Ties, films and a pop-up

30 Minutes With: Alexander Olch

Design By Photo by Ryan Pfluger

The modern world is one where generalists thrive – renaissance men who have a broad education, who are involved in dynamic careers throughout their lives, and who have myriad passions ranging from flyfishing to webdesign (read: you, the readers). Rarely do such paragons enter in the world of menswear, especially designing traditional accessories like ties, handkerchiefs and suspenders –- a niche dominated by specialist artisan craftsmen. But Alexander Olch, among the world’s premier tie designers and one of New York’s most dapper men, is never one to conform to convention. His passion? Creating things, whatever they may be, and he has followed that through film, conceptual sculpture and accessory design. The only question from Gear Patrol that he declined to answer was describing himself in three words.

Just last week the wunderkind designer unveiled his most recent project, opening the doors of his first ever pop-up shop at Paris’ bastion of style, the Colette boutique. Read on for a glimpse into the world of New York’s most multifaceted style maker.

Gear Patrol: Where are you originally from? Tell us a bit about growing up.

Alexander Olch: I am born and raised in Manhattan. I spent all my life here, aside from four years up in Cambridge. I am an only child, and attended The Collegiate School for Boys for 12 years. Some noteworthy features of that school: one, they had a closet filled with old super 8 film equipment. Some of the teachers were kind enough to give me keys to that closet starting in 5th grade, and that began a lifelong love of making films. Secondly, there was a requirement to wear neckties every day, so by the time I graduated – after about 12 years – I already had a collection of about 450 ties gathered from flea markets and thrift shops across Manhattan. At that point I never thought of actually making ties, but there were the seeds of being interested in visual style. That’s my story up through about 17 years old.

GP: So even early on, there existed the elements of what you would become involved in later on.

Olch:…weirdly so. In retrospect it seems rather ordered, but at the time, it was all very natural.

GP: Knowing what you were interested in at that point, what did you plan on studying when you arrived at Harvard?

Olch: At that point I knew I wanted to make films, but I assumed I wouldn’t do that at Harvard. I figured I’d get a normal education, as it were. I was going to study history, or literature or art history – I didn’t think I’d get involved in the making of films there. I didn’t know much about the film department in particular when I got there. It was only really by the natural energy of wanting to make a film that I ended up taking a look at one of the film classes (which, at the time, were all geared towards documentary film making). I began with that sophomore year and found myself in the basement of HH Richardson building. I ended up staying in that basement for the next 3 years, getting excited about making films.

GP: And it all culminated in your thesis project film.

Olch: The thing that ended up serving me later in life… well, I ended up making two films. One, of course, was called No Vladimir – produced by Ross McElwee and Chantal Akerman. I sold the film to the Independent Film Channel, so that was a big step for me, coming out of school. And that sale happened about the same time I was finishing my thesis film. Maybe the most memorable thing that came out of that thesis film was the souvenir that I tried to make for crew – instead of making a baseball hat or a t-shirt or any of the usual things that people make, I thought well, it would be amusing to make a neck tie. I knew nothing about it, what was involved, and I quickly found out it was pretty hard to make a necktie. But I stuck with it as I moved back to New York and kept working on film projects. It became sort of a pet project, figuring out how to make just one necktie, and you know, I owed these guys presents.

It took quite a while. It took over a year to get silk printed, to find a factory, to have a manufacturer take me seriously, etc. So I’d say after about a year and a half I had produced on sample, which, by that time, it was probably too late to find some of the guys who had worked on film. But the day I got [the tie sample] back, I brought it to dinner with some of my Harvard friends. By now they had gotten what I guess you would call “real jobs” in finance and law. So I was a year out of college struggling to be a filmmaker and my friends were working as successful investment bankers, and I pulled the tie out at the table, and my friends all said “Wow, that’s an awesome tie. Can I buy one to wear at work?” So I said sure and went and made four, sold the first four, made eight and sold those eight, and from then it grew quite organically. That was about the year 2000 or 2002 that it became a growing little project/business.

GP: So you didn’t really plan on going into menswear – it was all just a perfect storm of circumstance. Is it something you’ve always been interested in?

