Neckwear Notes: Talking Ties with Bob Corliss

by Harry Sheff

When I was doing my research in December for my January furnishings story, I had a long conversation with Robert Talbott CEO Bob Corliss about the state of his company and of the neckwear business in general.

Bob Corliss with his son Bobby and daughter Shelby
Bob Corliss with his son Bobby and daughter Shelby

Corliss has made some changes at Talbott: shifting manufacturing from Asia to the U.S. and Europe, hiring more designers both in the U.S. and Italy, adding new product categories and, in Corliss’s words, “trying to behave more like a brand than a manufacturer.”

Robert Talbott, which was founded on shirts and ties, is today a full luxury lifestyle brand across many categories; neckwear is just one of them. Corliss is optimistic about the neckwear business—but he’s also realistic. At the Robert Talbott showroom party in New York last night, Corliss reiterated his commitment to neckwear and his excitement about pocket square business (and Talbott’s new baby bow tie lapel pin). Here is part of our conversation from December.

How is Talbott’s neckwear business doing?
Neckwear continues to hang in there but you have to work twice as hard to stay even. It’s the heart and soul of this company but other categories have more traction. Pocket squares ($50 and $75 retail) are incredibly strong. And we’re introducing an extra-trim-fit shirt for January market.

Tell me more about your pocket square business.
I really do believe that the pocket square is the tie of the decade. I think the explosion of beautiful pocket squares in every business took up the slack from neckwear. As neckwear went down, pocket squares went up dramatically, and I think that as pocket squares get more colorful and more beautiful, it will morph into neckwear, and ties will again become hot. I don’t know how soon but we’re ready for it. We have 63 years of experience and archives to tap into.

Robert Talbott Spring 2014We’ve heard from a lot of better and luxury retailers that their neckwear businesses have been flat.
Neckwear has reached a nadir of its existence. Casual Friday turned to casual everyday, everywhere—except in very specific markets. It’s only a natural conclusion that the formal and business wear categories will suffer. But the interesting thing is that at the lower end of the neckwear business (either by price or design), you see a pretty strong presence. How many skinny black ties have you seen in the last five years? How about a billion? We have 30 different black designs and styles. Neckwear is alive and breathing, but it’s not very active and dynamic.

The neckwear business has changed. We used to be one of the few expensive neckwear brands and now there are many more. It also opened the door for a lot of people in the middle: the $50 to $85 guys. (We have neckwear from $100 to $300.) The younger guy who’s wearing a $29.99 tie—at least he’s seeing the value of wearing a tie. As he grows and his taste grows, he’ll look for a better tie. I think we’ll be fine. Neckwear is a very challenging but meaningful part of our business and we remain committed to it. And we make them right here in Monterey.

How has your neckwear assortment changed?
If you come to our showroom in January, you’ll see a line with a more European presence and a broader range. The neckwear line has been reduced in scope, but it’s much more focused. We have archives of fabrics and design that go back to 1950. We have an absolute treasure trove that we’re starting to mine more aggressively now, and that has a real story from a marketing point of view.

Our neckwear is mostly three inches to three and a quarter. Repps and smaller patterns like medallions and dots do best. Bigger, bolder patterns have a smaller customer base.

Robert Talbott Spring 2014What can some of the retailers that have stagnant neckwear businesses do to improve sales?
It has to be a defined strategy. You have to decide to be the go-to place for ties in your market. Ties have to merchandised visually, not just on walls and tables, but a mix. You don’t need a shop-in-shop to make an impact with depth of product and placement of brands—although that is one option. The more my retail customers do that, the better business is for both of us.

There are very few neckwear companies out there that have perfectly original neckwear. This is almost a public domain: how many repps and neats and paisleys can you have? It’s almost a knock-off business. If I make something really cool, next season someone else is going say, hey, let me try that. At the end of the day, know your customer. If he’s a lawyer or banker, know him. You need to sell him, not just let him peruse the tie wall. Our job as makers is to be aware of that and to help in any way we can.

There’s been a shift over the past several years where guys my age and younger see ties as fashion accessories. Our fathers had to wear ties to work but many of us do it by choice.
Neckwear is no longer the postwar uniform that this company started on. Everything I’m wearing today is Robert Talbott—our Estate shirt, our denim and a beautiful cashmere sweater—but I rarely wear a tie to work. Neckwear for the younger generation is voluntary, an expression of who they are. My son, who works for me here at the company, wears a tie to work every day. I didn’t ask him to do that.

Any thoughts on the future of the tie business?
I’d like to see a neckwear industry panel discussion. What is the neckwear business today? What is it going to be like in five years? Why is it the way it is? How is it going to change? Who will the big players be? What’s behind that, both positive and negative? What’s the economic barrier? If pricing is at a bell curve, what’s the highest point? Is it $49? That’s really interesting empirical data that would shape business strategy. It would be a leading discussion, rather than a following discussion.