The Haberdasher: Branding a Backstory

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In 2007, Otis James hopped on his bicycle and rode south out of Los Angeles. It was summer, mid-June, and he was bound for Escondido, and then farther south to the border, where he would make his crossing and then reverse course and set his aim north, up the coast to Canada.]

Setting out of Los Angeles

Setting out of Los Angeles

He was what he looked like—a self-appointed gypsy with long dark hair perched atop a yellow bike—one of any number of post-collegiate vagabonds hitting the American Road that summer, and like plenty of others, his desire to get lost for awhile was motivated by a simple desire for adventure. It was also fueled by a need for catharsis.

Within the preceding six years, he had experienced the sudden death of his mother and the suicide of his older brother, two events that convinced him of the fragility of life.

Looking back, he says, “I never would have been able to take those [bike] trips if I hadn’t suffered the loss that I had in my life. It’s like those where the things that allowed me to take those risks and to kind of take a different path than normal.”

From California to Cochiti

So that summer he pedaled out across country, from Los Angeles to Tijuana to Vancouver, and then again the next summer from East Tennesse up to Rhode Island, and finally out west to New Mexico, where one afternoon he laid down in a hammock alongside Cochiti Lake, 35 miles outside Santa Fe.

It was autumn, near the beginning of November, and without warning a rush of wind and snow howled into his camp. The “mini-blizzard,” as he calls it, lasted ten minutes before quelling into a calm. When the wind grew still again, James sat and surveyed his situation. He’d been on and off the road for the past two years and he was tired, lonely, unsure of his next destination, and fatigued by the thought of the approaching winter. He decided then and there to leave the road, and after packing up his gear, he pedaled to Albuquerque and caught a train for California.

Otis James in his workshop in the old Marathon Motor Works building. Photo by Sean Hagwell

Otis James in his workshop in the old Marathon Motor Works building. Photo by Sean Hagwell

Three months later he relocated to Nashville, rented an apartment, and began looking for work in the clothing industry. He didn’t have any training in the industry, but he knew he wanted to learn how to make more of what he used. Eventually he took a job at a tuxedo shop in Cool Springs, and during off hours he started tinkering with tie design at home. Within a couple of years he had developed a recognizable style and aesthetic and had sold enough ties to warrant the expansion of his workshop. So he moved his sewing machines, cutting tables, steam irons, and fabric bolts from his backyard studio to a workshop in Marathon Motors, a refurbished automotive warehouse just outside downtown.

Made In America

He shares the space with Emil Congdon, a maker of high end leather goods, who is, himself, another man who forsook a day job to start a fashion company. Both these men are among a legion of young label makers currently marketing small-scale, Made-in-America merchandise (axes, wallets, chairs, hats, bags, blue jeans, etc.) to a customer base eager for authenticity. The handcrafted appeal of such products is heightened by the telling of personal, often family-oriented stories, which is why if you read an article about James, his bicycle trips will invariably be mentioned. And for good cause, he says.

“The reason I’m doing this is because of the bike trips. Cause it was those experiences that led me to the values that made me want to start this company.”

Sharing this kind of virtuous business backstory is highly marketable. Enough so, that established brands frequently take notice. For instance, James recently collaborated with Griffin Technology, a global supplier of computer accessories, to produce a limited run of iPhone cases. Griffin had just opened their first retail store in London and having recognized the growing trend in American heritage branding, they saw the mutual benefit of a collaboration with Otis James Nashville. And while James appreciates the growth potential associated with such a collaboration, the prospect of becoming a mere man behind a big brand doesn’t interest him.

Hand stamped signature on a striped brawler cap. Courtesy Otis James Nashville

Hand stamped signature on a striped brawler cap. Courtesy Otis James Nashville

“When I started [this company], I named it after myself,” he says, “because I was going to be a one-man show. It was going to be me. I never had the vision of creating a brand.”

According to him, his vision was simply to make ties and make enough money to quit his job at the tuxedo shop. So his initial strategy was simple. He launched a website, joined Facebook, worked on his designs, filled orders as they arrived. And within a matter of months, magazine editors and taste-making bloggers started discovering his ties online. When they emailed asking for interviews and samples, he obliged. And once they heard about his bike trips and learned he was largely self-taught, they quickly moved to publish his story into a myth about a lone young man and his old Southern style. The myth took, more editors began calling, and orders continued to arrive from all over.

Peddling the Market

Another kind of branding. Photo by Kevin BouldinNashville

Another kind of branding. Photo by Kevin BouldinNashville

Now that his brand has gained national and international exposure, James recognizes he has a choice. Does he harness this momentum and expand the scale of his business? Or, does he allow the hype to fizzle and he himself to continue on as the keeper of a small shop? Growing his business might mean outsourcing the actual manufacturing of his ties, an act that would comprise his ideals surrounding quality and might lead to him becoming a brand manager and not craftsman. On the other hand, he says, trying to maintain his current rate of growth with just one employee is an exhausting enterprise. He may simply have to scale up his business in order to stay in business. Whatever the case, he is now considering how to go about controlling his advertised image going forward.

“It’s a new challenge,” he says, “to figure out how to present the story as honestly as possible, but to present it in a way that’s easily consumable…and can actually serve as a marketing. That sounds terrible to say.”

As he’s learned, navigating the marketplace is as much a struggle as solo biking across America. At times both require actions counter to your will, be it pedaling 50 more miles or turning yourself into a brand. On a far grander scale, James knows from having lost his mother and brother, that life is born of struggle and that everything is fragile. So for now, he intends to maximize the potential of his business.

At-his-sewing-machine.-Photo-by-Kevin-Bouldin“But,” he says, “if it fails, I can move on. There’s other things to life and I’ve been in…I’ve had darker moments than that.”

He also jokes, on occasion, that if all goes wrong and Otis James Nashville flounders, he can always just change his name. And if you check his Wikipedia page, you’ll see that Otis James already changed his name once before.


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