2016 Forbes interview with Mark Calder

November 23, 2016

This article is from Forbes.com taken on November 19th, 2016 by David Hochman

Inside America's Finest Neckwear Company

If you think all neckties are the same (meaning, boring), you definitely haven’t experienced a Robert Talbott original. For more than 60 years, the boutique company on California’s Big Sur peninsula has been designing and making neckwear from the finest silks, using craftsmanship almost unheard of in an industry of machine-made, glue-gunned slapdashery. 

The brand’s top-of-the-line offering is the “seven-fold” tie, a remarkable garment that originated in Italy and begins with a single square yard of silk that’s folded onto itself seven times. Each tie from the series is hand-numbered and limited to 40 pieces per design. Emerging from its long velvet Robert Talbott box, it feels more like an heirloom to be handed down than something to throw on for a sales call.

Mark Calder is Robert Talbott’s longtime creative director but he’s also a defender and upholder of all that is noble about the necktie in an age of casual Fridays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Monday afternoons. Come to think of it, Wednesdays have become pretty laid-back, too. Regardless, Calder is the poet laureate for fabrics that hang from the collar. 

I asked Calder, who’s been with the company almost 25 years, about the tie-making process, what to look for in neckwear, and why he thinks we’re due for a tie resurgence. The company is betting on it. Robert Talbott opened a retail boutique at The Shops at Buckhead in Atlanta, Ga., in October, and another this month on Madison and East 53rd Street in New York.

You’ve seen a lot of changes in neckwear over a quarter century. What stands out?

There’s an overriding social phenomenon in that we’ve had the wardrobe requisites changing. Neckwear is a “get to” rather than a “have to.” It’s not mandatory anymore. But if a guy really recognized what neckwear says about him when he wears it, he’d want to wear more of it.

Millennials are famously casual but you do see ties among the young and stylish. Where are things headed? Younger guys have been embracing neckwear, definitely. It offers a way to stand out from how father dressed. With a tie, there’s this ability to make yourself into a new person or to reflect something more interesting about yourself. No question, neckwear makes a gentleman look more like a gentleman. As opposed to someone whose fashion sense is inexorably sliding into mediocrity.

For those who’ve never gone full Windsor, so to speak, what are some tips on choosing the right tie? 

Confidence has so much to do with how you look and what you convey, so good fashion begins with the right mindset. On a practical level, if you’re taller and thinner you have more choices. If you’re wider than taller, you certainly don’t want to accentuate width. Choose a pattern that is simpler rather than a magnet for the eye. In general, you want clothing to be seen but you don’t want it to arrive before you do. If you think back on the most elegant men — Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, JFK — those guys looked elegant and refined even in sportswear.

Consider thoughtfully what you’re wearing. Patterns give more personality. Nothing is more boring than a solid navy blazer, white shirt and solid navy tie. Try blending a check shirt with a pattern paisley tie and suit, and make it work because colors and textures balance the pattern–there’s a symmetry to it. You also should think about context. A board meeting at a bank requires one tie. You can go a little more quirky at a creative firm or advertising agency. What is the statement you want to make? Finally, don’t be afraid to take risks. Add in a pocket square. By throwing in a white handkerchief, it gives your look a little more complexity, a little more elegance, a little more neatness. We want a guy to look substantial, not whimsical. The key is to feel great, because if you’re comfortable wearing something, you’re going to project that. 

What makes Robert Talbott’s ties stand out?

We’ve been making ties here in Monterrey since 1950. That’s a long time to master the art of tie-making. We really figured out which fabrics make the best knotting. Although most of the U.S. mills have gone away, we work in partnership with the finest mills in Europe, from Como, Italy, to one near Sudbury, England. We start there and then make them by hand in a way that utilizes a degree of precision you don’t see much today. 

All our ties are cut on the bias. That’s significant. When you tie a knot and then pull on it you want it not to twist, you want it to fall straight across your chest. We’ve all seen guys with their labels showing that’s because the tie was not cut properly on the bias. When you cut on a true bias there’s a lot of wasted fabric — you have little pieces on both sides. But we bag those up and sell them to quilters. That’s how important it is to have our ties cut on a perfect 45-degree bias. We also use a hand stitched slip switch so the tie doesn’t unravel. These are small details but it’s what you notice when you put a Robert Talbott tie around your neck for the first time. 

Your famous seven-fold ties cost upwards of $250. What goes into crafting one of those?

The seven-fold is the ultimate because there is no lining. It’s one full yard of silk fabric. Most ties made here in Monterrey, you can get two ties out of each yard. The fullness in those ties is created by adding a lining. This is all silk and it has the integrity that comes from one large piece. We start with a yard, cut it on the 45-degree bias and then handroll the edges as we fold the silk seven times to give the tie its heft. The center stitch holds it all together. We call it the lifeline. Once it’s tied, it allows the tie to go back into its original shape. We add a label and some stability and then hand-number each tie in a limited edition of 40. It’s pretty wonderful and definitely luxurious. We want it to feel like an occasion when you wear one, even if it’s just another day at work.