WILD, silky styles are winning over young buyers in an industry that thrives during recessions by keeping men fashionably attired. "Neckwear always does well in hard times," says Gerald Andersen of the Neckwear Association. "A man can change his look with a few shirts and ties, and save the cost of buying a new suit."
Mr. Andersen represents the nation's 150 tiemakers, a third of them based in New York City, clustered in showrooms at the Empire State Building.
This year, Andersen expects that 15 million to 20 million ties will be wrapped up for Father's Day. He estimates that 100 million ties pass American cash registers each year, with sales over $1 billion.
Fred Spiegel, a third-generation tiemaker, says new fashions have forced department stores to restock their racks, keeping 75 people working at the Bronx factory founded 80 years ago by his grandfather and great-uncle.
"A few years ago the Italians started changing the designs and materials," says Mr. Spiegel, explaining how silk emerges from cocoons in China and is spun into bolts of dyed fabric in fashion factories around Milan.
Gone are the "power ties" of the 1980s, and the polyester fabrics that once accounted for half of all ties made, he says. Now silk is in, decorated with designs befitting an abstract art museum.
"The tie I'm wearing right now looks like somebody closed their eyes and waved a paintbrush at it," Spiegel says.
The flamboyant styles are drawing unexpected numbers of 17- to 25-year-olds to the tie racks, he says. "They want to look gorgeous for the girls."
Spiegel offers a shopping tip to buyers unfamiliar with New York's first market commandment: Thou shalt not buy retail.
"Silk ties run from $18 to $30 in the young-men's section," he says. "Sometimes the same tie, the same quality and material, goes for twice that in the men's sections."
Jeff Kantor runs another family-owned tie company from an office in the Empire State Building, where buyers from department stores shop for the best wholesale price, design, and delivery schedule. "Stores like to sell ties," Mr. Kantor says. "It's a lot of profit in a small area," with margins often 50 to 65 percent.
Neckwear experts say women buy more than half of all ties - the percentage used to be higher - which is why tie racks are often placed at the end of aisles, to catch the eye of women passing by the men's section.
Meanwhile, "men are constantly calling and saying they don't know how to tie a tie," says Sandra Salmen, advertising manager for Wemco, a New Orleans company that turns out an industry-leading 36,000 ties a day.
To teach men that social skill discreetly, she says Wemco distributes 250,000 copies of an instructional brochure each year.
The wild Italian designs inspired American tiemakers to create what Ms. Salmen calls "conversation ties" that give new meaning to the term fashion statement.
"We are doing a whole ecological program," she says, describing one tie that features smoke billowing from a stack framed by a red circle with a slash through it.
Salmen says today's fashion free-for-all mirrors a similar period 40 years ago. m looking at some ties designed in 1951 that I could sell today," she says, speculating that war and recession make men want happy ties.
But what of the question every man must ask when he loosens the knot and undoes his top button on a hot summer day: why do I wear this thing?
Jean Druesedow, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says there is some evidence that ties evolved from the scarves 17th-century swordsmen draped around their necks for use as emergency bandages.
If office infighting still draws blood today, the dyes used in modern ties makes them more suitable for dressing up than for dressing wounds, Ms. Druesedow says. Yet the neckwear habit persists.
"I think it's conservatism and a sense of tradition," she says.
Andersen recalls that when he joined the Neckwear Association in 1973, some designers were predicting that the tie would be wiped out by something called the leisure suit. "A hundred years from now who knows what men will be wearing. But I can say that 100 years ago men were wearing neckties. A lot has changed since then, but they're still wearing ties."