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Alexander Olch may traffic in traditionally formal menswear accessories—the designer is known for his neckwear—but he doesn't want his customers to spend too much time fussing with their outfits. "A good bow tie is always a little off," he says, "and what makes a guy interesting is the disorder in his look, as opposed to the order."
This laid-back philosophy extends to Olch's men's and women's shirts (which are cut slightly short to be worn untucked), as well as his pocket rounds—a patented design that looks crisp no matter how you stuff it in your jacket. "If you Google 'how to fold a pocket square,' there are all these complicated rules. I have no patience for that."
Olch's library-esque Orchard Street store is fairly new (the designer opened his doors last December), but he's been turning out ties since 2001, when the then-documentary-filmmaker created a batch as gifts to his crew.
Read on to find out how he comes up with his fabric designs (a pair of broken glasses recently served as inspiration), and why there's a direct correlation between all boys' schools and neckwear appreciation.
Your label has been around for over a decade, but you just opened your store last December. How did you decide it was finally time?
We had some friends who let us open a pop-up store a couple blocks away on Allen and Delancey around Christmas last year, and that did so well that when we started looking for office space, we were really looking for the store. So the store has our office behind it. We make everything here.
The challenge for us in putting together a store is that we have a tremendous number of items. Each season we come up with 100 new fabrics. Since we have been doing a full collection since 2007 we have almost 5000 skews.
Do you design your own fabrics?
Yes. I broke my glasses last summer, and I made this broken glasses pattern for our ties. There's a guy I used to draw on all my notebooks in school so he always appears in the collections. Everything is designed by me and all the fabrics are produced in mills in Italy, England, and France.
Can you sew?
To be honest, I don't know how to sew. I know how to print a fabric. When we started out, the company we started doing prints. The big issue with silk is how you finish it. I started this company in 2001 and I would sit in my studio apartment on Mott Street, and I would take silk and soak it in the bathtub and I would stretch it on stretcher bars and press it and cut it and take it to someone to sew the ties.
For better or for worse, I became pretty expert in fabric finishing and fabric design. So the textile stuff we control very closely. And then I always partnered with someone who would sew.
How did you get into neckties and bow ties specifically?
I went to the Collegiate School for boys on the Upper West Side for twelve years, and they had a tie and jacket dress code requirement. I sort of wore a lot of ties and collected a lot of ties.
Do you have a background in fashion?
My education in college is technically called a degree in visual and environmental studies. I went to Harvard. I did take drawing. I didn't take any design classes. I primarily studied film there. The ties came about because traditionally there's a director's gift to the crew at the end of the production. Normally these days it's a T-shirt or a baseball hat or something along those lines, and I thought it would be fun to make a necktie not having idea how to make a necktie.
What did it look like? What was that first tie like?
It was a print that was an inside joke in reference to my thesis movie. The print took a while to make. Just like a movie director trying to figure out how to get something done, I started cold calling. I opened the yellow pages before the internet. I went to silk and called every company listed. I ended up with what turned out to be a fairly large Italian printing house.
They ended up printing the silk, and I found someone to make the tie. It took a year to make that happen. Eventually I had this one tie that I took to dinner with my friends who had all gone to Harvard. They all went and got real jobs as bankers and lawyers so they were wearing ties and suits to work, and they saw the tie and liked it and they offered to buy one at that dinner.
At this point were you still in school?
No, this was a year after school. So this was 2001.
What were you doing in 2001?
I had won a grant to make a documentary film in Spain that was being produced by my teacher at the time. My teacher suddenly became ill and passed away so that movie never happened. I then eventually decided to make a movie about my teacher who had passed away. That movie took me seven years to make and in that time this company began to grow. So the four ties that I sold at that dinner in 2001 gradually became, just amongst friends, a way to help support myself while I was making that movie. The fashion just kept growing. Press started coming out. And then eventually in 2006 we got a order for the 2007 collection at Bergdorf's.
Do you wear a tie or a bow tie every day?
Do you wear a pocket square every day?
I don't always wear a pocket square because I take my optics seriously. People usually make fun of me, but I carry around three pairs of glasses, depending on what I am looking at. So it takes up some space. If I go out at night, I'll have a pocket square. But during the day, I usually fill up the pocket with glasses.
Do you work on a seasonal schedule?
