Well, I can tell you," says John Haller, vice president at Robert Talbott Inc., the most renowned U.S. tiemaker, "that our more expensive lines of neckwear are selling better than our starting lines."
Which just goes to confirm what I've been thinking lately, namely, that ties are coming back. I base my theory on the ironically commonplace observation that fewer men are forced to wear them. All this business about casual wear at the office has left men with the choice to tie or not to tie, and so neckwear has finally come full circle to where it was some three centuries earlier: an object of pure ornamentation and aesthetic delight.
Since ties need no longer be the symbols of conformity and regimentation, men are free to take real pride in their selections, rather than grumbling and muttering as they sling any old piece of tattered cloth around their necks because it's part of the uniform. Ties become part of that array of little gifts, those affordable luxuries if you will, that bring a satisfaction and repose often denied to the deeper moments of life: a wonderful cigar or fine glass of Port, a handsome pair of cashmere socks, or that wonderful little antique leather photo frame we saw in the shop window the other day. Just the thing to celebrate making it through another frenzied week.
But the surest proof I can muster as evidence that neckwear is gaining in popularity is the recent return of the seven-fold tie. Never heard of it? It is the stuff of legend, the consummation of craftsmanship, the dream of dandies and the pride of collectors of fine menswear everywhere. Let me fill you in a bit on that.
The Edwardian years, from the 1880s to the First World War, were the salad days for bespoke accoutrement: a gentleman would even have his raincoat and umbrella custom-made. Spats and silk top hats were still in vogue, as were walking sticks and boutonnieres. Tailors sewed a loop of thread behind the left lapel buttonhole to hold the stem of the flower securely in place. There were even tiny glass bottles that were filled with water and secured by the loop, to keep the boutonniere fresh. These boutonniere bottles are collector's items today, relics of a lost time.
The matter of neckwear was of particular concern. Had not Oscar Wilde written in The Importance of Being Earnest that "a well-tied tie is the first serious step in life"? There was much more variety and individualism to neckwear then than there is today. There were, of course, cravats (the famous Ascot being only one of a dozen popular styles), bow ties (tied symmetrically and asymmetrically), and literally dozens of ways of knotting a long tie besides the four-in-hand style that is de rigeur today. It was this fertile period that laid the groundwork for the renowned seven-fold.
As early as 1828, the prolific French writer Honoré de Balzac had written, under a nom de plume, a treatise entitled "The Art of Tying the Cravat," which contained lessons on making 32 different knots. Instructive volumes of that type acted as something of a sartorial bridge between the great Regency dandies of the 1810s and '20s and their Edwardian grandsons.
Neckwear, as the earlier nineteenth century had understood it, was a large muslin scarf, folded over several times to form the shape of a band anywhere from four to eight inches high and perhaps three feet long. It was wrapped several times around the neck and knotted in some fashion over the throat. Over the succeeding decades, however, neckwear began to evolve from this thickly folded scarf to a narrow band easily knotted under the smaller, stiff collars that became standard for businessmen's shirting.
To avoid damage due to the inevitable wrinkling as the tie was knotted and unknotted again and again, superior tiemakers relied on the finest silks, turning the fabric in on itself several times to provide stability and resiliency. Experimentation led to the discovery that, if the finest silks were used, folding the fabric in on itself seven times proved the perfect tie: body without bulk, resiliency without stiffness. That meant using a whole square yard of fabric for each tie! The seven-fold became the epitome of the tiemaker's art, fashionable with the celebrated haberdashers of London, Paris and New York in the early years of this century. It wasn't until later, in the 1920s, that tiemakers found a cheaper way to make ties by using smaller strips of material cut on the bias, stitching them together in several sections, and using wool linings to give some added body to flimsier silks.
As cheaper, mechanized methods of producing these section-sewn ties quickly replaced the artisans, and as the price of superior silk increased dramatically over the decades, the seven-fold tie slowly disappeared, vanishing by the late 1940s. Up until a few years ago, it seemed all but forgotten, one of those fashion dinosaurs doomed by an age of McEverything.
