I BELIEVE THAT BUSINESS OWNERS HAVE A CERTAIN RESPONSIBILITY TO ACT WITH INTEGRITY, AND THAT IT’S POSSIBLE TO RUN A FOR-PROFIT COMPANY WITH A MISSION BEYOND TURNING THE HIGHEST PROFIT POSSIBLE.
What inspired you to begin making handmade neckties?
I was a women’s woven tops & dresses designer at Abercrombie for several years. I initially was on their (now extinct) Ruehl brand, then on Hollister, and then on Abercrombie (both women and girls). Towards the end of my tenure at ANF, I was designing shirts and sat next to the men’s team for a while. I think that being around menswear designers all the time was definitely influential, and before I knew it, half of my inspirational material was more masculine in nature. I’ve also always been a bit of a tomboy – never liking pink or too many frills.
Making neckties really just started as a hobby or personal challenge. At RISD, we were constantly drafting our own patterns and making stuff, and I started to miss that after a while. When I needed a way to raise money to fund some volunteer work I wanted to do overseas, I figured that if I could make something to sell to people, it wouldn’t be so awkward to ask for money. Men’s neckties seemed like a fun thing to try.
What makes your products unique?
Apart from certain design details (that could be considered unique) and my collaboration with artists like Kari Breitigam, all of my products are made in the US using sustainably sourced fabrics. It was important to me to support American manufacturing while reducing my carbon footprint as much as possible. A lot of companies using sustainable materials are a little elitist in their pricing, and I wanted my pricepoints to remain competitive. I realized that with certain wardrobe essentials, it’s not always so much about reinventing the wheel, as it is about doing things a little differently.
You describe your production as being done the “right way, even if it is not the easiest.” What does this mean to you?
I believe that business owners have a certain responsibility to act with integrity, and that it’s possible to run a for-profit company with a mission beyond turning the highest profit possible. Just because something’s not illegal doesn’t make it right, you know? When I started my company, I realized that I had the opportunity to set the rules. I had no shareholders to appease. Instead of complaining about the way that the fashion industry tends to do things, I could finally put my money where my mouth was. Was this easy? No. Do a majority of the American people care about their carbon footprint? Probably not. But–and here’s the thing–do I care? And the answer was yes. So I built my business around the things that matter to me. Are there things I wish I could do better? Sure. But it’s a start. And as I continue to improve, my hope is that the industry as a whole will start to change with me. The concept of sustainability and ethical production have already began to become buzz words, which is encouraging.
Tell us a bit about the collaboration with Kari Breitigam.
Kari and I met at a holiday pop up shop that benefits the local artist community. She had a booth near mine filled with the most beautifully dyed scarves and handmade jewelry. I later asked her if she’d be interested in collaborating on a menswear line, and she was excited to try something different. What a lot of people don’t immediately realize is that she actually hand-dyed all of the fabric for the ties and bow ties–they weren’t digitally printed to look that way.
DON'T LET OTHERS (OR SUCCESS) DEFINE YOU. YOU CANNOT LOOK TO OTHERS FOR VALIDATION, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARE TRYING TO CHANGE THE STATUS QUO IN AN INDUSTRY.
What is the most rewarding part of running your own business?
I love the freedom that I have to collaborate with other artists or experiment with different ideas. I don’t want to say that I’m not a team player, but when you work for someone else, everything you do is to fulfill the vision of the name on the label. It’s difficult to still have time for your own projects when you spend all of your creative energy at work.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Maintain clarity in your goals. It’s important to have a solid vision of what you’re trying to do, not only with design direction, but also in the way you do business. I identified early on that I felt a certain responsibility to be part of the change I wanted to see in the industry. That’s not something I can compromise, because such hypocrisy would weaken my platform. However, there are exceptions to every rule: I think that it’s necessary to have enough self awareness to be able to take a step back every now and then and ask, “Is this working?” “How are we choosing to define success here?” If things aren’t going well, being humble enough to figure out why.
Don’t let others (or success) define you. You cannot look to others for validation, especially when you are trying to change the status quo in an industry. People will not always applaud your efforts, so it is important to check your motives if you find yourself feeling discouraged. In an interview with the NYT, Diane von Furstenberg once said, “the most important thing you can do is to do something you like and be sure that you’re true to yourself. The worst thing in life is doing something because you think that somebody wants you to do it. At least if you do things because you think you should do them, then it’s O.K. if you make a mistake. It’s easier to swallow because it was your decision.”It’s become kind of a mantra for me. I struggle with being a people pleaser, so I have to remind myself that it’s my responsibility to go after my dreams.
Avoid the victim mentality. If something did not work out as planned, learn from it and move on; never be a victim. In the same interview, Von Furstenberg also talked about how her mother–an Auschwitz survivor–taught her that “[…] fear is not an option. And no matter what happens, never be a victim. Life is a journey, and when you face obstacles the only thing you can do is accept them and embrace the reality. Very often, with things that are bad or not what you wanted, it’s your job to turn them into something positive.” It’s our job to control our reaction to setbacks and to make the most out of bad situations.
Recognize your weaknesses. None of us are perfect. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. However, naturally having certain weaknesses does not mean that we cannot work to improve them. For example, I am naturally an introvert. It is not easy for me to initiate a conversation with someone I do not know well. Recognizing this deficiency should give me all the more reason to make more of an effort to overcome my shyness. Consequently, when I am in situations requiring me to be more outgoing, I have to make conscious decision to act out of character, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable.
You can’t be too hard on yourself. It is okay to make mistakes now and then, as long as it does not become a regular thing. You have to maintain perspective and keep the long game in mind. Failure is not ideal, but sometimes it happens. And you can’t allow yourself to be defined by that. Learn from your mistakes, make the most of what you have the power to change, and move on.