Yes, we do. I never took it seriously until Bergdorf Goodman ordered from us and then I realized we have to be on the seasonal schedule so we stuck to that pretty religiously. So there are really four collections: holiday, spring, pre-fall, and fall. It does vary significantly.
Right now you're looking at things in the spring-summer zone. We try to make things that aren't too specific, seasonally. What I try to do design-wise is something old, something new. If we take something familiar, say a bandana, the pattern is a little adventurous. Everything is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
How would you describe the Alexander Olch man?
We have a wide array of customers. A significant number of them are women, so we don't fully know the end result. They're either daughters, mothers, girlfriends, wives, or sisters. In general, I think women really like out products because we tend to be a little more interesting than the average neckwear.
The men who come in, it's a remarkable wide array. Sometimes the same tie will be bought by an 18-year-old student and a 60-year-old guy. The ties are kind of classic in that way. They work with a wide variety of outfits.
Do you sell a lot of bow ties?
We do sell a lot of bow ties. The ratios have pretty much stayed consistent. It's the third biggest category after ties and pocket rounds.
What would you say to a guy who's nervous about wearing a bow tie?
I've always liked the pointed bow tie because it's impossible to tie it perfectly. A bow tie does not have to be as perfect as you think it does. A good bow tie is always a little off, and what makes a guy interesting is the disorder in his look, as opposed to the order. It is a dressy thing, but it doesn't have to be worn in a dressy way at all.
How would you describe the mood in menswear right now?
I've always tried to steer clear of trends. We display things here in the store that go back to 2005 or 2006 and nobody knows the difference. The designs hold, and that's very, very important to me. I try my best not to know the answer to that question.
Even the décor of the store—a lot of people approached me offering to sell me fixtures, and everyone was so aligned on this trend of things being dark and rustic. That's never been that interesting to me, and our product looks better on white anyway. I wanted the space to be timeless and classic, as opposed to something that's responding to a trend.
How did you decide on the Lower East Side?
I feel like it's the last exciting neighborhood. I've always lived in Manhattan, and I used to live on Mott Street by Café Gitane. As that became more expensive, and as more fancy stores opened, I felt it was more interesting to try and stake out some new ground. Our decision to open here will quickly be considered not that out there. I think it's going to change very quickly. At best we're a year ahead of the curve.
These two blocks along Canal don't have any traffic lights. So there's something much more neighborhood, more low-key. I take pride in being the shop owner who knows all of my fellow shop owners. I spent New Year's Eve going around to all the stores and having drinks with the owners.
Are there any styles of neckwear that annoy you? Anything a man shouldn't do while wearing a tie or bow tie?
The only thing I'd caution against is being a little too buttoned up, or a little too perfect. Life isn't perfect. Even our shirts—I don't like tucking my shirts in so I cut them a little short. That way it doesn't look messy if you wear them untucked.
That's how our pocket round came about. If you Google "how to fold a pocket square," there are all these complicated rules. I have no patience for that. The round always looks good in your pocket, now matter how you fold it. It's sort of a lazy man's pocket square.
Is the pocket round your own invention?
It is. That's the one thing I can't show you.
Do people buy them to try and figure out how to make them?
I think they do.
Matching your neckwear to your pocket square: yes or no?
I tend to vary it more. When I'm going to something a little dressier I'll match it, and when I'm dressed down I won't.
Do you remember your opening day?
I do. The schedule was a little tight. It was December 9th and we wanted to open in time for Christmas. I was super excited.
It's like a tie library in here.
What you're seeing on the table is probably three percent of what we have in the store. So, taking inspiration from an old library card catalogue, each drawer is organized by what's inside. You can open the orange neckties drawer, or the blue neckties drawer. Enthusiastic customers will have, like, fifteen drawers open.
And we're redoing the downstairs so you can see the whole workroom. There will be a proper changing room down there so you can try on the shirts.
What are you excited about for spring?
Our bandanas. We've always been curious about the guys who come in who aren't necktie wearers. We noticed a lot of guys were buying the belts, so we were thinking what else might be of interest to a guy who isn't so formal.
Women are buying it, and two kinds of guys are buying it. One wears it as an ascot with the shirt a little unbuttoned. And the other wears it like a proper bandana. We did it in paisley and polka dots.
Ok, time for the lightning round!
8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Cats or dogs?
Favorite neighborhood happy hour spot?
Forget Me Not.
Rap or country?