Untying neckwear

by Harry Sheff

It’s becoming increasingly clear that among better men’s stores, there are two very different neckwear customers who buy and wear ties in very different ways. One is traditional and the other is more contemporary; both men have money to spend on their wardrobes.

The traditional guy wears suits, and that’s where his neckwear goes: with the suit. He’ll wear an unconstructed blazer with jeans, but he’ll pair it with an open collar shirt rather than a tie. If he adds an accessory, it’s usually a pocket square.

The contemporary guy wears suits too, but he’ll readily pair a tie with casual sportswear. This customer looks for seasonal constructions and ties that can be paired with denim or chinos. He may wear a softcoat, but he’s just as likely to wear his ties—four-in-hand or bows—with sweaters or no jacket at all. He’ll wear ties on the weekends and evenings. Ironically, the new contemporary neckwear customer is actually emulating the habits of the traditional guy of decades ago.

Haberdash, a contemporary men’s shop in Chicago, carries Ivy Prepster ($75 retail) and The Hill-Side ($75 to $95), along with their own private label ($75 to $110), some of which is made in Italy. They’re adding Drake’s for fall. Haberdash does a good suit business, but their tie sales don’t seem to be connected to clothing.

“Traditionally in men’s stores you’ll get a guy buying ties when he buys his suits,” Haberdash’s Adam Beltzman told me. “We get lots of guys who come in just to buy a tie. It’s very common for us to sell a tie or two just because he wants to incorporate it into his everyday wardrobe. A lot of our customers will echo what our salesmen are doing in the store: they’ll wear ties with everything from cuffed denim and boat shoes to LBM blazers and washed button-down Gitman Vintage shirts. Ties are becoming an accessory that these guys won’t do without anymore.”

Ivy Prepster, a relatively new neckwear brand, focuses on knit ties. I asked its designer, Todd Tesoro, to weigh in. “A lot of our merchants don’t even stock suits, but they carry ties,” he said. “It’s accessorizing: denim or khakis, a shirt, a great tie and a nice pair of wingtip shoes.”

This split in the neckwear market became stark to me when I spoke to Steve Pruitt, a retail consultant who tracks trends for better men’s specialty stores. “Over the last six months, ties have gotten a little better, probably because of an increase in tailored clothing sales,” he said. “To keep it going, clothing will have to continue to improve. There’s been nothing in ties that has driven a lot of business. In the stores that I deal with, Zegna is probably the best seller, with Robert Talbott just behind that. People aren’t coming in saying, ‘Hey, beautiful tie, I want it.’ They’ll buy a tie with clothing and they’re not buying as much as they used to. Ties saw an uptick because guys were buying dress shirts without ties for so long.”

When I pointed to all the trends being embraced by customers of contemporary stores, Pruitt was unequivocal. “Ninety percent of the guys who wear ties on a regular basis don’t know these trends are going on.”

Too true. But instead of dwelling on the fact that guys don’t know knit ties and bow ties are cool again, why not see this as an opportunity? It’s not as hard as it sounds. Start by hiring younger salesmen and make sure they’re dressing the part. Add some more affordable sportswear lines to attract a younger customer. Show your customers creative looks on mannequins. Send out press releases on new items to menswear magazines and bloggers, and embrace social media. With a little effort, a traditional store can prepare for the future.