Harding & Wilson
“They were made with fabric from three deconstructed dresses,” Alex said about a line of floral bow ties made for Context Clothing, “a traditional Dutch house dress, a mid-century maroon dress, and a 1960′s sun dress.” “They’re sold out, though,” Peter chimed in as he cut through floral fabric on a heavy metal cutting table that we probably couldn’t lift even if we all tried. Peter and Alex are behind Harding & Wilson, a small bow tie concern based in a small studio on SE Holgate. Peter’s blondish red hair skimmed the dangling industrial lights overhead as he sliced long pieces of fabric and handed them to Alex, who sat at a humming sewing machine and who wore a blue canvas jacket over a gray, hoodless sweatshirt. As Peter finished, he waved me over to a metal shelf in the back of the room and showed me a stack of fabrics. “These are a few scraps of wool we dug out of an old stock room at the Pendleton mill,” he said and continued to dig. “We found this at a military surplus store,” unfolding a big green canvas military duffel, “I just really liked the color.” It was all gleaned from thrift shop adventures around town, in Hollywood district or at the Goodwill Bins. “Actually we should go look around the Sellwood shops after lunch,” Alex said, and within minutes we were ducking through the rain and racing out the parking lot.
The streets were sheets of white, sun reflecting off the rain-wetted asphalt. I stuck my head out the backseat window as we drove pass Reed college: white windows and red brick, Gothic ivy. I saw so many chain link fences encircling auto shops and gravel-filled empty lots as we drove toward Otto’s Sausage Kitchen. Otto’s serves the workaday, so we sat at simple wooden tables and ate hearty sandwiches—with names like The Carnivore, The Orchard, and The Kitchen Sink—on plain white plates. As Alex discussed various techniques for tying a bow tie, the man next to us, wearing light blue denim over work boots, stared. “I prefer to finish the tie with a single dimple on each ear of the bow, but Peter finishes the tie with two dimples on each side, so when you see two dimples on our website then you know he’s the one who tied it for that shoot,” Alex said, and the the man next to us held a half eaten sandwich in one hand and looked toward us as he chewed.
Bow tie wearers aren’t known for fitting in, and the shade of their nonconformity ranges from sartorial rebel to stubborn individualist. The roster of bow-tie wearers is often looked at as a curiosity, as if some common trait found among its names might reveal the bow tie’s appeal: Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Bill Nye, Karl Lagerfeld, and Mo Rocca, to name my favorite. And what’s the common trait? I have no idea. Each individual’s aesthetic could be separately dismissed, but there’s a multiplicative effect when diverse styles share an item of clothing as overt as the bow tie. And so it’s like that: the professor wears a bow tie, as does the politician, the ironic comedian, and the German fashion designer. And the bow tie gains clout by having a lineage great in breadth, benefiting today’s wearers.
I can’t remember the exact sequence of events after we ate lunch, or where we went first or what great fabric we found but that didn’t make it back to the studio, but at some point Alex roared the engine and I was tossed around the back seat until he swooped into the parking lot of Pendleton Woolen Mills factory store. Inside, we strode down aisles, rolling out great lengths of fabric from bolts shelved to the ceiling. I heard shouts from across the warehouse store, “come look at this one!” and “we need to find something thinner, after all it’s almost summer!” and so on, rambunctiously raising the eye brows of shoppers at almost every turn until we were abruptly stopped, by an apron & name tag-wearing woman in her mid-forties who suspiciously asked us “do you boys need any help?” All stop and a bit of panic, until the woman got a better look at us and then: “oh you’re hiding under that hat, Peter!” and continued: “I think this is the fabric from the tie you called Lexington, which is my all-time favorite.” While Peter and she talked, Alex picked through a bin of wool scraps assessing its hand—the quality of a fabric determined by the sense of touch between fingers and on skin. I saw him do this all over the store, spotting a pattern or color that caught his eye and then going in for the touch and reading the fabric like braile and getting a sense of its texture and weight. We combed through the whole store like this and then, with scraps and samples dangling from the clutches of our arms, we waved goodbye and glided outside and onto our next stop
While I tried on a 1960′s letterman jacket in the basement floor of an antique mall, Peter and Alex flipped through racks of dresses. “Our floral patterns have been really popular and I’d really like to find some more,” Alex said, “I need to find faded prints but not too faded, because light colored ties are hard to wear.” And sure enough, so far everything we had found was rich in color.
