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Charity Won't Go out of Style--Even if the Ties Do

Apparel: Neckwear tied to social causes has gained popularity, raising demand and securing a handsome 10% share of sales.

September 09, 1997|RACHEL BECK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — You've gone to the black-tie benefits, worked at the local soup kitchen and delivered food to the needy.

But little did you think that the hot spot for charities this year would be in the men's tie department, where neckwear supporting causes such as Save the Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving fills store shelves.

"It's an easy, feel-good purchase that's attractive and helps someone else--what a concept!" said Steven Smith, who owns three Save the Children ties and was browsing for a gift.

Stodgy, conservative neckwear is taking a back seat to these playful, cause-related ties. They are attracting millions of buyers who like the mix of fashion and compassion that comes with each purchase.

Retailers, too, enjoy the ballooning interest in charity neckwear, which has helped boost tie sales after several lackluster years and now accounts for 10% of the $1.4-billion annual tie business.

"They've grown to be an important part of the business," said Jerry Andersen, who heads the Neckwear Assn. of America, a New York-based trade group. "They've got to be good-looking first and foremost, but when they are, they sell."

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Cause-related marketing isn't new in retailing. For years, groups such as the Smithsonian museum sold everything from stationery to scarves to T-shirts that benefited social causes.

About five years ago, a small selection of charity ties began to appear in stores. One of the first came from the Save the Children foundation, which teamed up with Salant Menswear Group to put children's colorful drawings on ties.

About the same time, struggling tie manufacturer Irwin Sternberg of New York-based Stonehenge Ltd. visited an art exhibition of Jerry Garcia's work and realized the merchandising potential of the Grateful Dead bandleader.

J. Garcia Art-in-Neckwear soon appeared in stores, and for the first year some of the proceeds went to the San Francisco Art Institute, which the rock legend attended.

That collection launched a whole new business for Stonehenge, now the nation's leading manufacturer of cause-related ties. Stonehenge has since created ties for all types of charities, including the Chicago Historical Society and exiled Tibetans fighting human rights violations in their homeland.

"I found the key to these ties was to not take anything away from fashion," Sternberg said. "You want people to say, 'Hey, that's a great-looking tie,' and then the wearer can talk about what it stands for."

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One of the company's best sellers is the Cocktail Collection for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The ties, which are based on molecular images of cocktails as viewed from under an electron microscope, include the Bloody Mary, with bright red waves, and the Vodka tonic, with circular white spots on a purple background.

Each tie includes a tag with the message that it is "the only way to tie one on before driving." With 4% of the $30 retail price of the tie being donated to MADD, more than $400,000 has been collected.

"It's been such a creative way to get our message out," said Katherine Prescott, national president of Irving, Texas-based MADD. "We reach a different audience, and that public awareness is worth more than the money that's raised."

Stonehenge also produced ties for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Each tie was based on a microscopic image of a drug used to treat chronic or life-threatening illnesses in children. The hospital received 100% of the profits.

This month, Stonehenge is expanding that line through a partnership with the Children's Miracle Network and Dillard department stores. Five percent of the proceeds will go to children's hospitals near Dillard stores.

"Our neckwear is not just another piece of clothing," Sternberg said in his cluttered office filled with piles of ties. "Each piece carries an important message, and that makes it different."

Retailers say the response from consumers has been overwhelming. Attracting most is the mix of interesting styles and interesting causes that shoppers usually do not find in apparel and accessories.

"Some of the ties are designed so well that shoppers have no clue that they're a charity tie," said Jeremy Danzer, a sales associate at the Knot Shop in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. "But then we tell them, 'This money is going to MADD or somewhere else,' and they definitely want to buy it."

Some retailers have even developed their own collections, hoping to benefit from continued excitement for the charity ties.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. worked with Stonehenge to create Gilda's Ties, which benefits Gilda's Club, a support group created in memory of comedian Gilda Radner to help cancer patients and their families.

Last November, a collection of nine ties hit store shelves. Six were designed by Gilda's Club members and the remaining three by celebrities Katie Couric, Jason Alexander and Radner's husband, Gene Wilder.

Sears donates $2 of every $20 tie purchase to Gilda's Club. More than $75,000 was raised in just the two months after the November launch.

"We had to come up with a way to relate charity to a buying opportunity," said Ken Walter, a divisional merchandise manager at Sears, the nation's No. 2 retailer. "We decided cancer is a fact of life and a lot of our customers have it and recognize it."

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