Olch: I have always been interested in the subject of fashion. My thesis film was actually about a tailor, and I had worked as a photographer’s assistant at fashion shows in New York when I was in high school. The world of fashion had always interested me as subject matter, so I thought I would be making a film somehow involving the fashion world or fashion designers. I didn’t quite know, but I knew I was drawn to looking at the constructed images that were made by fashion photographers, and I was interested in fashion shows. My senior project at collegiate, my high school, was a conceptual theatre fashion show. In itself it became kind of a noteworthy little thing, because Anna Wintour (editor, Vogue) and Graydon Carter (editor, Vanity Fair) came to it in 1995. It was a theatre project that was basically a narrative theatre dance piece staged as a fashion show. It was actually a pretty nifty event. But, again, that was coming at it from the point of view of a director, not a d esigner. I had never had any ambitions to be a designer. It was really only the happenstance of making that tie that put me into the process squarely as a designer. But still my interests continue to be in making films and navigating between two worlds of movies and fashion production. What’s interesting to me is the connections.

GP: You’re living a double life – artistically and career-wise.

Olch: I haven’t actually held a real job since college. There were definitely times when it was not easy. There was a day where I had a resume printed out, and I was going to send it out – like it was sitting on top of my printer. Then my phone rang, something came through, and I was able to get by. That’s always been how my life goes, and I really don’t know any other way. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

GP: To many people you are known only as a fashion designer – Alexander Olch ties are sold at Barneys, for example, and at other high end retailers around the world. Are you moving more in that direction?

Olch: Well it’s tricky because in fashion, you get to make a new collection every six months. The last movie I made was 6 or 7 years, so there’s a bit of a leapfrog there. I guess we should note that the Windmill Movie was in theatres last summer, then on HBO for a long time, ending in the spring, then the DVD comes out March 22 (preorder here: http://www.amazon.com/Windmill-Movie-Wallace-Shawn/dp/B004GZ549M/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1295102351&sr=1-1). And I’ll be making other movies in the future. So it all depends on how you look at it: fashion just produces more product quickly, and movies take a couple years to make.

GP: How did the notebook project come about?

Olch: I’ve always had a fetish for stationery. Whenever I travel the world, I find myself hunting out fine stationery stores. Paper clips, pens, fine paper – I could wander around a good stationery store for hours.

I actually wrote a piece for the New York Times Moment Blog about that a couple years back. As an accessories maker, people are always asking what’s next. I was asking people’s advice, and I talked to one person, Robert Burke (who is a pretty wise fellow), and asked what should I do? And he replied that I shouldn’t really be asking that question, you should just do the thing that excites you most, and that’s all there is to it. And, of course, he was right, for me at least. It’s not necessarily about following a calculated business growth strategy or a path that has been demonstrated to work before, but instead to just make things you get excited about. Chances are, if a designer is excited about it, it may actually be a special item, not just a repeat. So I decided to just do what I wanted to do. I made a couple notebooks, and didn’t really tell too many people about it, because it seemed like kind of a crazy idea. People thought it was strange and that it didn’t have anything to do with the rest of my design work.

Olch: I forged ahead, and once the manufacturing fell into place, it seemed to click. It became a really popular product as standalone, and in coordination with our other products. It just proves that Robert was right.

GP: Where are the notebooks made?

Olch: I do all my own manufacturing – we have a factory in Brooklyn, and do everything in house. I like to keep things under our own watchful eye. Everything we make is handmade. I just prefer building long term relationships with the craftspeople.

GP: How has your label, Alexander Olch, developed, grown or changed? Are you thinking of tying film in with fashion in that way? Maybe a cinematic lookbook? How will it be expanding in the future?

Olch: Well, ironically, as I talk to you now, I am sitting at the Avid finishing a cut of a film that we produced for the Collette pop-up store. This has been a fun project to work on – it’s called “How to Tie a Tie Version Francaise”, starring Aurelie Claudel and Julia Frauche and it was shot by Francesco Carrozzini. It’s a really funny film – two French models being taught how to tie a tie by a photographer, which we made specially for this installation. The inspiration is that, when you arrive in Paris, customers are going to ask, “How do you tie a tie?” so this is a very funny exploration of how you do that when there’s a language barrier. You’re trying to say things like “Put the small end through the hole.” It’s very hard process to describe with words only. The film should be up on the Colette website sometime this week.

