Not Tied to Tradition, Bow Ties Make a Comeback

‘Black tie’ doesn’t have to be taken literally. Men can add flair to bows with color and pattern


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A couple of the hundreds of fabrics available from Carrot & Gibbs. The company’s ties are handmade from Italian silk, with mother-of-pearl buttons on the back. Owner Neil Borin says fashion rules have been relaxed for black-tie events, and that colorful bow ties are now acceptable.

 

When he started his business back in the late 1980s, Neil Borin was a 1-percenter.

No, he wasn’t among the rarefied class of affluent Americans claiming that status. Rather, he was among the 1 percent of American tie-wearing men who sported bow ties.

His company, Boulder, Colo.-based Carrot & Gibbs, began in 1987 and specialized, as it does today, in making custom-made silk bow ties. In those early days, the company catered to a decidedly specialized clientele.

“Back then, I remember reading a study that said it was a roughly 1-percent factor; there was only one out every 100 tie-wearing guys who wore bow ties,” says Borin, a Detroit native who grew up in southern California.

Once the accessory of choice among dweebs, creaky politicians, and stuffy professors, the bow tie was thought of as hopelessly square. The bow’s reputation wasn’t helped by the emergence of the comedic nerd Pee-wee Herman in the ’80s.

But a major shift has occurred in the last few years, “The bow tie is cool,” as the sci-fi bow-tie-wearing TV character Dr. Who (Matt Smith) likes to say. The transition happened largely because stylish younger guys suddenly made it OK to don a bow. Jude Law, Chris Brown, Ashton Kutcher, among many other actors and musicians, wear bow ties with flair, thereby giving the bow a sartorial stamp of approval among the hip.

“Bow ties have become cool,” Borin says, echoing Dr. Who, “and it’s been like a snowball rolling down a hill. As more guys see other guys wearing them, they want to try them, too.”

Borin’s bows aren’t run-of-the-mill ties. They’re handmade from fine Italian silk, with mother-of-pearl buttons instead of hooks on the back.

“I go to Italy about four times a year,” Borin says. “That’s the major perk of my business.”

At Carrot & Gibbs’ website, greatbows.com, customers can custom-order ties in different styles (such as butterfly, batwing, and diamond point) as well as in different widths and neck sizes. Borin offers hundreds of fabrics. Locally, Carrot & Gibbs ties, which retail for between $59.50-$75, are available at Carl Sterr in Birmingham, Van Boven in Ann Arbor; Emerald in the Park Shelton in Midtown Detroit; RHJ Clothier in Pleasant Ridge; and Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus locations.

“I like the fact that [the Carrot & Gibbs] ties are handmade and come with button adjustments on the back rather than a buckle, which means we can tie them for a man who can’t tie a bow tie,” haberdasher Sterr says.

Borin says the butterfly is by far his most popular style.

“Very few buy the batwings, even though I love wearing them,” he says. “There’s not a big difference; there’s just a little more fabric scrunching inside the knot [with batwings].”

For men who are clueless about how to tie a bow (see story below), Borin offers pre-tied ones, as well as what he calls “bow ties with training wheels” with a little stitch that can be cut once the fellow gets the hang of tying.

“If a guy really wants to learn, he can; it’s not the hardest thing in the world,” Borin says. “If you think back to when you learned to tie your shoes, that was far more daunting to a child.”

Many men will be sporting bows for the Charity Preview and other formal events, but the fashion rules for men have been relaxed, Borin and Sterr say. No longer is it required that all men in attendance have to resemble a rookery of penguins.  

“Customs and rules have been turned upside down,” Borin avers. “I don’t think black tie means to wear a black bow tie or cummerbund set; it just means to wear a tuxedo. After that, you can wear whatever you want with it.”

So bow ties can be virtually any color or pattern. Sterr says even the tuxedo doesn’t have to be basic black. “It can be pearl gray, navy, brown, or other colors,” he says. “Depending on the event, you can show some fun and creativity, but I’d always wear a bow tie with a tux.”

Shirts, too, don’t necessarily have to be frilly with wing collars. Spread or pointed collars are fine, Borin and Sterr agree.

Still, there are males who feel too self-conscious about sporting a bow tie outside of a formal event. Some may feel they’d look foppish, or that their body type (think excessively wide or skinny necks) precludes a bow.

Nonsense, Borin says.

“It’s all about your state of mind,” he says. ‘We have a great customer with a 21-inch neck. It’s all about knowing how to pull off the bow tie. Once you’ve got it and love wearing it, it’s all attitude.”

 

Know the Bow //

If you’re in the dark about how to tie a bow tie (something every man should know), forget the confusing step-by-step illustrations in fashion magazines and head straight for a YouTube demonstration — but not just any video. Carl Sterr and Neil Borin both recommend Lucky Levinson’s 1.10-minute tutorial, which is about as easy and direct a primer as you’ll find. At press time, it had exceeded 2.5 million views, making it the most-viewed video on tying a bow. Levinson, proprietor of Brittons clothing shop in Columbia, S.C., offers a practical, no-nonsense explanation. You may have to watch it a few times, but you’ll get the hang of it. Just remember the advice given on Carrot & Gibbs’ website: If at first you don’t succeed, tie, tie, again.

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