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Introducing Racked National's food feature, The Breakfast Club, wherein we convince all sorts of people in the fashion industry to eat breakfast with us and, totally beknownst to them, we plonk a tape recorder in the middle of the table while they eat.
Today's Breakfast Club victim is Alexander Olch, a Harvard-educated New York native filmmaker and neckwear designer. We stopped in at Tartinery Nolita for made-on-the-premises croissants, pastries, and smoothies.
Olch: I studied what at Harvard is called visual and environmental studies—which is, essentially, a fancy way of saying art. And my specialty focus was film. And so I made two films in school—one of which I sold to IFC. In fact, the souvenir that I made for the crew of my thesis film was a necktie—it just seemed like a more interesting idea than a T-shirt or a baseball cap or an embroidered jacket, the usual presents you get for a crew. That was the first tie I ever made.
I designed the fabric, and I tried to get it printed on silk, which turned out to be a whole adventure. It took me a long time to figure out what the mills were, how you went about printing silk, how you went about finishing it for the way it had to work in order for it to be sewn into a tie, how you even sew a necktie. I knew nothing.
I'd always worn ties because the school, Collegiate, I went to on the Upper West Side had a dress code, so you had to wear a tie and jacket everyday. It wasn't a uniform, so you could choose whatever tie you were going to wear. So I became interested in just collecting ties, but never had any intention of making them. The desire to make that one—it seemed to be a fun gift to make. And when that tie was done, friends of mine who did not work on the movie, Harvard friends who were, in 1999 and 2000 going onto careers in investment banking and law, saw the tie and asked, "Can I buy one?"
It was a silk print pattern of images of women's breasts done so small that you can't see what it is, and it just looks like quite a classy print. It had a sort of Ferragamo-Hermes kind of high-end twill print idea. And, so, sort of suitable for someone wanting to wear something to work, yet it had some humor to it. And that proved to be quite popular, and I just started selling those ties as a way to support myself as a filmmaker.
Life is interesting for doing lots of things. So as long as I can make stuff—whether that's a movie, an accessory, or other things, I'm just very interested in the art and practice of making things. I guess that could be somewhat unusual in this world of specialization.
After college, I was set up to go direct a movie in Spain. I had raised money, won grants from Harvard to make a documentary in Spain that was being produced by my former film teacher—a guy named Richard P. Rogers. He became ill and eventualy passed away in 2001 and I was left with this project sort of hanging and I couldn't figure out how to get it done. That project ort of fell apart.
I was in New York trying to figure out my next movie, building the necktie business, and I got a phone call from his wife, Susan Meiselas, to come help her fix his editing computer after his death. I went by his loft, which was halfway down the block from where I lived and started working on what eventually became The Windmill Movie, which is what I spent about seven years making—a movie about his, Richard's, last, unfinished film. So it uses all the footage that he shot to try to make his autobiography. And it's a movie about this guy trying to figure out how to make his own autobiography. So that played across the country last summer, it's still on HBO.
The tie business really was just something that grew organically. In order for the silk mills to take me seriously—it was a very difficult thing to do—I had to meet with a lot of people, meet with a lot of mills. In order for them to take me seriously, I couldn't just be one guy with one design. So I put together a portfolio of other designs, which, at first, were in order for these mills to take me seriously. And then once the ties were selling, and I started getting phone calls from people saying, "Do you have anything else?" I said, well, sure. It really just grew quite unintentionally and quite organically for a long time. For the first couple of years, I could sort of figure out where all the customers came from, it was like a friend of a friend of a friend who'd heard about it.
By 2004, it seemed to make sense to put up a website. So I just designed my own website, a lot of which is still in place today at olch.com. In 2004, there was not much at all in the luxury e-commerce area. At that point e-commerce had nothing to do with the luxury fashion sector. Here we were, this little company that was, and we very quickly got a lot of attention, because the site looked good. And in 2005, the New York Times picked two of our ties—one of them as the number one tie to buy for father's day in the Style section.
Racked: What happens when the Times picks your tie as the number one tie to buy for father's day?
Olch: You get a lot of orders.
