One of the benefits of the recent boom in interest men’s clothing has been the sprouting of grassroots companies that fulfill the niche-y desires of hobbyists—Styleforum favorite Howard Yount, for example, or startup the Knottery, which launched last summer. Based in Brooklyn, the Knottery is run by friends Jay Arem and Jack Fischman, who make limited runs of men’s accessories: ties, pocket squares, and belts among them. Overwhelmingly, their items are well-made and often infused with a humor that cuts the potential mustiness of the men’s furnishings business.
Tempted by the low prices the Knottery offers (ties start at $25; less than the sale price of most fine neckwear), I picked up a couple of wool models last fall, a square-ended cable knit tie in navy and a tweedy, point-ended model with a chambray keeper. The ties knot well and are nicely proportioned—most are 3 inches at the widest, some knits a little narrower. The company does not intend to compete with the neckwear you’ll find in the salons of Napoli that Derek has been covering; rather they offer “affordable style for the initiated; attainable style to the beginner.” To me that’s a worthwhile niche to fill.
I spoke with Jay about getting the Knottery off the ground, and what he and Jack have in store.
Pete Anderson: How did you first get into the business of men’s accessories?
Jay Arem: I had been an avid internet style blog reader for the last few years. I had been working as a manager of a branch of an energy company, and always wanted to do something more creative, but couldn’t find my platform. I had originally wanted to blog, but after many nights staring at the blinking cursor on a blank word document, I realized that it wasn’t gonna work. The accessory business idea started as a joke between me and my now-partner, then-friend Jack after a movie one night. He had been involved in a bunch of different e-commerce ventures in the past but never retail or “fashion.” I made a crude mockup of a site on PowerPoint and emailed him the next day. We agreed to each invest $500 and in the worst case have a bunch of ties to give out as gifts for the rest of our lives.
PA: When exactly did you launch? The Knottery is well past worst case now—you stock ties, pocket squares, lapel flair, and small leather goods. What’s been the most interesting stuff to source?
JA: We went live in June 2011. We have fun every day. Each item presents its own challenge to source. Jack and I both share an interest in production, fabrication, and the sort. While the internet does offer many opportunities to find sourcing for a plethora of items, it remains difficult to find manufacturers of specific items.
PA: Was it truly a from-scratch operation, starting up? Did you have relationships that you could take advantage of at the start, as far as manufacturing, design, etc.?
JA: The whole thing began as a hobby. The website was hard-coded on a per hour basis by freelancers from that original mock-up. The designing was all from scratch. We had a few leads for overseas manufacturing from some of Jack’s other dealings to start out.
PA: The ties you guys carry are interesting–they rely a lot on knits, non-silk fabrics, and texture. Where do you think you get your design sense/aesthetic taste?
JA: It kind of came about from two separate directions: One, we began with fabrics that we could source at lower quantities, not going the standard route of buying direct from silk mills. Two, we wanted to make ties that we would own and wear. As two guys who have “dressed up” every day for the better part of the last decade, our aesthetic leans toward the dressed up casual look.
PA: That look seems to be pretty on-trend with a lot of men’s clothing right now: suits and ties for men who choose to wear them, rather than men trying only to meet the minimum requirements of a dress code. Regarding your fabric choices and sources, is working outside what may be the standard business model for makers–e.g., not buying from silk mills directly–a method you plan on continuing, or was it more a matter of necessity?
JA: A bit of both. It also allowed/forced us into pushing the boundaries of conventional fabric sourcing. One of our first ties were made from an Etsy purchase I had sitting in my closet for about a year. On the other hand we also want to produce some “regular” ties and therefore buy some materials from mills, such as a grenadine we are in the middle of perfecting.
PA: I assume that Etsy fabric made for a small run. How many ties do you usually do per design? Can you tell us a little about construction of the Knottery ties?
JA: We do 50-100 per style usually. Construction, because of the unconventional nature of some of our fabrics we have played and experimented with different linings each time. We continually strive to achieve and are constantly learning more about what makes a tie great. We have sewn many a tie sample ourselves to test out different linings and silhouette dimensions pre-production. Currently most of our ties are lined and self tipped (when possible).
PA: Regarding construction–are your ties all made in one place, or is it sort of make-em-where-it-makes-sense? There’s a great “brewery” based in Maryland called Stillwater that is really just a guy who makes beer at various breweries, depending on what he wants to make and what capabilities he needs.
Also, the Knottery’s non-knottable goods–how did the belts, lapel flowers, and eyeglass “chains” come about?
JA: We use three different factories, depending on the item. The other categories were just a natural extension of what we were doing. Our mission statement has become: “if we want it, let’s try to make it.” That is why we have a cap coming in in the next week or so [eds note: a collaboration with Fairends].
PA: How has reception to the Knottery’s stuff been? To what do you attribute success so far?
JA: We have gotten great feedback. We love what we do and some of the best parts of all this have been meeting people who have similar passions, getting emails from different people just wanting to say hello or make a suggestion.
PA: I should follow up on the production question—one of my ties is marked “Made in USA”—are the factories all in the states? The ties I’ve seen from you are, in my opinion, very good value, as I bought them for $25. Your current tie prices sell for $25 to $35, and made-in-USA belts all under $70. Do you expect to be able to keep retail prices low as you grow?
JA: We use a factory in China for some of our ties. We use this factory because frankly it wasn’t possible to achieve certain ties at the price points where we needed to be. We are all for Made in the USA , but we put quality and affordability before country of origin.
We hope to continue keeping our prices the same or close to what they are.
PA: I think shoppers appreciate honesty as far as country of origin goes, although made-in-Italy and made-in-USA, among others, will always carry value. One last question—there’s a winking humor in much of what the Knottery does: from your web copy to your designs, including the dub-monk club tie. Where does that come from?
JA: We wholeheartedly agree about the origin carrying value, and continually search for more avenues of U.S. production.
The humor is a natural representation of our brand because its a natural representation of Jack and me as friends. Our daily goal is to outwit one another. For the sake of this interview, I usually am the winner.