FOR a growing number of American men, the familiar look of traditional neckwear - stripes, solids, medallions - is giving way to ties with an attitude.
Bold colors and big patterns, based on everything from television cartoon shows to celebrity paintings, are showing up in boardrooms and offices across the country. Even people who have shunned ties in the past are wearing them, sometimes as an accessory worn with jeans rather than a suit.
Organizations such as Save the Children are offering ties through department stores, giving people a chance to wear their social consciousness, if not on their sleeves, then at least on their necks.
These "statement neckties" are the "T-shirts of the '90s," says Gerald Andersen, executive director of the Neckwear Association of America, a trade group that represents neckwear manufacturers. Even stores such as The Gap, which appeal to a younger, more casual buyer, have begun stocking these ties, Mr. Andersen says.
A bold tie can "individualize a pretty standard wardrobe," he points out. While a typical department store may carry one or two dozen styles and colors of dress shirts, the same store will likely have neckties with hundreds of patterns and fabrics, he says.
Today, "even conservative ties are bolder than back in the '80s," he says. The average tie has grown to four inches wide, perhaps so that the "artist gets a wider canvas to work with," Andersen says.
One manufacturer who's seen spectacular success with celebrity ties is Stonehenge Ltd. Last summer, the New York-based manufacturer introduced a line based on the art of Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist and vocalist for the legendary rock group, the Grateful Dead.
Since then, the company has reaped publicity that money just can't buy: The ties have been spotted on the necks of famous people from President Clinton to Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson to members of the British Parliament.
Stonehenge president Irwin Sternberg says the ties appeal to "men who went through the Woodstock days." Garcia's counterculture image - he admits to not wearing a tie himself for the last 25 years - seems to add to the enjoyment. People feel that they are "getting away with something by wearing [a Garcia tie] to the board meeting," Mr. Sternberg says.
According to Sternberg, the first two collections of Garcia ties are sold out; he considers them collectors' items, since he has decided not to produce any more of them. A third collection ($30 each retail) debuted in May and includes a tie called Wetlands I. Part of the proceeds from its sales go to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund for use in helping to preserve the Florida Everglades.
In June, Stonehenge added a line of ties based on the paintings of the late jazz great Miles Davis. In August, it will begin selling ties based on the microphotography of Florida State University scientist Michael Davidson. Called "Molecular Expressions," the ties will show the beauty of the microscopic patterns in nature. Informational tags attached to each tie will give them an educational value, Sternberg says.
Despite the unconventional nature of his products, Sternberg says gimmicks alone don't sell the ties. Neckwear must also "be creative, give beauty and charm" in order to wind its way around the necks of American males.