The Handlebar Guide to NecktiesOur extensive primer on upgrading your arsenal of neckwear and knotting 'em up in style

BACK IN MIDCENTURY AMERICA, neckties were part of a man’s uniform. You wore one with your suit and hat and freshly shined shoes, and you went to work alongside hundreds upon thousands of men dressed exactly the same way. For an entire generation of young people, ties became earmarks of the establishment—a suffocating sign that you’d signed over your individuality to Corporate America—and thus they slowly started to disappear. Our culture began to lose its sense of formality, of dressing with purpose, until eventually drab polo shirts and ill-fitting khakis became the choice de rigueur for appropriate office attire. (There’s a special place in sartorial hell reserved for Mark Zuckerburg and his zip-up hoodies.)

But a rebellion has begun—a renaissance, if you will—and more and more young, well-dressed men are donning ties as a sign not of conformity, but independence. They use their neckwear to stick it to their sloppy forefathers and express themselves in the process. Because really, if you think about it, what else is a tie good for? They serve no real functional purpose beyond making you look good, refined, sophisticated. A man in a tie is instantly more respectable, and guys everywhere are using them to add a dash of personality to their ensembles.

“Expressing yourself with a tie,” however, does not mean wearing that viscose number with Tweety Bird and Taz on it that your mom bought you in the sixth grade. Below, you’ll find our comprehensive guide to doing it the right way. We’ll introduce you to a few of the standout labels from a new, innovative generation of tie makers; give you a rundown on the tie every man should own, the ideal fabrics and widths, and the best technique for tying one on; and, finally, four tastemakers we trust will reflect on their favorite neckwear.

Four Young Labels To Watch

The Windmill Club

"Burgundy Teal/White Stripe" and "Sailboat Club" ties by The Windmill Club ($88 each)


THE LOOK: Preppy classics with a jocular edge

THE BACKSTORY: To some folks, college is little more than a transitional period—a time to goof off and drink as much as possible before real life catches up with you. For Kevin Burrows, it was an opportunity to establish one of the most refreshing neckwear labels in contemporary menswear.

Enamored with the rich history of American style, the 23-year-old Harvard grad launched The Windmill Club during his senior year at the Ivy League institution. Handmade in New York in extremely limited numbers, the small collection combines the trad-preppy style associated with Burrow’s alma mater with the laidback, casual ease of his Southern Californian upbringing: repp ties in lush, vibrant colors, and club patterns with irreverent embroideries like popsicles or classic roadsters.

“I’d call it ‘quixotic American sportswear,’” Burrows quips. “Wearing a tie from the club shows that you have a sense of adventure, exceptional taste, and that you know how to tie a tie.”

General Knot & Co. 

Ties by General Knot & Co. ($98 each)


THE LOOK: Bold, confident patterns and workwear-inspired fabrics

THE BACKSTORY: After spending close to two decades working for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger, menswear designer Andrew Payne felt a little disillusioned. The corporate calendar calls for fabrics to be chosen and designs to be finalized many months in advance, and Payne began to find the rigid structure chafing. “The spontaneity and organic creative process was lost,” the 42-year-old says.

Last fall, Payne revived his passion for design by striking out on his own with General Knot & Co., a line of ties, bowties, and pocket squares that are not for the faint of heart. Using vintage textiles from as far back as World War II, many of General Knot’s creations feature an audacious mix of plaids, florals, and chambrays that’ll look right at home with jeans and a work shirt, or provide a confident pop to a classic suit. “You aren’t going to find a conservative boardroom look here,” Payne says.

Next spring, General Knot will roll out its first collection of shirts, and it’s safe to assume the line’s predilection for statement-making pattern-mixing will carry over. “We’re very mindful of staying true to our brand identity,” Payne says. “We’ll never try to be everything to everyone.”

