A Wild Civility
For filmmaker and tie designer Alexander Olch, the message is not defined by the medium
by Timothy Sohn Photography Matthu Placek
I am standing in front of an ornately gabled brick building on Mott Street in Nolita in the soppy heat of a late-August evening, ringing a dead man’s door buzzer, when Alexander Olch approaches.
“You found it,” says Olch, 35, the creative polymath who has managed, over the past 10 years, to simultaneously launch and grow his eponymous line of high-end ties and accessories while also building a successful career as a filmmaker. “To me, they are all connected,” Olch says once we’re inside. “I just like making a lot of stuff.”
“It’s all about enjoying life's smaller luxuries. I’m a deep believer in that.”
The building is sort of hard to miss — it’s the only late 19th century Victorian Gothic building on the block — and it is the first in a series of clues to the Olchean sensibility that I will encounter over the course of our evening. It reminds me of Harvard, where I first met a habitually bowtie-clad Olch in the late-90s, and where the dead man whose doorbell I was ringing, filmmaker Richard Rogers, became Olch’s teacher and mentor. When Rogers passed away in 2001, he left behind 200 hours of footage for an incomplete autobiographical film. His widow, the photographer Susan Meiselas, tapped Olch to make some sense of the footage — along with Rogers’s journals, photographs and other material. The result was The Windmill Movie (2008), an official selection at the New York Film Festival that was later picked up by HBO. It is a remarkable film, an elegiac jewel box of recollection and invention, a meditation on privilege and art and ego and ambition.
Olch was beginning to edit the film in Rogers’s loft, surrounded by the artifacts of his mentor’s life, when he started the fashion line in 2002, occasionally taking breaks from the edit bay to show some ties to friends or buyers. (Olch’s tie obsession dates back further: during his school days at the Collegiate School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he embraced the dress code’s tie requirement, amassing a collection of some 500 neckties by the time he graduated.) The loft, under an agreement with Meiselas, has continued to serve as Olch’s showroom, where he welcomes wholesale buyers to peruse a line that has grown to include bowties, suspenders, pocket squares, scarves, belts and even notebooks, stocked at 50 stores around the world. A well-appointed relic of an earlier downtown era, stuffed with art and photographs and books, the loft is in some ways the embodiment of the line’s — and Olch’s own — aesthetic: preppy with a downtown edge; old school manners and new school mores.
“You know, I grew up uptown, I live downtown and our customers are kind of a mix of both,” he says, surveying the 100 or so ties neatly laid out on an old oak table in a room at the front of Rogers’ loft. The hybrid result is a lightly rumpled dandyism that comes through in things like Olch’s choice of non-traditional tie fabrics that wrinkle easily and the design of pocket rounds instead of pocket squares for easier, less fussy folding. “The idea is to somehow be slightly messy in formality,” Olch says, jamming a pocket round into his shirt pocket. “And when people say you’re not supposed to do something, those are the things that in general interest me most.”
“I believe a man should trust himself, be bold and be able to tell a good story.”
Olch decides it’s time to change venues, so we head a few doors north on Mott Street to his live-work studio, a long, white rectangle with large windows leading onto a balcony at the far end. These days, having evolved the company to a point where he can hand off more responsibilities, Olch the filmmaker works here most mornings, mostly writing feature screenplays — his current project is a nearly completed script which he, coyly, will only tell me includes some “unusual elements” — before Olch the designer heads over at midday to join his two full-time employees at the Lafayette St. office (there are another half-dozen in the Brooklyn factory).
We sit across from each other at the bare worktable that serves as his desk and he pours me a glass of Mountain Valley Spring Water from an archaic-looking green glass bottle (it’s the water of choice for the White House, he says, for “every president from Coolidge to Clinton”). “It’s all about enjoying the life's smaller luxuries,” Olch says. "I’m a deep believer in that.”
As we discuss the water, Calvin Klein, Jay-Z and the origins of his business, he occasionally plucks objects from his overstuffed bookshelves to illustrate his points. As the evening turns toward darkness, I look up from my notebook and see him wrestling a large cardboard box off the top shelf of a bookcase. “This I don’t show many people,” he says, extracting four instructional posterboards and propping them against the wall along the back of his couch. “This is called ‘Four Panels on Being a Man.’ I did this about 1999, in college, and they’re supposed to be shown in order. The first one is how to tie a bowtie, and this was long before I had any intention of doing this tie business. Next is how to take off a brassiere, then how to open a bottle, and then finally, of course, what every man must do: pay the bill.” I gaze upon it like an archaeologist standing over the Rosetta stone: it is proto-Olch, with something explanatory in its slightly mannered and vaguely antiquated idea of masculinity.
But if the panels are the origin texts of Olch’s sensibility, then a project from earlier this year, a video called Knot Yourself, which I had watched before heading to Mott Street, is perhaps a truer indicator of where he’s headed. It is beautiful and collaborative, drawing on both his film and fashion networks, agnostic in terms of not privileging one medium over the other, and suggestive of a wider creative purview for the brand going forward. The voice is pure Olch, both in the overall tone of the piece — sardonic, funny, elegant — and the actual narration (which he voiced). In the video, a beautiful model mouths his words and demonstrates a four-in-hand knot.
It closes with a statement of purpose: “I believe a man should trust himself, be bold and be able to tell a good story,” he says. “Be present in every moment and still pay attention to the details. I know I do.” At which point the model walks off, revealing that, for all the formality of her upper-body look, she’s neglected to put on her pants.