Lowney
Contributing Writer
and Mike Lawrence
August 22. 2015 8:31PM

NEW BEDFORD — Madison Avenue in New York City isn’t the place you’d expect to see a big, bold-lettered mention of New Bedford.
But there it is, loud and proud on the Joseph Abboud Store on the corner of Madison Avenue and 49th Street, white capital letters on plate glass proudly proclaiming that the expertly tailored clothes are “crafted in New Bedford.”
Frederick “Rick” Kidder, the new CEO of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, described the Abboud storefront as “an incredibly positive sign.
“It speaks volumes of the quality of this community and the commitment to quality that Joseph Abboud has always demonstrated,” he said. “It also reminds us of the great value of our manufacturing base and the power of ‘Made in America and Made in New Bedford.’”
The positive New Bedford branding is part of a concerted effort of the city to remake its image in the national consciousness and beyond.
“There’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t control your message, someone else will,’” said Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “You have to go out there and be a good salesperson … specifically in targeted markets, to bring folks back to New Bedford.”
Ed Anthes-Washburn, acting port director for the Harbor Development Commission, said efforts to build a New Bedford Seafood brand have been accelerating for several years. Successful campaigns such as Maryland crab, Alaskan salmon and Gulf shrimp in Louisiana, he said, all can be models — especially in the No. 1 commercial fishing port in the country, by tonnage.
That message has reached at least one prominent restaurant — GW Fins, an award-winning seafood restaurant in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, where “New Bedford scallops” are a popular menu item.
Mike Nelson, the executive chef at GW Fins, said many customers mention ties to the Whaling City as they peruse the menu or enjoy the seafood.
The restaurant enjoys a “great relationship” with a local seafood broker, J and J Trading, he said. The company expedites the fresh frozen scallops from a local processing plant to Logan Airport, where they are loaded onto a jet and flown to New Orleans.
Once the scallops arrive, a courier whisks the shipment to the restaurant.
“Our customers appreciate the freshness of the seafood,” Nelson said, adding that in addition to featuring grilled scallops on the menu, he also created a popular entrée that he named “Scalibut.”
“Not a lot of people, even locally, realize how big a part of the fresh-caught seafood industry, and the processing industry, New Bedford is,” Anthes-Washburn said. “It’s more than just scallops — there’s swordfish, there’s herring, there’s everything, really, coming in here.”
The harbor commission has been working with teachers and students at the Charlton School of Business at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Anthes-Washburn said, to pursue federal grant funding to boost the New Bedford Seafood effort. He said they were unsuccessful with last year’s efforts to land funding — through the Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program — but plan to apply again this year.
The grants are specifically tied to marketing American-caught seafood. Anthes-Washburn said the commission’s branding effort, federal funding or not, could have broad impacts.
“It benefits more than the seafood fishermen and distributors here,” he said. “It benefits the entire brand of New Bedford, which is what’s really exciting about it.”
In New York City, the display at the Abboud store is part of a series that highlights the production of the distinctive menswear, beginning in Biella, Italy, where the fabric is produced; to the city itself, where the clothing is designed; to New Bedford, where the items are manufactured at a plant located on Belleville Avenue.
According to Phil Kornblatt, store manager, several people have stopped at the store to talk about New Bedford since the eye-catching display was installed two weeks ago. It will continue until the end of the month.
Kornblatt says some store visitors have told him that they live in New Bedford, while others mentioned that they were born in the city or had visited the Whaling Museum.
“They are excited to see that our clothing is manufactured in New Bedford,” he said. “Our clothing is not only made well in America; it’s also made well in New Bedford.”
Anthony R. Sapienza, president of JA Apparel Corp. and Joseph Abboud Mfg. Corp, noted that the Joseph Abboud brand of tailored clothing has always been manufactured in New Bedford since the label was launched in 1987.
Sapienza said that given the commitment to quality exhibited by the company’s local workforce, it made sense to highlight the workers and the city in a prominent display in the front window of the Madison Avenue store.
“We are so proud of our history in New Bedford and of the commitment that our New Bedford workforce exemplifies,” he said. “As politicians talk about the possibility of manufacturing jobs returning to the US, we can proudly say that we never left the USA and have been making fine tailored clothing right here in New Bedford for 28 years.”
Right next to the Abboud factory is the menswear firm Mother Freedom, which is also displaying pride in its New Bedford roots.
According to Chris Vroman, president of Mother Freedom, they recently launched a new American brand named Exley NB, which will now serve as the company’s primary brand. Vroman said the name “Exley” is derived from an Old English word meaning “the settlement by the river,” which according to the company president, is appropriate given the company’s location on the banks of the Acushnet River.
“The ‘NB’ refers to our New Bedford roots,” he said.
The company was founded in the Whaling City three years ago because of the city’s and region’s “rich history in textile and apparel manufacturing,” and the availability of skilled workers and supporting infrastructure, he said.
“New Bedford, and more broadly, New England are core to Exley’s brand messaging,” he said. “The brand will focus on building a product that is inspired by a New England lifestyle and is authentic in that message as it is also made in New England.” The clothing line will be available early next year at retailers and online at
Arthur Motta, director of marketing and communications at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said New Bedford is halfway through the decade covered in the city’s 2010 master plan, in which branding was mentioned at least six times. The goal was to brand New Bedford as “the creative center of the SouthCoast.”
“I can’t say offhand where we are in that process but I do know that the New Bedford Whaling Museum has been front-and-center in the city’s cultural life for more than a century, broadcasting the New Bedford name globally through its scholarly publications and programming while attracting evermore visitors regionally and from around the world,” he said.
He said many local organizations and individuals are working to elevate New Bedford, groups such as AHA! The city has done an “extraordinary job” of residual branding, positioning the city as an arts destination, he said.
“I think it all does come back to the sea, when artists and craftspeople were drawn here during the whaling and textile eras,” he said.
He recently received a text message from his sister who was visiting an upscale restaurant located on Seattle’s waterfront, Motta said. The message included a photo of a featured entrée on the menu: Grilled New Bedford Scallop Risotto.
“There’s no doubt we have an amazing wealth of strengths to work with,” he said.
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