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March 30, 2010

The Prince of Ties

And you thought that the art of the perfect bow tie or, say, the English two-button throat closure had all but disappeared? Not according to Robert Talbott.

"Launching our first dress shirt collection in 1992 was an extremely difficult decision. After all, for forty years, Robert Talbott had been America's premier maker of handmade neckwear. Fragmenting our focus was very risky. We weren't just diversifying—we were completely reinventing the brand." I am talking with John Haller, vice president of sales and marketing for Robert Talbott, Inc., who is wearing a natty striped shirt and woven silk necktie.

"Rather than ramp up shirt production from scratch," he continues, "we decided to buy a small but highly regarded shirtmaker who echoed our concern for meticulous craftsmanship."

In 1990 Lucerne Shirtmakers of Houston was acquired by Talbott. Soon after, Haller says, "we began kicking around the concept for a very pricey, handstitched collection. After all, we already had the best seamstresses in the world, so why not harness that craftsmanship and create a range of shirts?"

The next step was to hire a young California designer, Mark Calder, to create an urbane, international look. He worked side by side with Robert Jensen, vice president of design, and the Estate collection of dress shirts was born, marking a new beginning for a company already known for the highest standards of quality in the clothing industry. Talbott's Estate neckwear collection, designed by Robert Jensen, was launched a few years later.

The story of the company is something of an all-American legend. At mid-century a successful Wall Street investment banker gives it all up and heads west with his wife, who happens to have been making bow ties for him on the kitchen table because her taste was better than what she saw in the shops. They settle in the beautiful mission town of Carmel, California, without much money, but full of entrepreneurial zeal, and start a "factory" in their garage, hand-sewing neckwear. Fifty years later the company that started off catering to a few bow-tie fanatics is the largest (in terms of net sales volume) maker of handmade neckwear in the world. Robert Talbott died in 1986, but it's still a family business, presided over by his wife, Audrey, with a third generation in place to chart the future.

The firm religiously adheres to the steel-fisted quality control that Robert and Audrey Talbott first envisioned and practiced. Everyone who knew Robert Talbott—and many of those in the company today knew him—talk about his philosophy. "Robert Talbott made decisions based on quality, not money," says Haller. "He was like a pit bull on that issue. Right from the beginning he had this burning desire to be the very best. His relentless vision was that Robert Talbott, Inc., would one day grow to represent the ultimate American luxury product. His real legacy is that he never once wavered from making quality and hand-craftsmanship his top priority, even when the company was a struggling startup in their two-car garage."

The company began by making four-in-hands and bow ties, but Talbott was never satisfied; his mind was constantly churning with new ideas and strategies. In particular, he became obsessed with resurrecting a long-extinct technique used by luxury tiemakers at the turn of the century called a "seven-fold."

Because seven-folds required more than twice the amount of silk of conventional ties, they were much more expensive to make, and consequently disappeared during the Depression. It was also nearly impossible to find any hand-sewers who still knew the technique. But fate delivered Robert Talbott an incredibly lucky break in 1985—Lydia Grayson. As a teenage Yugoslavian immigrant, Grayson had been a seven-fold specialist for a Chicago tiemaker during the late 1920s. She was able to pass on her knowledge. "It's all simple, really, once you have the technique down pat," says Haller. "You just take a little over a yard of silk or cashmere, handsew the edges, strategically fold the fabric into itself seven times, handstitch the back seam, then gingerly hand-stroke it. The friction from stroking and heat from the hand act as a primitive iron, perfectly hand-pressing the final tie. There has never been a technique better suited for creating the ultimate necktie. Because of the hand-craftsmanship involved, we barely make twelve a day."

"The move into luxury shirts was really an extension of that philosophy of quality," explains Bob Jensen. "Back in the fifties luxury wasn't such a high priority for people, and many manufacturers weren't interested in it. The market wasn't particularly looking for it, and we were the exception. Robert Talbott used to tell us, 'Don't limit yourself.' He really didn't worry about the commercial implications, and so we've consistently used the finest fabrics and made the best ties. We always seem to find enough customers who recognize our quality. You could say that many of our customers are 'collectors' of our neckwear rather than just buyers."

To become a global presence in the luxe arena, the company started to show its collections at European fashion and trade fairs. The company has exhibited at the renowned Pitti Uomo show in Florence three years in a row, which means that Talbott is now going head to head with the great European tie- and shirtmakers, such as Borrelli, Lorenzini, Charvet, and Turnbull & Asser.

How do they stack up? If you're one of those who thought that craftsmanship had long deserted these shores, think again. The Estate tie is made entirely by hand from heavyweight, yarn-dyed silk. (Other materials include cashmere, linen, and wool/silk blends.) The aprons are lined with quality silk, and the back is handsewn. "The Estate neckwear collection is an American look, inspired from England and Italy, with a neoclassic sensibility," explains Jensen. "We are very interested in modern geometric patterns, and we design them with a very contemporary color palette."

The Estate dress shirt collection is also international in feel. "But in a timeless, classic sense," Calder is quick to add. "We don't really design for this season's latest fashion. We're more interested in developing the influential subtleties and details—to evolve the classic in a relevant way." All of the great collar styles are there: button-down, elongated point, wide-and medium-spread, and cutaway; an English two-button throat closure is available, and the body cut is a slightly fuller "gentleman's fit."

"We started with 120s Egyptian yarns from the best mills, but to really get what we wanted we decided to design our own fabrics," Calder continues. "Now eighty percent of the patterns we use are exclusive to us because they're our designs."

The sleeves and collars of Estate shirts are sewn on by hand, as are the bar tacks, the silk gussets, which are made in England, and even the buttons. Everything else is single-needle lock-stitched. "Nobody puts more handwork into a shirt," says Calder.

The increasing shift to casual in today's business wardrobe has also turned the Talbott eye toward sports shirts. The distinctive Estate collection offers full-cut camp shirts with soft, one-piece collars and more tailored shirts with point and spread collars. The fall line includes cotton flannels, superfine wools, and cotton twills, not to mention a cashmere/mink beauty that will retail for around $2,500.

There are other areas of exploration as well. Since 1990, with the aid of a highly skilled workforce of cutters, pattern-makers, and sewers, Talbott has been producing vests, waistcoats, and robes (including a full-length cashmere model). This all indicates a company poised for growth and carving out a larger market share in the luxury arena: exactly as Robert Talbott would have wanted it. "Take the top and run with it," he always said.

For further information about Robert Talbott, or to contact the nearest retail outlet, call 800-747-8778. www.roberttalbott.com