Across the street we found a pop-up thrift shop inside a big church, and we search for shelving and decor for their booth at the next flea market they attend. The floor boards of the church were mottled with dark dents from years of being walked on, and the ceiling beams looked derelict and the air between them smelled old. A vintage coo-coo clock sat upon a vintage table top and two girls wearing vintage dresses stood behind the counter. Were these girls vintage? Were their souls old? Was this all their stuff? Then I came across a Hasselblad camera under a glass case. One of the girls took it out for me to play with and Alex, an adept photographer on the side, showed me how to use it. “We have a decent Tumblr following thanks to all the photos we take,” said Peter, smiling for me as I looked through the camera, “and that’s where we get a lot of our traffic. People love to reblog photographs of our packaging, which features a old topographical map of Oregon. And we post a lot of production photos and look book shots.”
In fact, many burgeoning apparel brands contribute a large portion of sales to traffic originating from Tumblr. Attempting to maximize this trend, Alex and Peter have been in talks with Dan Coe who’s created The Black Dot—a Tumblr plugin that makes Tumblr posts “shoppable” by placing a black dot over products in photos, which, when clicked, send the user to a web store. “The average image on Tumblr is reblogged 9 times, and The Black Dot stays attached to those photos at they’re reblogged,” said Dan when he told me how The Black Dot could be a non-intrusive way to combine e-commerce with small brands’ Tumblr content. “We created Black Dot with brands like Tanner Goods and Harding & Wilson in mind. Most brands are very skeptical of posting products or anything commercial, but the most popular Tumblr posts are actually product-driven, so The Black Dot is a way to take a potential customer to the next step. The brands we’re working with are emerging, young, and entrepreneurial. Their photography is amazing. And their products are made to order. There’s something really beautiful and pure about the idea that they wait until they receive an order before they create the product. The item is being made solely for that customer, and they’re no stacks of product. So they need a method of sales that is equally beautiful and pure, and that’s where The Black Dot comes in.”
Our last stop was the Goodwill Bins. Most of what Peter and Alex find here are used for inspiration, or internal one-offs for friends. I’m not being critical when I say that when the bins are wheeled across the ocean of concrete they looked like garbage barges—flat and wide and full of a many-colored mess. Peter found a bin full army jump suits made from green canvas similar to what I had seen in the duffel at their studio. Soon he had pulled them all out and slung them over his shoulder making a heavy stack like a body. He slew the stack back onto a bin and turned them over one by one looking at each tint of army green. He lifted one up to his body and I dared him to try it on. Meanwhile I was searching for florals, one of the few styles that I thought I could really grasp. With one hand searching and the other hand throwing, I sent summer dresses and rose-print tablecloths arching over the bins, flapping like flags to land safely in Alex’s cart as he stood transfixed, staring at a woman’s shopping cart piled high with foliage and fake house plants. “Can you believe all that foliage, I wish that was my cart!” he said and took out his phone to take a photo. At the register our findings were weighed by the pound and we drove off.
Back at the studio Peter began cutting fabric again while Alex poured over designs for a straight tie collaboration with the Woodlands. I asked Peter about how they got started. “We just started by creating a few bow ties in college, and a bunch of our friends wanted us to make them ties too, so we came up with the name Harding & Wilson. Named after the two U.S. presidents. And we created our first cohesive line of ties. But we were too late! At the time we had no notion of seasons in the industry or the buying cycles of retails, so most stores had already finished purchasing and no one wanted to even see the ties. But the following season we were prepared, and that’s when we picked up stockists like the Lizard Lounge.”
When I spoke to Bob Davis, the creative director of Lizard Lounge, he eagerly told me that he was Harding & Wilson’s first account. “I found out they were located in Portland and making ties out of Pendleton scrap fabric, so I immediately contacted them and brought in their ties. We had them before Hill Side or any other brand like that, back when bow ties were making a comeback with the younger crowd, the denim crowd. It’s a throwback look: dandy, work wear, turn of the century. And you can wear a bow tie with a derby or newsboy hat. Fashion is a tough business, no matter what line of work you’re in, but they’ve found a way to differentiate their ties by using dead stock fabric. They can tell the story of limited edition, doing things with us as a collaboration or creating one-off ties. Larger brands can’t do that as easily, and so it meshes well with the homegrown operation they’ve created without any professional training.”
We finish the day by exploring the basement where we find walls speckled with paint, and when it begins to rain again we head outside to enjoy it. We dig up ties from past seasons and Alex shows me a tie made for a Japanese lifestyle magazine, and photos of bespoke ties made for weddings. What was once an empty concrete room is now humming with sewing machines and churning out next season’s ties. They’re taking custom orders and collaborating with local stores. And it’s just the beginning of their story.
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