Alumni Connections: All Tied-Up

Traditionally, neckties that could be described as ‘out-right fun’ were only seen dangling from the necks of eccentric college professors and Joe Six-Pack. It used to be that well-dressed contemporary men would not be caught dead in a whimsical tie. That is of course, until Lee Allison, a former investment banker and ad-man, made them cool.

Armed with only a head full of ideas, Allison founded The Lee Allison Company (a necktie design company) in the spring of 1995. The company was started in a first-floor apartment in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. Quickly outgrowing the apartment, the business was moved in the fall of 1995 to a 5,000 square foot loft in the Bucktown area of Chicago, where it remains today.

Allison’s distinctive ties are a mixture of the commonplace, the traditional and the totally contemporary details of human life with a twist. His rise as a talented neckwear designer has been dramatic. He has been recognized for his innovation by In Style magazine and the Beverly Hills Courier. Allison’s ties have graced the necks of a long list of film, television and news celebrities including – Kevin Spacey, Conan O’Brien and Pierce Brosnan. His neckwear has been seen on Wings, ER, Ally McBeal and Homicide. I chatted recently with Allison about his passion for design and the necktie business.

Harbus: Why a necktie company?

Lee Allison: For a variety of reasons. One, I have always loved clothing.
Two, the capital required to start a tie business is not that high. Three, it is an easy to understand product. Four, it was the mid-nineties when I started the company and neckties were still very much a part of the corporate wardrobe.

Harbus: How difficult was it to get started?

LA: Starting out, I tried to be a wholesale designer. Very quickly, however, I learned that it was really hard to catch the eye of [wholesale] buyers. Fortunately, I discovered early that the end consumer loved my ties when they had a chance to see them. Soon I found myself in situations where I would be showing ties to friends at a restaurant and end up selling ties out of my brief case to people at neighboring tables. After awhile, I started asking myself: why am I trying to go through wholesaler to get to the end consumer when I can do it myself? So I decided to create and a catalogue to sell directly to consumers. Today, we have a very small business force that sales directly to the end consumer and to wholesales who resale through better retailers.

Harbus: Any danger of channel conflict?

LA: Selling to both consumers and wholesalers could lead to channel conflict, but it has not really been a problem. When we sell directly to the consumer we charge prices that are at the high end of our price range and we are very respectful of our retail partners.

Harbus: Are your designs original?

LA: I initially thought that to be a designer I needed to design the fabric. I though that original designs were hugely important. For instance, I use to produce my own striped ties. I was working with this 300 year old silk mill that already had every conceivable stripe you could image, yet I was spending lots of time trying to create my own designs so that I could say that they were my own. I did not realize that most designers just looked at what had already been designed and just figured out what to buy and simply put their names on it. I guess I was just letting my ego get in the way, when in actuality it really does not matter all that much to the consumer that your designs are original.

Harbus: Are all of your designs whimsical?

LA: When I first started, all of my designs were conversational. By that I mean they had themes on them, like bowling pins, pink flamingos, hearts, spades, and diamonds. Overtime, the line has evolved and we are now split 50/50 between conversational ties and traditional ties (stripes, polka dots and geometric shapes). [After] we added more fabric designs, our next evolution was into things like bow ties, cummerbunds, suspenders, and now even pillow cases for the home market.

Harbus: Necktie widths are always yo-yoing; are you in the slim or wide

LA: Our ties are neither slim nor wide. We try to take more of a classic approach to ties like Hermes and Ferragamo. One reason for that is that it is a pain from an inventory perspective to stock different widths. If you make your ties too trendy and then you don’t sell out of them, you are stuck with a bunch of out dated ties. Two, I think one of the neat things about being a man as compared to being a woman is that men are able to buy really good quality clothing and can essentially always wear it. The classic look is always in, so we settled on a width that’s classic and proportional to the average man.

Harbus: Has the business casual movement affected sales?

LA: It hasn’t hurt my business so much because I’m a small boutique operation. But certainly necktie sales are down from peak years. The interesting thing, however, is that the business casual push has not hurt [tie sales] as much as you might think. [Industry wide] necktie sales are down 20-30 percent from peak years. However, when you consider that guys used to wear ties on average four to five days a week and now on average only wear ties one day a week, you would expect tie sales to be down as much as 80 percent. I think some men just have an addiction to neckties, similar to how some women have an addiction to handbags and shoes.

Harbus: Why do American men have an aversion to neckties?

LA: My lighthearted answer is that their shirt collars are too small. Usually when I hear a guy complain that he doesn’t like to wear a tie, I notice that his shirt collar is too tight. More seriously, there is this notion among men that when they wear a necktie they are doing it at the behest of someone or something. Nowadays, it is either a boss or a situation like a funeral or a wedding that forces men to wear ties. There is an element of control involved and men tend to want to rebel against that control. It’s unfortunate because I believe that men look great in ties.