Men's neckties--once the epitome of the Christmas gift that no one wanted--are a bright spot for many clothiers in a largely gray holiday shopping season.
But forget about ho-hum striped ties. The big sellers are the bold ones, including neckwear adorned with playful "conversational prints" depicting giant frogs, cowboys, cologne bottles and, well, you name it.
"Anything with whimsy," said Robert Rosenthal, fashion director for R. H. Macy & Co.'s Macy's South/Bullock's division.
Two years ago, these novelty ties--along with today's equally popular cravats with extravagant floral and abstract designs--were snapped up mainly by fashion-forward shoppers. But now, Rosenthal said, "we're seeing more men take the plunge into bold neckwear."
Precise sales figures aren't kept on the estimated $1.1-billion-a-year U.S. necktie business. In its monthly survey of 3,500 small specialty retailers, however, Riverside-based consultants Retail Merchandising Service Automation found that ties racked up an average 20.2% dollar sales gain in November.
Menswear sales overall, the survey found, were up just 3.4% from November, 1989. RMSA said tie sales took off four months ago.
"After all these years of tie-bashing Christmas advertisements, it's good to see ties as an 'in' gift," said Jerry Andersen, executive director of Neckwear Assn. of America, a manufacturers' trade group.
Why are ties collaring so much business? Explanations, some contradictory, abound.
Some subscribe to the idea that new ties, just like women's accessories, are tailor-made for hard times. "You can really change the look of an old suit by wearing a new tie," Rosenthal said.
There also is the notion that consumers, possibly depressed by bad economic news, could use some cheering up.
"Ties are fun again," said Andersen, looking snazzy in a $65 tie with an Oriental-rug-type design. "You can put on a tie and attract some comments."
But there are a couple of knotty problems with those theories. For one thing, Americans usually hunker down, fashion-wise and otherwise, in hard times. They dress conservatively.
For another thing, many of the hottest ties are hardly cheap. Ties made by New York's Nicole Miller Ltd., which is credited with firing up the novelty tie business, retail for about $55, and other hot designers' styles go for as much as $100 or more.
In fact, some crusaders for the clothing industry argue that the boom in tie sales demonstrates that consumers--despite the nation's recent economic blues--still are willing to spend good money for fun or exciting merchandise.
Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, said his firm's tie sales have zoomed from $1 million in 1989 to $8 million this year. "As the (economic) news got worse, our ties got sillier, and the business got better," he said.
One of Konheim's favorites: the Nicole Miller "vices" tie, featuring prints of cigarettes, candy, money, liquor and a matchbook that reads "phone sex."
Bold ties aren't being sold only at fancy shops and department stores. At Venice Boardwalk's famed bargain-shopping strip, cut-rate fashion ties were nestled among the T-shirts recently. Yet another theory for contemporary ties' popularity is that bold, colorful fabrics appeal to women, who often buy neckwear for their husbands or boyfriends. "I like to see men in more color," Sheila Seitz said while shopping for a gift for her husband at Bullock's in Sherman Oaks.
But there are limits to how wide the market for bold ties will grow. Seitz, for example, quickly rejected the Nicole Miller novelty offerings. She said if she bought her husband one, "he'd probably say thank you, and then it would never be used."
Instead, Seitz bought a somewhat more conservative floral tie, with a swirl of beige, brown and gray patterns, that is "much more colorful" than her husband would buy for himself.
"He'll probably say, 'Oh, it's beautiful,' " Seitz said. "Nobody says anything bad on Christmas."
TIE FACTS Sales: American consumers will buy about 95 million neckties this year for a total of $1.1 billion.
Manufacturers: About 150 in the United States. Among the biggest are Wemco of New Orleans, Los Angeles-based Superba Inc. and New York's Randa Corp. and Manhattan Accessories.
Style Trends: Tie sales have risen since the mid-1980s, when red and yellow "power" ties spurred sales. This year, sales are being boosted by bold floral and novelty ties.
Business Trends: U.S. tie makers have been hurt by growing imports from Italy and Korea. Imports account for about 25% of U.S. sales, up from about 5% a decade ago. Manufacturers also have been hit by rapidly rising silk prices, but at the same time, consumers have been willing to buy increasingly expensive ties.
Source: Neckwear Assn. of America Inc.