Pierrepont Hicks

"Drew" ($120) and "Navy" ($82) ties by Pierrepont Hicks


THE LOOK: Hefty, luxurious wools in handsome plaids and tartans

THE BACKSTORY: When Mac and Kat McMillan got married in The Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, they took a great deal of pleasure in hunting down and researching the perfect tartan wool for Mac’s wedding kilt. Upon returning to Minneapolis, the entrepreneurial couple decided to prolong the fun by founding Pierrepont Hicks, a collection of neckties that brings together Kat’s background in fashion—she cut her teeth at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren Black Label—and Mac’s strong eye for fabrics.

A fair number of Pierrepont’s ties are constructed from hardy wools that feel like they could stand up to just about anything, and that’s exactly what they’re intended to do.”Our brand is essentially about rugged luxury,” Kat says. “We think guys can wear ties in all sorts of capacities, while fly–fishing or hunting, like they used to.”

We’re not so sure we’d want to get ties as unabashedly beautiful as these wet by rocking ‘em in our waders, but they’ll certainly feel just right cinched tight around your neck beneath a heavyweight tweed jacket on a crisp fall day.

The Knottery

"The Mark," "The Elijah," and "The Jefferson" ties by The Knottery ($25 each)


THE LOOK: Upper East Side class on a Lower East Side budget

THE BACKSTORY: Like a lot of young, stylish guys, Jay Arem and Jack Fischman spent much of their time on the Internet, reading menswear blogs and lusting after all the incredible, high-end goods they’d find. Unfortunately, like a lot of young, stylish guys, they didn’t have the funds to afford the clothes they wanted.

Earlier this year, the duo decided to take matters into their own hands by starting their own line of accessories, The Knottery. Crafted in Brooklyn from deadstock fabrics in a slim, contemporary silhouette, Arem and Fishman’s ties possess many of the traits style bloggers drool over. The difference, though, is that The Knottery’s products only cost $25. “You shouldn’t have to mortgage your home to buy something you want,” Arem says. “We wanted to make products that were affordable from the get-go.”

Evidently, The Knottery’s “attainable style” business model struck a nerve—both of the brand’s first two collections sold out almost entirely in four days apiece, and Arem and Fischman remain overwhelmed and overjoyed by the instant success. “The feedback’s been incredible,” Arem says. “It really motivates us to continue to innovate and challenge each other to meet the standards we’ve come to expect.”

The Only Tie You Really Need

In the pantheon of menswear essentials, the navy knit tie ranks among the storied likes of “jeans,” “white oxford shirts,” and “underwear.” Yes, we endorse them that highly. The dark, uniform color matches up well with just about anything (as you can see in the image above), while the nubby woven texture provides a splash of understated panache. Whether you rock it with an aforementioned white oxford or use it to anchor a cacophony of loud patterns, the square-bottomed navy knit will quickly become the tie you’ll find yourself reaching for more than any other in your wardrobe.

If you’re looking to grab one, you’ve got more than a few options: the resplendent silk versions from outfitters like Drakes, J. Press, and Kent Wang are certainly ideal, but the budget-conscious can make do with the cheaper offerings from Uniqlo or The Tie Bar.

A Fabric For Every Season

The same way you wouldn’t wear a beefy sweater on a sweltering summer day, it’s best to save certain tie fabrics for specific seasons. As you might expect, thicker materials like wool, corduroy and flannel make far more sense in the fall and winter, while textiles like cotton, linen and seersucker will help to keep things light and airy in the warmer months. Silk ties, meanwhile, remain a go-to staple all year along.

A Word On Width

Much like Oprah’s weight or your girlfriend’s mood, the width of tie considered “fashionable” fluctuates constantly—one minute it’s cool to sling on a pinky-thin, super-skinny number; the next, everyone’s decked out in cravats as broad as Nicki Minaj’s behind.

