Inquiries & Responses vol. 04: Otis James, Tiemaker
Posted on July 7, 2011
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with people who have a keen interest in menswear, style, design, or generally cool stuff. Most of these people are doing something of great note that you should absolutely take a look at.
I remember a little over six months ago stumbling across a tie maker in Nashville by the name of Otis James and was roped in by how awesome his branding is. It doesn’t pander to the ultra-modern, super hip marketing sector and it doesn’t follow suit with the urban-woodsman vibe that everyone’s going for these days. He had his own thing going on and I loved it. The idea of unique fabrics, unique neckwear, and if you custom ordered, having your own name on the back of the tie; I loved everything about it. I only half expected him to respond to an interview request yet here he is, kind enough to chat for a few minutes. Check out the entire interview by clicking below.
AC: Tell me a bit about yourself and how the neckwear business got off the ground?
OJ: My name is Otis James, and I make hats and ties in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m in my late 20s, a graduate of film school, and an avid cyclist. I’ve done two big solo tours that have brought me through 22 United States and 2 Canadian provinces. I’m pretty hands on and love to understand the things I use in my life; how they work, how they’re made, why they’re made that way, etc. I made several of the items I used most on my second tour, such as my front bike rack and bags and my alcohol stove.
I’ve been in the neckwear business for just over a year now, but I stumbled into making ties two years ago. I was working at a tuxedo shop in Nashville while teaching myself how to make clothing. (Or rather talking about teaching myself to make clothing.) A coworker asked if I could make ties for her father and brother for Father’s Day. Despite never having made a tie before, I said I could do it. They turned out well, and from there I started doing some weddings and making ties for friends. I saw it as a way to make some extra cash on the side. Somehow word started to get around, and next thing I knew I had made a small name for myself around town as a tie-maker. I kept asking myself, ‘do I really want to pursue ties?’ But every time I had my doubts, something encouraging would come along and push me forward. So I started a business, got a wholesale account in town, eventually launched a website, and everything took off from there.
AC: When did you learn to sew and what was it about neckwear specifically that drew you in?
OJ: I taught myself to sew by hand when I was younger. I must have had to patch something and was too stubborn to ask for help, although my mom was pretty good at sewing. In college a girlfriend taught me how to use a sewing machine. I would always ask her to take in the sides on my dress shirts, and eventually she got tired of doing it and just showed me how to do it myself. I really learned how to sew, however, from hanging out in a tailor shop for a few months when I first moved to Nashville in 2009. I became very good friends with the tailor at a high-end clothing store and would just sit in the shop and watch these seamstresses crank through alterations. It really is an amazing sight; so much control, operating purely on muscle memory. The tailor, Loretta, would also show me how to do alterations and let me practice on work she was doing. She would alter one half of the garment to demonstrate how it’s done, then hand it to me and say ‘okay, now you do the other half.’ Alterations didn’t really come naturally to me, but I learned so many great techniques for handling and manipulating fabric, and I got to observe the construction of garments. I became obsessed with studying how things were put together, like trying to figure out what the finishing stitch is on any garment. Being able to take things apart and put them back together was a great lesson.
As for neckwear, like I said, I stumbled into it. It was never a conscious intention. Once I started making ties, however, I got caught up in the challenges of making the perfect tie; figuring out how to balance weight, thickness, and drape. There are actually a few different methods and variations to making ties. I haven’t tried them all, but I’ve found a method that I really like, and I still make small changes and experiments as I try to make the best possible ties out of a wide range of fabrics. I don’t wear a lot of ties, but once I started making them, I decided I wanted to make ties that are not like anything you would buy in most stores. No silk twill or polyester. No rep stripes or repeating logos or emblems. I’m not really into that kind of stuff. I like beautiful colors and rich textures. I want you to look at or pick up the tie and say ‘wow, I’ve never seen a tie like this one.’ But I don’t want it to be a spectacle in any way. I’m a man of practical tendencies. I want to make ties that are unique but accessible.
AC: You’ve got some pretty unique fabrics on your availability list. Things like orange houndstooth and checked linen aren’t in the typical lineup for any tie maker’s repertoire. How do you go about choosing your materials?
OJ: Well, continuing on my last response, I do seek fabrics that I think are unique to ties. My process is pretty visceral. It either strikes me or it doesn’t. Usually that starts with color; I love subdued color. Then there is the texture. I like materials with texture of feel and color. Shiny solids just don’t do it for me. Give me a slubby linen or woven wool, something with character. Most of the fabrics I choose have a subtle beauty, I would say. I’m outgoing and friendly, but I’m not ostentatious, and I think my materials reflect that. Like I said, I want it to be a tie you’ve never seen before, but one you can easily picture yourself wearing.