We found out the week before that they were going to include us, so based on that, we tried our best to make extra ones, and then we were backordered for a while, and we tried our best to add different designs and other things to the site. And things really worked out. Once we had that, there was a certain amount of credibility we had, and we got more press. But we still didn't go into any retail stores until 2007, when we debuted at Bergdorf Goodman. So I think we were actually, oddly, an interesting example of the growth and continued power of e-commerce for the luxury fashion sector.
Today, we probably have about, about 35 stores, or so, worldwide. Our big clients are Bergdorf Goodman, we're national at Barneys, and across Europe and Japan. We're in Bon Marche in Paris as well as Colette, where we've been for many years, and Isetan in Tokyo. Japan has been with us since we started at Bergdorf. We've had quite loyal customers.
The environment I [grew up] in was unusual because it was a uniform, but it was sort of a directive as opposed to actual required piece of clothing. So there wasn't a specific jacket you had to wear. And it wasn't a specific tie you had to wear. There was, actually, a remarkable amount of freedom, for whatever you wanted to do, as long as you were wearing a tie and a jacket. And so people sort of embraced or rejected that as much as they could. There were certainly the guys who would do everything to disguise it. There were then the couple of us who embraced it, and really tried to dress up and enjoy going out and to thrift stores and buying all kinds of ties and weird jackets and that just became sort of a vehicle of creative expression.
I think, not to sound too prosaic, I think all art and creativity benefits from a certain boundary. Painting has a frame, Jazz has a certain song you riff off of. There's a certain form that inspired creativity, and that's true in pretty much all art forms.
If you're making feature films, you know you're making something that's got to be about an hour and a half to two hours long, it's going to have to work in certain ways if it's going to play in certain screens or television—they're forms. And I think the human creative spirit lends itself to probem-solving. So when you create a set of proiblems, that's when it's easiest, I think, to come up with interesting solutions.
I still wear a tie every day, but I would say the overall spirit of my dressing has definitely changed. When I was younger, I was much more interested in a kind of dandy, Oscar Wilde kind of aesthetic. Now I'm much more interested in the contrast of being low-key and formal at the same time. So a lot of the collection is also about that in the sense that I like neckties that don't feel formal, that don't feel dressy.
A tie is a good arena and forum to explore the difference between sort of casual and formal and uptown and downtown—sort of interesting contrasts. Other things we do also embody the same thing. Handkerchiefs—we do these round handkerchiefs which, becuase thye're round, when you fold them up, basically end up finishing almost like a little flower. It's, actually in a way, more casually to wear because you just stick it in your pocket instead of having to fold it in some careful way.
We have a facotry in Brooklyn, where everything is made. So everything has a label that says "Handmade in New York." it doesn't even say "Made in the USA." Everything is made in the five boros of New York, which is very important to us.
There used to be a lot of neckwear made in the US. In neckties and neckwear in general, unlike a lot of other garments, the primary cost is fabric. If you lay out your costs as a producer, you're well over 50%—usually more like 75% of your costs—are fabric. Therefore, decreasing labor costs by moving overseas is not as important to the neckwear industry as it could be to other industries, where labor costs are much larger part of your overall cost structure. Neckwear, for that reason, will always be one of the last things to leave the US because it's useful to have a factory close to your deliveries. We've taken that to the extreme, where we can turn around orders very quickly. We handmake things in the city for our customers very quickly. We supply our stores with orders very fast.
I think there was a time, about 2006, when I was thinking about giving up the designing. It didn't feel like it was going to grow, I felt like I'd sort of run out of ideas. I'd always been, at that point, trying to design with a customer in mind—some sort of imagined banker, some sort of imagined executive, some guy I didn't know. That had good enough results, but it wasn't quite right. So I said, I'm just going to forget that, and I'm just going to make a bunch of ties that I want to wear and I'm going to show this to some stores, and if nobody likes them, so be it, and at least I'll have about 60 ties that I'll get to wear, and it'll be cool. And that's the collection that Tommy Fazio, the then-men's director of Bergdorf Goodman, saw.
And so I've always taken that—that Bergdorf and everybody responded the best to stuff that I just designed for myself—and since then, I've always stuck with that. Literally, designed stuff that I want to wear. Because I only wear my own ties. I know I'll be stuck wearing these things for the next season, so what do I want to wear for the next six months? I just do that.
· Alexander Olch [Official Site]
· The Breakfast Club, full series [Racked]