But specifically in terms of production, I’m most interested in making objects as opposed to clothing in sizes. I very much like the place I’m in with accessories: I started with neckties, but now it covers everything from scarves to bags to notebooks to handkerchiefs to suspenders. So to me, there is something very interesting about making things, really. An object that sort of sits on a table and sits in your hand. And I really like the design idea of an accessory – it’s a practical object that is designed to coordinate with other things that you have. So as opposed to planting your foot down and creating a complete world or a complete look, which is something you do more when you’re making a movie, there is something interesting about creating something that is judged by the way in which it goes with the other things you have. And that’s a more interesting challenge to me as a designer.

GP: Does that lead to an overriding Alexander Olch aesthetic, or does that change depending on the object you’re working on?

Olch: I’m not sure I have such a control over that: I really trust my subconscious instincts when it comes to design. There came a point around 2004 when I thought I would give up making neckties and bowties – I wasn’t really making any money, it was taking up time, and none of the big stores cared about it (I tried to get appointments and nobody seemed to like the stuff). At that time, I was still trying to design for those friends of mine who I thought would buy a tie. I was designing for an imaginary person that I kind of knew. So I got to the point where I said “Forget that, I’m just going to make a set of pieces for myself. If no one buys them, at least I’ll have 60 ties that I can wear for the next couple years.” So I made a collection of about 60 pieces, and that’s the collection that people saw and responded to. It’s what Robert Burke and Tommy Fazio (of Bergdorf Goodman) saw. Tommy took me in at Bergdorf, and we started in Fall 2007 with an exclusive onli ne designer collection store. That’s where everything really began. I’ve stuck to that philosophy, which is that I don’t really think it through too much, I just make things that I would want to wear. So I guess there’s a certain aesthetic there, but I’m not good at articulating it in words.

GP: So is that the one important thing that you remember whenever you design an object?

Olch: It’s a tricky thing. There’s a very very simple process to making things. It’s the same process that any artist goes through, but it’s also a very hard process to keep under control in a productive way. You just have to keep making things and then judge them – is it good? Is it working? Film there’s just a very basic sense of “Were the last couple seconds good or boring? And if they’re boring, how can we fix them? And when it’s making an object, it’s “Is that a tie that I would wear? Is that a notebook that I would want to carry in my bag?” So it’s very personal, and it’s a very very instinctual process, a very mysterious process. And all you can really do is to try your best to trust it.

As a side note, the Windmill Movie was, in large part, an exploration of what happens when you don’t trust the process, when you start to let self-doubt enter into the equation. I found that to be an interesting side effect of higher education in certain ways. As you get out of an Ivy League School, you see people who have ambitions to work in creative areas, and there is, in a weird way, a higher sense of self-doubt or insecurity in those people. They have been exposed to success in the school environment, which makes them fear taking the risks that are necessary to create something.

When you’re [in school], you don’t notice it, but when you’re thinking about being a painter or writer, there is no clear path, and it all becomes a lot trickier. It makes you question – am I designing the kind of project that I want to do?

GP: Are there certain places or people or things that you go to for inspiration?

Olch: Not so much. I was an only child, so I didn’t have any siblings growing up, and I played a lot of legos and piano by myself. Now I do all the design work by myself, I write and edit by myself. I think that – in a creative sense – I live the life of a writer. I just happen to be involved in work that requires a lot of other people. So the trick for me is to try to stay focused on whatever weird idea it is that I’m trying to work out inside my head. I’ve actually had poor results when I’ve tried to look elsewhere for ideas.

GP: But that doesn’t stop you from doing collaborations – this month you have installed a pop-up shop at the world-famous Paris boutique, Colette. What inspired the project?

Olch: We’ve been selling to them for many seasons. I’ve been going to Paris for a while now, because we have a showroom, and I go to meet with stores and present the collection. So the new spring collection, presented last June, was actually quite large. When Sarah (no last name, of Colette) came in to see it, she said “I wish I could actually buy all of these styles. They’re all so nice!” I didn’t know what to say. So she said “Why don’t you just bring the whole collection into the store?” I thought that sounded pretty cool, so this pop-up is the fruit of many conversations.