One consequence of choosing non-traditional tie materials is the struggle to make a final product that is outstanding in quality. The silks you find in a standard tie are used for a reason. They have properties that lend themselves well to tie construction. Many of the linens and wools I use do not. So it’s a challenge to work the material into the desired product. I don’t mind, though. To me, the struggle is noble. I’ve never really been able to take the easy route. I did my first bike trip up the west coast, about 2000 miles, on a single-speed bicycle. For the second tour, which took me around most of the country, I knew I was going to be crossing two mountain ranges, so I stepped it up to a three-speed. I could have made it easier, sure, but the accomplishment was that much sweeter knowing the extent of the challenge. Ties are the same way for me. Sure, I could easily make a silk twill necktie, but I wouldn’t feel quite the same about it. That’s not to say there aren’t materials I won’t use, however. I’ve done some linens that I won’t implement ever again, but for the most part, I’m always up for the challenge of something new.
AC: The custom order thing is pretty awesome; a unique way for people to make their accessories their own. Do you find yourself catering more to the custom order crowd or the stock sales? Additionally, how do you create the labels for your ties?
OJ: When I first started, all I wanted to do was custom. I had no desire to sell retail or wholesale. The trouble was I wasn’t really getting very many commissions that truly inspired and excited me. People were asking for somewhat standard ties. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be attracting the commissions I wanted if no one had seen the kind of work I wanted to be doing. So I approached the wholesale avenue to get my name out there. Having complete creative control is fun for me, but my greatest satisfaction comes from working with someone else in a collaborative setting. My work now is fairly well-balanced between stock and custom. Most of my custom work is weddings. Somehow people all over the country find my site and commission me to do ties for their big day. I’ve also done plenty of birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Father’s Day custom ties. I like one-of-a-kind items, so there is a special satisfaction in creating a tie that no one else will ever have. Plus, I like the challenges that arise from custom commissions. I find myself happiest doing work that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between boring and ordinary and really far out there and wild. Challenge me to make something different, but please don’t ask me to make something absurd or impractical.
The labels on my ties have been through a constant metamorphosis since I first began. I have done a lot of experimenting with different materials and techniques. In the beginning, everything was hand-painted. Originally I wanted to use a marker so that everything could be written in my handwriting, but I was never able to find the ideal marker/fabric combo that would work with my writing style. So I started using textile paints. I found I was able to get a fair amount of control and detail, so I could paint about anything. It just wasn’t in my handwriting. Now, the labels are mostly hand-stamped. Painting everything just wasn’t sustainable. I realized that the extensive amount of time required in painting every letter and number on each label was just taking away time and energy that was better devoted to maintaining and improving the quality of the ties. It was a tough choice, but in the end, I really like the aesthetic of the stamped labels better. Plus, stamping allowed me to do my name on the labels in my handwriting, which pleases me. I do still paint the customer’s name by hand, as well as any custom message that someone may request. The labels themselves are a hemp/organic cotton/non-organic cotton blend tape. They are durable, natural, simple and accommodate stamps and paint well.
AC: When you think of the ultimate tie, the best style a man can wear, what first comes to mind? Also, what do you find yourself wearing most?
OJ: This really is a tough question for me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s difficult for me to think of an ultimate tie. I like so many different styles; I don’t think I could ever settle on one and call it the best, even for myself. Second, I’ve never been the kind of guy that thinks about things in universal terms. I think every individual has unique tastes and requisites that determine his or her ideal style. I think the build of the wearer and the clothing the tie is to accompany should determine the width of the tie. Some people look better in skinny ties, others should stick to wider ones. Plus, I like to think of style as a personal matter. It’s a form of self-expression, and therefore should not be too heavily swayed by trends and fashion blogs, pushy designers and loud-mouthed critics, although some influence is inevitable, and nice from time to time. That being said, I like ties that are subtle in beauty, full of texture and character, and compliment the wearer’s physique, attire, and attitude.
I actually do not wear ties too often myself. Most of my time is spent in my studio or on a bicycle, but when the occasion arises, I can be found wearing any number of my prototypes or samples. More often than any other, probably, I will wear the first tie I made for myself, which has a six-fold, unlined construction in a linen with slate blue yarn running one way and a kind of burnt orange running perpendicular, creating a stunning color texture. It looks great all tied up, but flip it around, and it’s sloppy as hell. Still, I love it just as much as the tie that I often consider to be one of the best I’ve made.
Now if you really want to know about what I wear all the time that I make, well, that would be hats. I wear one every single day. Perhaps we can have that conversation sometime soon.
OJ: The hats are a work in progress. Currently I am only doing custom offerings, as I build up my patterns and finalize my design details. Right now I’m working on a line for a shop here in town, Imogene + Willie, that I hope to have ready in a few weeks. It’s a six-panel summer newsboy cap. They should follow shortly after on the website. So really, there isn’t too much else to say at the moment. I’ll send you a picture of the caps when they are ready.
OJ: The bike I used was an old steel frame road bike, I think a Nishiki. I painted over the original paint job. For the west coast ride, I just had a single-speed rear wheel on there. For the second trip, I upgraded to a Shimano Nexus 3-speed internally geared hub with a coaster brake. I knew I was going to need a low gear to climb the Appalachians and the Rockies. It’s the bike I still ride today. I must have put well over 10,000 miles on that thing so far.