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'Necktie King' Establishes Multi-Million Dollar Business - 2004-04-12


He's called the "Necktie King," a Los Angeles manufacturer who says his company, Superba Incorporated, is the world's largest producer of ties.

When the talk turns to ties, Mervyn Mandelbaum waxes rhapsodic. He knows what he likes in a necktie. "Great fabric with great quality," said Mr. Mandelbaum. "You want a tie that feels lush, that feels soft, that feels full. You pay more for that fabric. You want to have great color. You want depth in the color. And you want it to be well made."

Mr. Mandelbaum is a veteran of this business. He's been in it since age four. "My father had a tie factory in South Africa," he recalled. "And I guess before I even started going regularly to school, he'd take me on the odd day to work with him. And I'd go into the factory, and my first memories are playing [there]. They used to cut the ties and there'd be a certain amount of waste, and the waste would get thrown under the table. And I would play amongst the waste off-cuts under the table."

At age 35, he left his native South Africa, disgusted with the country's apartheid government and unhappy with the nation's growing isolation.

In 1979, he took over one of America's oldest apparel companies, Superba Cravats, and moved it from Rochester, New York, to Los Angeles.

At the time, it produced about one and a half million ties a year. He says production now is much higher. "This year we hope to ship in excess of 16 million ties," he said.

The company has 700 employees, most at its factory in Los Angeles, where phone calls come in constantly from buyers around the United States and fabric suppliers in Italy and China.

Upstairs, a visitor sees row after row of cutting and sewing machines, brightly colored fabric, and tens of thousands of neckties.

Supervisor Salvador Inda points to a worker holding an iron. "She's pressing the pieces," he explained. "Then they go to the Liba [stitching] a machine. That stitches the tie."

After several more steps, the lining is sewn in, and the tie gets a final pressing.

Mr. Mandelbaum's company does more than $100 million a year in business, producing ties for major labels including Donna Karan International, Ike Behar, Tommy Hilfiger, Hart Schaffner & Marx, and Jones New York.

Production assistant Soli Flores says retail prices start at $25, and go much higher. "It depends on the label of the tie," said Ms. Flores. "Depending on that, we buy the fabric, and the tie at a higher price point will be a more expensive fabric."

The only bad part of the job, she jokes, is that all of the men in her family want free neckties. "Of course. That's a given," she said.

Luckily, she added, employees get a discount.

Mr. Mandelbaum has seen some changes over the years. Neckties were thin in the 1960s and they are wide today, providing a broader palette, he says, for bold new patterns and colors. Ties are also getting longer as Americans grow taller. When he started, the average length was 125 centimeters. Today it is 145.

With the opening of China in the early 1980s, silk replaced polyester as the fabric of choice for neckties. The trend was spurred by higher petroleum prices, which drove up the cost of oil-based artificial fabrics.

The 1990s brought some lean years for the necktie industry, as a casual trend in the workplace reduced the sale of dress clothes.

Mr. Mandelbaum says he's glad today's men are dressing better, and many are wearing neckties. "But, you know, it's like a wave," he said. "You ride it while you've got it. So we'll get a few years of it, and then it will probably taper off again."

But for now, he says, the tie business is exciting. "Men are prepared to be much more experimental with color.," said Mr. Mandelbaum. "We were down to selling four or five colors a few years ago. We were selling navies, burgundies, reds, and maybe in the summertime some maize or yellow colored ties. Hey, now you're selling oranges, pinks, lilacs, a ll kinds of different colors."

The tie maker has flirted with products like shirts, but always returned to his true passion and the product he knows the best, traditional neckties.

He shuns the new technology that some competitors are using to make ties longer lasting and to make them stain resistant.

"We don't support initiatives which would add to the longevity of the tie," he said. "A tie is not meant to be a long-lasting commodity. It's meant to be something that you get new ones every few months.

"Practice," adviced Mr. Mandelbaum for those unable to tie a necktie. "Wear one every day, and then you know where to start."