But now for the good news: two species of the rara avis, this crown jewel of neck ties, have been found alive and well--one in the United States, the other in Italy.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Talbott Inc. of Carmel, California, decided to revive the seven-fold. It began as a labor of love. Robert Talbott, the company's founder, had been familiar with the seven-fold, and even had a pattern. It had been shown to him back in the 1950s by one of his employees, a woman named Lydia Grayson, who had learned the prestigious seven-fold technique as a teenager working in a Chicago neckwear factory during the late 1920s.
But the project lay dormant as other concerns occupied Talbott. "Then, as I recall," muses company executive John Haller, "back in 1984 Mr. Talbott phoned Mrs. Grayson, who had since retired, and asked her if she remembered how to make the seven-fold. She did indeed, and he convinced her to come out of retirement to train a small staff specifically to hand-craft seven-folds. He had apparently kept this idea about making the world's finest tie in his mind all those years." Talbott, who died in June 1986, lived long enough to see that dream come true.
In Naples, Italy, the acclaimed tailoring firm of Kiton decided several years ago to set aside a section of its factory to hand-production of the seven-fold. "Kiton has a reputation for artisanship in tailoring," says Andrew Tanner, spokesman for the company, "and the firm was interested in reviving this tradition in neckwear, especially since we had a business association with the famed Neapolitan shirtmaking firm of Luigi Borrelli. This area of Italy is renowned for artisans of all sorts, and we were able to find people who knew how to make the tie."
The great irony of making the handsome seven-fold--whether by Robert Talbott or Kiton--is that it is a skill-intensive business, yet utter simplicity itself. The cutter starts with a square yard of finest silk. Talbott favors exclusive silks from a small mill in northern Italy. Unlike other ties, the seven-fold's architecture is devoid of extraneous linings. Instead, the fabric, roughly the equivalent of what would be needed for a woman's blouse, is meticulously hand-folded in on itself--three times on one side, four on the other--the silk creating its own lining as the creases are gently pressed into rolling folds. The back seam is hand-sewn together, and that's it. Simple, of course, as long as you know how to control the folds, how to hand-press them into shape and how to meticulously hand-sew them with invisible stitches so the silhouette will drape and tie perfectly. Piece of cake if you know how to do that.
"At Kiton, we prefer the heavier 40-ounce English twill-printed silks," says Tanner. "This is a special silk purchased from the David Evans Company in Suffolk, the only firm left that does the real 'ancient madder' dyeing process. They use an indigo over-dye that imparts a muted, subtle coloration, which goes well with the slightly chalky hand of the fabric." Whether Italian or English, the silk used in one tie can cost as much as $50.
The other real distinction between the two tiemakers is the way the ends of the ties are finished. Called the large and small aprons, these ends are either hand-rolled and edge-sewn (the Talbott method), or faced with the same material as the tie itself (called "tipping"--Kiton's preferred technique). Talbott aficionados will argue that hand-rolling has a classic simplicity, while fans of Kiton consider tipping a more finished look. This remains purely a matter of taste.
In either case, we are talking about a collectible item in every sense of the word. Only a handful of these beauties are made every year. Talbott restricts its output to a mere 40 ties in each pattern it makes, and produces several dozen patterns per year (ties priced at $175). Kiton's production is slightly larger, with the silks woven and dyed to exclusive designs (priced at $155).
Interestingly, both firms say they are selling more and more ties to younger men, a sure sign that ties are making a comeback. What could be a more golden portent in a tarnished age of dress than that! While Robert Talbott and Kiton stand guard over a nearly bygone era of sophisticated elegance, it's impossible to resist thinking that prodigal taste may be returning to the fold.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).
For information on where to find the seven-fold tie, call Kiton at (212) 702-0136, extension 12, or Robert Talbott at (800) 747-8778.