The idea is… well, I design a lot of pieces. Each collection has between 60 and 100 styles in it, and no store, no matter how large, ends up buying all of them. Often times the buyers who get to see the whole collection feel like they’re witnessing something pretty special, because no one else gets to see this huge array of fabrics and everything we make. The idea here at Colette is to really bring that out for everybody to see and to make a special event.

I’ve also designed some exclusive fabrics just for Colette. In the spring collection there’s a design called the Little Guy, which is actually a doodle I used to do on all of my notebooks in school. I did a version of that which uses the Colette logo, which actually came out really nicely. It’s the Little Guy with the Colette dots. That comes on two colors of ties, on notebooks, on bow ties, everything. And we’re just finishing up the film, so it’s all really exciting for us. And it’s also something that we hope will travel. We want to make an installation that will travel the world, inspired by our two weeks at Colette.

One other cool thing is that we’re taking custom orders, which we have never done in public before. While we’re there you can get customized monograms, which a lot of our private clients do already, but we’ve never done that in a store. So that’s really special and exciting for us.

GP: How has it been to work with Colette so closely?

Olch: I’m a huge fan of the shop. Even more, now that I’ve been there with my sleeves rolled up. I have a deep respect for how well that place is run. I mean, it’s run like a hotel. The staff there is so precise, so good, so on it – it’s quite impressive. I have to say, it’s an honor to be there.

Do you expect the people waiting in line for custom monogramming to be diehard Olch fans, or to reach new customers – regulars at Colette?

I would hope it’s a lot of everybody. Since I’m from New York and we started at Berdorf [Goodman] and Barney’s, we probably have the biggest following here in US. But we’re growing in Europe, and I hope that this will be a way to introduce ourselves on a larger scale to the European market. We currently work with great stores – Cabinet in Berlin is a really nice one. So we have a bunch of stores we work with in Europe, but I think there is still a large room to grow.

GP: Where do you hope it will go? Is it the first step to a permanent Olch boutique?

Olch: I would not lie about that – I think there is a day in the future when it will happen. We have so many people who ask to come by our studio to pick out fabrics for special occasions – for weddings, for special orders, etc. So I think it’s going to be time at some point to build a space just devoted to our customers.

GP: Fun fact – while you were at Harvard, you created a conceptual sculpture that catalogued ostensibly meaningless memories. Have you continued that kind of quirky project? Do you have any similar side projects for the future? (or conceptual sculptural menswear, for that matter)

Olch: To me… well, the world we live in is an interesting place. I guess I would have to say at the end of the day, in some way, I’m basically doing what a conceptual artist does – which is making all sorts of things. That can be films, or objects or card catalogues or pieces. I’ve chosen not to engage my work directly in the art arena, so I’m not presenting my things in galleries. I’ve taken a different path, which is to try to engage my work specifically in the arena for which it is designated. When I make a film, it’s going to participate in the film world, it’s going to be in film festivals and be on HBO. If I’m going to make clothing objects, they’re going to be at great stores. But there are all sorts of things that I’ve been working on. I have an active imagination, so I like to be involved in many different projects. For better or for worse, sometimes those projects don’t fall into the categories where people would like them. To me it’s all really interesting. Whether that card catalogue is really an art piece or not…? Maybe I’ll make more. Maybe one day I’ll put that all together as a collection that is explicitly “art pieces.” But to me what is exciting in life is to make things, whatever they are. Films, pieces, notebooks, neckties… it’s jut exciting to make a finished object in some way.

GP: What are the three things you can’t live without?

Olch: Definitely a notebook. Just something to write ideas down on (and if I can do shameless placement – an Alexander Olch detector notebook). Secondly, dare I say? (and you can interview people who knew me before) A tie. I have always felt that you should have one folded up inside your jacket, just in case. You never know. Third, I’d have to have a piano. I kind of go crazy if I don’t play for consecutive days.

GP: Coming back to my first question – describe yourself in three words.

Olch: Oh shit! I should have thought of this on the airplane! This is the one that all your friends make fun of you for. Here’s what I will say, since I’m in Paris, (and maybe this is a dodge of the question). There’s a famous TV show here called Apostrophe, which was hosted by a famous literary critic. And he had a very famous set of questions that he would ask at the end of each interview. Two of the questions that I have always remembered are “what is your favorite word, and what’s your least favorite word?

And those two I’ve always known. My favorite word is original, and my least favorite word is conform.