It's common in the early stages of a hotly contested presidential election to say that all bets are off. But in 2012, it's more a case that all ties are off.
From the day Mitt Romney announced running mate Paul Ryan, both parties seemed to be striving to outdo the other party in who could shed their neckties the most flagrantly. When the very leaders of the nation see the necktie as a campaign liability, what sort of message does that send to average desk jockey? And remember what President Kennedy did to the hat?
Despite signs from all quarters that the necktie continues its moribund slide into irrelevance, start-up necktie brands are popping up all over the Internet and at men's wear trade shows. And some of them, started on a lark, turn out to be the building block of budding fashion empires.
The accidental tie-makers
For Katherine McMillan, founder of Pierrepont Hicks, making ties started as a hobby in 2008, and now she's preparing her first capsule men's wear collection — suits, sportcoats, shirts and trousers — for spring 2013. "I was pregnant and had a lot of creative juices flowing and found an amazing resource for fabrics here in Minneapolis."
McMillan had samples made for her husband, using a small factory in New York for the manufacturing, but they came out so well she put them for sale online. Word got out that they were great, so she made 4,000 more. "It became kind of addictive for me," she says about the brand's launch. "I felt we had a different voice from the tie brands that were out there, even within our niche."
Soon a New York Times style blog post sent website traffic, orders and wholesale inquiries through the roof. A leading tie factory, which McMillan declines to disclose, also approached her seeking the brand's business, and won it. "We're at a crossroads now where we're really growing rapidly," she says. Sales are about 40 percent wholesale and 60 percent direct.
Pierrepont Hicks, named for an intersection in Brooklyn where McMillan grew up, prices its ties at $62-$140. They're sized at 3 inches at their widest point (the industry standard for some time has been 3.5 inches). "It's a perfect width — we get criticism that it's too skinny and some say it's too wide, so that shows you it's really right in the middle."
The tie dresses down
If the necktie isn't exactly dying but going through a casualization process, the fabric has a lot to do with it. Whereas silk is the default fabric and the correct choice in the minds of virtually all men in traditional professions, for brands like Pierrepont Hicks the preferred fabrics are wool, cotton and linen, which send a message that's anything but corporate. "Though in certain industries people are dressing less formally for work, I don't think the tie is dying out. Men in Manhattan will wear a tie for dinner even if they didn't wear one to work."
Alexander Olch is another accidental tiemaker, having studied filmmaking at Harvard. It was while filming his senior project, about old-school tailors on New York's Lower East Side, that he decided to give the crew commemorative ties when the project wrapped, rather than the ball caps or t-shirts that are common in the film industry. He sold his first samples in 2002 to former classmates working in industries such as law and finance, and then set about building a luxury brand with extremely limited resources. In 2003 he launched a website he designed himself with e-commerce functionality, and he was in business. "When I first started, no one was thinking about starting a new tie brand," he says. "I was interested in a traditional notion of luxury — Hermes, Ferragamo — and trying to do something a little different in that category."
In 2005 the New York Times
chose an Olch
tie as the best tie pick for Father's Day, a huge boost to the brand, which began wholesaling the next year for 2007 delivery. Today his main wholesale accounts are Barney's
, Bergdorf Goodman
, Neiman Marcus
, Mr. Porter
, and Park & Bond
. The ties are made in a factory in Brooklyn, the ownership of which "is kind of complicated; it's an offshoot of an existing factory, but it's ours." Fabrics are carefully chosen from top European woolen mills. "I'm interested in working in the widest possible array of fabrics," says Olch. "Linen, cashmere, wool, silks, and mixtures of them." Olch also offers pocket squares, notebooks, belts, and scarves, "and it's possible we'll expand more."
Bow-ties on the rise
While some start-up tie brands came about by happenstance, Hugh Simms sees ties as a great way to start what could ultimately become a fashion empire. The Los Angeles-based FIDM graduate believed that his tie designs were the best work in his portfolio, so he launched his brand in 2009. "It felt like I had something to give," he says, "and that ties were a chance to give people a sense of what the full line will be like."
Simms' collection includes bow ties made from recycled military bags, and four-in-hands in black denim. "I want to create ties you can wear casually," he says. Simms sells at Fred Segal and Kitson, as well as at his website, hughsimms.com. He's developed a solid celebrity following, all but obligatory when one is based in L.A., though most of his customers are on the East Coast, he says.
The ties, which sell from about $50 to $150, are made in Los Angeles using what Simms calls a 1940s-based manufacturing process involving 17 steps, single-needle Singer sewing machines, and a lot of handwork. He says that 10 years ago he would not have been able to assemble his team, but that the decline of apparel manufacturing in Los Angeles left many skilled workers on the job market.
A more longstanding but no less independent player in the necktie market is R. Hanauer, which has operated for 20 years in Fort Mill, S.C., making bow ties, pocket squares, cummerbund sets, ascots and ribbon belts. The company wholesales to better men's shops across the country, and sells direct at bowties.com.
Although it also sells standard neckties, which use a different manufacturing process that is outsourced to a New York factory, bow ties, as R. Hanauer's web address would suggest, are its specialty, and fortunately they've been undergoing something of a revival the past few years. "One of our retail accounts say they sell six bowties for every standard necktie," says Randall Hanauer, Jr. Eighteen months ago the company moved into a new facility on Main Street, where added visibility has helped fuel a local renaissance as well. Bow ties have lately become trendy at high school sporting events, says Hanauer.
Other makers have noticed, and he says the bow-tie market is quickly crowding. "People have stepped on the bandwagon, and we see start-up bow tie companies all the time," says Hanauer. "It's a little frustrating, but I think our longevity will prove that a quality manufacturer of bow ties in the U.S. is making something people will continue to buy for years."
To rise above the competition, Hanauer makes sure its customers and retail shops get the message that its ties are special. "We make sure everyone knows that we have the best-tying bow tie on the market, period," he says. "There's no other bow tie that ties as well as ours." The secret has to do with cutting the fabric and lining on the bias, he says, which gives the tie a bit of stretch. "It takes a little more fabric, but we think it's worth it for tying easier and making the bow look better all day."
Hanauer's bow ties and other accessories are made by a team of five seamstresses operating home sewing machines. "It's really challenging to find good work," says Hanauer. "People who come in and have worked at factories making jeans — it's just not the same type of work. We need someone who's been sewing since childhood and has a passion for making clothes."
Christian Chensvold is an Apparel contributing writer covering men's fashion and the apparel industry, and also runs the blog Ivy-Syle.com.