What’s New in Neckwear? (Besides Plunging Sales)

by Harry Sheff

Amid all the canned wisdom that percolates during a recession, we hear a lot of contradictory predictions about neckwear: Guys won’t buy a new suit because it’s too expensive—they’ll update their wardrobes with new furnishings and Ties never change, so guys will raid the backs of their closets when they need to wear ties for interviews. We hear that men never buy basics, only fashion in a recession. We also hear that guys never buy fashion in times like these, only basics.

So I wasn’t surprised to see some of this sort of wisdom in an article in the Chicago Tribune called, Tie sales knotted up by changes in men’s fashions. As most of the menswear industry knows, suits sales rose last year, but neckwear continued its decades-long slide with a steeper angle: down 18 percent in unit sales last year according to NPD Group figures cited in the article. In 2008, ties dropped a only 7.3 percent.

Reporter Sandra Jones, armed with information from NPD’s Marshal Cohen, avers that neckwear has changed little in ten years. Cohen must know better than most that there are changes in neckwear. I would argue that the narrowing of ties from nearly 4 inches to 3 inches (and less) is a big change, even if it wasn’t industry-wide. Plaids and repp stripes are bigger now than they were ten years ago, and prints are probably less of a factor now than they used to be. Paisleys have been creeping in again. Bow ties and knits, while small by volume have reached the fringes of the mainstream in major retailers like Macy’s. No, there have been changes in neckwear over the last decade—they just haven’t done anything to jumpstart sales.

Why not? I think the answer is deceptively simple: it’s because men today don’t know how to wear ties casually, and they’re afraid to look out of place in a world full of polo shirts and un-buttoned dress shirts. It’s like the fate of the penny loafer. Once a casual shoe, it was so completely displaced by sneakers that it looks formal today.

“No one wants to overdress,” fashion writer Tom Julian told the Tribune. “It’s very important to mirror the image of the company. I have had calls from (baby) boomers who are now going back out (on a job hunt) and realize their power-suit look is too much. They need to fit in.”

There are two distinct questions here: How to wear a tie casually (Esquire had some nice advice on that about a year ago) and how to wear ties in casual offices. These ideas below should help cover both situations.

1. Brighter colors are more casual. At the MRket Las Vegas trade show, Dion’s Peter Tsihlias showed me some bright plaids and solids (pictured here) out of silk shantung that feels like raw silk. See also GQ’s “Must-Have Spring Accessories” slideshow, which has a whole section on bright ties.

2. Different fabrics. Wools, cottons, chambrays, seersuckers, raw silks (or shantung as mentioned above) jolt the tie out of the traditional smooth silk mode. Any new texture will be much easier to wear casually.

3. Loosen the tie. The dapper sales training expert Frank Schipani once scolded me for wearing my tie loose around my neck. “It looks too casual,” he complained. Exactly. Loosen the tie, roll up the sleeves. The problem with ties is that they look so fussy. Mess them up a little.

4. Wear the tie without the suit for a change. Blazers and dress pants used to be casual. Now go with a blazer and jeans. Do your silk ties seem too formal with jeans? Wear a knit tie or a cotton one. Wear khakis and a cardigan. Or a leather, jean, or warm-up jacket.

5. Knit ties. I mentioned knit ties already, but I want to emphasize them: depending on the color and texture, they can go elegant enough for wedding (groom or guest) and casual enough for the weekend. If a knit tie is still too formal for weekend wear, surely it’s right for the office.

6. Narrow ties. The narrower tie will often look young to most consumers, and young can often mean casual. An older, more conservative man accustomed to wider ties may get away with a narrow one in casual situations. It may also take years off his appearance if he wears it the right way in the office.

Finally, some unsolicited advice for vendors and retailers: regular guys may find higher prices hard to justify for casual clothing, especially ties. This is one spot where the Tribune got it right, quoting TheTieBar.com’s Greg Shugar, who says ties have gotten too expensive.

When I see cotton ties for more than $60, I cringe (although I’d say the beautiful Gitman Vintage ties at $68—seen here at Blackbird in Seattle—just make the cut). Knit ties can be expensive, but H&M, Uniqlo and now Barbara Blank (see my previous blog) offer knits in very affordable polyesters that still look great. Rooster (pictured here), the iconic brand that MMG just bought from Aron Group (which went out of business last year), has great repp ties and dots retailing for around $49.50.

Anyone out there have ideas for how to make ties casual? Think I’m crazy? E-mail me at harrys@MRketplace.com.