The Hip Haberdasher
If you need to step up your cap and tie game, make an appointment to see Otis James. After a 4,000+ mile bike trip across the country, James moved to Nashville in 2009 on a whim. He knew he wanted to learn about making clothing, and he started working in a tuxedo shop. While there, he successfully crafted ties for a coworker’s family members. Commission after commission flooded in, and in 2010, James established his own eponymous company. Now, he has both a brick-and-mortar and online business. Check out his website for some accessories that exude old school class, contemporary design, and certain flare.
You’ve lived in Nashville for eight years. How have you seen the city change, particularly with regard to its fashion industry / men’s fashion?
Nashville feels like a completely different city now than the one I moved to 8 years ago. Back then, it felt to me more like a big town (which is more my preferred pace). Now it seems to have graduated to city status, with many of the perks and annoyances that come with that kind of growth. The fashion industry has done nothing but grow significantly in that time. The scene here used to be defined heavily by a handful of independent designers and makers. Now Nashville is vying to be a top contender in the national fashion scene. There is still much to be done in order for that to happen, but I think some good groundwork has been laid by the Nashville Fashion Alliance. Today you see a lot more diversity in the work and talent coming out of Nashville, which is exciting. In the near future, I think you will start to see a lot more people moving to Nashville specifically to pursue fashion instead of mostly people who happened to already be here and had an interest or inspiration, but didn’t want to move to New York or L.A.
How did you get into making ties, and then hats?
Making ties was an avenue that I did not intentionally pursue. I moved to Nashville on a whim eight years ago with the idea that I wanted to pursue some sort of craft. I guess because of my love of textiles, I decided to start with clothing. I thought I was going to be designing and making all sorts of custom garments for men (even though I was starting with zero experience or training). Then I got a commission from a coworker at the tuxedo shop where I was working to make some ties for her father and brother. That led to a wedding commission shortly thereafter for custom groom and groomsmen ties, which led to some good press, which led to emails from around the country for custom wedding ties. Soon enough I had a custom tie business. It was not something I was thrilled about pursuing in the beginning, as I did not really love making neckties, but every time I tried to quit, a great commission would come in, and I would keep going. Finally I decided to start my own collection of ties to sell wholesale. Really, a lot of great opportunities just sort of fell in my lap in the beginning. It was hard to say no to the work.
Caps are another story. Since I was 13, I’ve owned and worn caps. So before I made my first tie, I made a tweed ivy cap based on that first one I bought when I was 13. I quickly found out that caps were not easy and were going to require a lot of work. So I just continued to develop them slowly in the background as the tie business took off. It was about 3 years before I really started advertising custom caps to my customers. Now, 4 years later, that’s about 90% of what I do, which makes me very happy. There is a smaller market for custom caps, but it’s a loyal and appreciative market, which allows me to have a much more personal experience with my customers. That’s always been the driving force behind what I do—creating connection through the garments I make.
Right now, you’re collaborating with Andra Eggleston of Electra Eggleston. What has that collaboration added for your business, and do you have any other dream collaborators?
The Electra Eggleston collaboration actually debuted in 2015. That was a really special project for me and still one of the products I’m most proud of. First of all, working with Andra was a fun experience. We get along really well, and though I would consider both of us to be artists, I think we have different approaches to our work. Maybe a lot of that is because she actually went to school for what she does, and I’m just making it up as I go.
I think that collaboration set a higher bar for my business, at least personally. Partnerships like that are something I’ve wanted to do since I started this endeavor. I remember when I was just getting going making ties, I approached a few artist friends about doing a series of one-off, hand-painted ties to exhibit in a gallery. I’m really glad now that I didn’t make that happen back then, as I don’t think I was ready. Perhaps that’s something I will still pursue in the future. Currently, I’m working on building some collaborations with artists for printed kerchiefs and cap linings. I love working with visual artists, people who are more creator-brained than problem-solver-brained, which is what I consider myself to be. And I love crossing disciplines. There are a few folks here in Nashville that I would really love to partner with in the future, but I’m going to keep those names to myself for now.
What’s the number one mistake you see men make with their clothing, and what’s your advice on how to fix it?
Honestly, the biggest thing I see time and time again with men and clothing is cowardice. I’m not really much into the idea of fashion, per se, but I love the idea of personal style. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie to look sharp (though it certainly does’t hurt). Honestly, I would say fit is probably the best avenue any man can pursue to easily improve his appearance. That doesn’t mean it has to be supremely tailored, slim-fit, or on trend. It just means working with your body shape and not wearing clothing that resembles a feedsack. It is as simple as wearing shirts and jackets with shoulder seams that actually hit the shoulders, not mid-bicep. Or pants that aren’t 4” too long. Beyond that, I would just love to see a little more personality and courage in how men dress. I’ve worked in clothing for 15 years now, and I consistently see men try things on that fit, look good, and that they actually like, but they are too terrified to pull the trigger because they fear it is outside “normal.” That makes me sad, especially when the things they are already wearing are ill-fitted, poor quality, and generally not good-looking. When a guy comes in my shop, finds a cap he loves, but is timid about buying it, I usually tell him to go ahead and buy it, wear it around for a week or so, and see if he gets any compliments. If he doesn’t, I’ll let him return the cap. I’ve never had a return from one of those sales, and most often, the guy will come back in just to tell me about the compliments he’s been getting and how glad he is that he bought the cap.