TAMPA — In 2012, a year after the death of his younger brother, Matthew, Brent Kraus struck upon a way to honor his memory. He started a bow tie company.
“He was wearing bow ties back when they weren't as trendy or as popular as they are today,” Kraus, 32, said of his brother. “He would ask our mother to make his bow ties.”
Matthew was a culinary student living in New York City when he took his own life.
Brent Kraus enlisted his mother, Lisa, who is now his partner in Ella Bing LLC, the bow tie company started in his brother's memory. While Lisa sews ties, her husband, David, crafts others out of rare woods.
“We took skills we all had, and we built a company around it,” Brent Kraus said. “The essence of it is my brother.”
Ella Bing started up just as the bow tie was gaining new life as a men's fashion accessory. Long the signature of professors, bankers and attorneys, bow ties were being rediscovered by millenials and Generation Y hipsters as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd.
“Five years ago, you'd throw on a bow tie and you were some nerdy guy wearing a bow tie,” Kraus said. “Now, the nerdy look has come along with a twist.”
After peaking at $1.3 billion annually in the mid-1990s, industrywide tie sales withered for more than a decade, thanks to casual Fridays and the dot-com boom. Things got so bad that the necktie industry's trade group, the Men's Dress Furnishings Association, closed up shop in 2008 when tie sales were half their 1995 figure.
The bow tie's share of the neckware market has doubled in the past five years, but it's still around 7 percent of total sales, according to industry estimates. Bow ties are more popular in the Southeast than anywhere else in the country, with South Carolina leading the way.
“The Southern lifestyle is catching on,” said Arden Smith, co-owner of High Cotton Living, a Southern-themed men's store in South Tampa's Hyde Park Village. “Bow ties are part of that.”
High Cotton Living carries Ella Bing bow ties, along with two other brands. Andrew Smith, who started the store last August with his mother and father, David Smith, said they sell three bow ties for every necktie.
“Bow ties, for guys that wear them, show that they're completely comfortable with their style,” Andrew said.
The Internet abounds with boutique tie companies.
“What's going on with the bow tie is a revival,” said David Mutter, co-owner of Beau Ties Ltd. of Vermont.
Mutter, a bow-tie-wearing investor, bought the business from founder Bill Kenerson, who started it 20 years ago. Kenerson has since died.
Mutter said part of the appeal of the boutique bow tie is knowing it's handmade.
“Unlike a sweater that you can mass produce, it's very difficult to mass produce a tie that's of high quality,” Mutter said. “A tie that's handmade is a generational item.”
Ella Bing does nearly all its sales through its own website, Kraus said.
In late 2012, the company tried selling its ties at the Ybor City Saturday Market.
“We did it to supplement our income because we weren't getting much Web traffic,” Kraus said. “At the time, we thought selling five bow ties a day was fantastic.”
But their $45 ties were too pricey for the Ybor market, so Kraus put more effort into Ella Bing's Web sales. In December, the company promoted its ties at the Oxford Exchange arts market, an environment that proved more conducive to bow tie sales.
“This year, we've been so slammed,” Kraus said.
In addition to High Cotton Living, Ella Bing sells its ties at Black & Denim in Ybor City. Kraus hopes to expand into more niche retailers this year.
That might mean bringing on some extra sets of hands, Kraus said. Right now, all three family members have day jobs. Brent works as a database administrator. His mom works at The Home Depot; his dad is a butcher at Winn-Dixie. They run the tie business on the side.
“I do not think there is a timetable for us to quit our day jobs,” Brent Kraus said. “I know that I will be the last one to do it. I think the plan is to have either my mother or father go part time at their day jobs first, then gradually work their way into full-time paid positions with Ella Bing.”
Kraus sees the company's wooden bow ties, which are secured with a Velcro strap, as the key to building Ella Bing's reputation and its bank account. So far, the company's income has been modest — about $25,000 in revenue a year, nearly all of it plowed back into the product — but it is profitable, Kraus said.
In honor of Matthew, Ella Bing donates 10 percent of its sales to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which, among other things, runs a suicide hotline.
Lately, Ella Bing has expanded its offerings to include pocket squares and lapel pins. It has also joined the growing catalog of websites offering men advice on dressing and grooming. It's most recent entry, written with the help of Kraus' girlfriend, was “20 Things Every Gentleman Should Own.”
“Ideally the blog will become a go-to place for people to get fashion, style and lifestyle advice,” Kraus said. “In general, once people view a company as a subject matter expert on a topic, they grow to trust that brand or company. Once that occurs, they are more likely to buy from Ella Bing than from our competitors.”
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