In our view, the smartest course of action is to buck the trends and stick to a sensible median. Look for ties that clock in around the three-inch mark at their widest point. They’ll be slim but not too slim, and stand up admirably against most lapels you pair them with. Unlike your buddies shamelessly replicating Mad Men’s slender, minimalist look or Boardwalk Empire’s oversized splendor, you’ll look refined and polished regardless of the era or what’s currently hot on cable television.

How To Knot ‘Em Up

There are dozens of affected, arduous methods for tying your tie out there, but the most useful and attractive knot of all just so happens to be the easiest to master. The Four-in-Hand—also known as the Schoolboy knot in some circles—is beloved for its subtle size and slightly asymmetrical shape, which gives the tie a far more natural look than its stuffy, gargantuan cousin the Windsor. Follow the simple steps in the slideshow below, and you’ll be looking fresh to death in no time.

Four Tastemakers’ Most Treasured Ties

Skip Brooks, Alex Grant 

The Tatnall School Tie

“To say that my prep school tie holds sentimental value would be an understatement, because wearing it always felt more like a tradition than attire. The simple black and gold repp tie spoke volumes to me during those years, as it connected me to the collective history of the school while simultaneously representing an array of possibilities for my future. Since 1998, the tie has remained in its box unworn and waiting. And there it will stay for another 15 years until my children’s graduation, when I will wear the tie once more, proudly contemplating the possibilities for their future.”

Brad Bennett, Well Spent

The Hill-Side Black Watch Waxed Canvas Tie

“I actually got this tie from Max Wastler of All Plaidout. It was a prize I won for being his 1025th follower on Twitter (this was long before we met/became friends). The story goes that the tie was a gift from Joe Gannon, who saw it at Context in WI, and immediately purchased it for his perpetually plaid-clad friend. What Joe didn’t realize, though, was that Max had already procured the same tie for himself a week earlier. So, Max decided to make Joe’s gift a prize. And I won it. Six months later, I wound up meeting Max and Joe at the first NorthernGRADE pop-up. As luck would have it, I was wearing the tie, which prompted them to regale me with the saga of how it wound up in my hands. We’ve been buddies ever since.”

James Fox, 10 Engines

Wool Ties

“Pick a favorite tie? Has to be made of wool. Picking one tie is hard; part of their reason for being is to have one for every occasion, but still, there are some aspects of a woolen tie that I love:

1) They are not too dressy. Club the tie, roll your sleeves up and you can be cooking dinner or working outdoors.

2) They actually stay tied. Tie it in the morning with a tight slim knot and it will stay in place all day.

3) They are regional, in the sense that they are often produced near the source of wool, so they give you a feeling of connection—if that sort of thinking is important to you.

4) They are unfussy (see the ‘conference table milky coffee’ on the right) but closer inspection always reveals extras colors, and the inevitable texture of the tie draws your eye in a bit. Or if you can wear one that is your family’s tartan then bonus points…”

Grant Harris, Image Granted

Ralph Lauren Cashmere Tie

“Anyone who knows me and my style will tell you about my sock collection. I’m a sock lover and can’t get enough of them. However, I’ve found that my tie collection has steadily increased over the years and I’ve been able to add some quality pieces. Looking over my collection, it ranges from conservative staples to eccentric conversation pieces. My personal favorite, though, has got to be my Ralph Lauren cashmere tie. This isn’t just any tie. It’s 100% soft and supple cashmere in a subtle but powerful blackwatch plaid, untipped with a hand rolled edge in a perfect 3-inch width. It’s classic and modern. It’s old school but not outdated, and it’s a quality item that I’ll have for many years to come. I like it even more since I only paid $3 for it at the thrift store.”

Photos by Yang-Yi Goh and Jeremy Wolf

Illustrations by Jeremy Wolf

The Handlebar Guide Archives:

The Handlebar Guide to Straight Razor Shaving

The Handlebar Guide to Lapel Accoutrements

The Handlebar Guide to Thrift and Vintage Shopping

The Handlebar Guide to Colognes