Studio Visit: Charles Olive

I met Charles Olive through mutual friends and it was always lovely to have someone to talk fashion with so when he mentioned earlier this year that he was launching a label of bow ties I went and scoped out his studio and had a chat with him about how it all got started.

So I’ve always been interested, [in fashion] but not over the top. Two or three years ago I gave up booze for 18 months, and that is about, I suddenly had loads of extra money and that’s suddenly when I started getting interested in dressing smartly.

Cause we kind of know a lot of the same people, and a lot of the people we know would be like ‘oh that’s the guy who dresses smart’. When did that happen? And what came before that?

I guess there were like two major turning points, one where I got my first pair of brogues, from Crockett and Jones. Even though I’d been really into trainers you’re never spending more than a hundred quid and this was like, £350 so that was a big deal. At the time I was just into wearing slim jeans and maybe a shirt, and that happened for a while and I had this phase where I only wore black, my brogues were brown but everything else was black. Towards the end of that or maybe after that, when I gave up drinking, basically, as I was turning 30, I sort of freaked out and thought that, because I’ve always worked in places where there’s no uniform you can wear what you want…

You can look like Skate Dad

Exactly, I was like, if I’m growing up, thinking ahead if I’m having kids I want them to be able to identify me as an adult. You should dress like an adult. I hate saying it because it’s not a cuss, people dress in whatever they want, but like I didn’t want to be an old guy running around in jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. So I made a decision that I was going to smarten up my act and I think there was an event and I was like ‘I want a bow tie’ and my dad’s always worn bow ties, so I went home, chose a bow tie and he showed my how to tie it and I showed my mum and she said ‘oh, you look just like your grandad’, her dad. I don’t think he wore them in later life but supposedly all buy anabolic steroids through her childhood he wore a bow tie every day. At the time I was really obsessed with family heritage.

Were you already making bow ties by this point?

No no no, I just had one bow tie and I was wearing it and I was like you know what I’m gonna wear bow ties because it links me to my dad and grandad. Because boys are quite obsessive, they collect trainers, records, books, I started collecting bow ties, which was good, but pretty quickly I’d amassed a lot and spent a lot of money, so I thought I should learn to make them. I bought myself a little Janome sewing machine and taught myself. And that’s pretty much when I gave up drinking, when you’re not drinking you have so much time and energy because you’re not in the pub so I would be making loads of bow ties and I was painting a lot at the time and doing a lot of lino prints. I made a load of bow ties, but just being a random guy and not knowing anything about fashion or textiles, it was quite difficult finding decent fabrics so that got a bit frustrating after a while.

Somehow I found this site called Spoonflower, this American site that prints fabric, you upload your designs onto it and they’ve got cotton, canvas, silk. The great thing is there’s not really any minimum, so you can get a tiny 5cm sample or you can get a fat quarter, tea towel size which you can make a tie out of. At the time I found out about it I made some designs in Excel…

Do you work a lot in Excel in your day job?

Yeah, my day job wasn’t, I’m not an accountant, but we all have to use it. I started to make these repeat patterns, basically take a screen grab of it, upload it to Spoonflower and you can change the repeat. I got a few tests of those done, made a few ties and all of a sudden it was like, oh wow, I’ve created my own tie. I’m not sure how I came to do this stuff in Excel, buying all these bow ties, once you’ve got all these striped ties, and some spots and I always had a bit of an issue with paisley so I didn’t have any of them. So you’ve got nice clean wool ones and I’ve got a couple with whales on and an anchor. After that, you’re like, where can I go to get something that’s different or completely new?

And there wasn’t. At the time I was messing around and thought this could work, also I didn’t know how to use Photoshop or illustrator so Excel was the only thing that could make different colours. Suddenly it snowballed pretty quickly and I was making hundreds of quids worth of samples, sit and make them up, and then at the time it was fun.

Yeah it doesn’t seem like you sat down and thought ‘I’m going to build a bow tie empire!’

When I first discovered I could make it myself the thing that made me excited was that I could have the strongest best bow tie collection in the world and I could hang out with some bow tie guys and destroy them! I don’t actually know any bow tie guys.

Imaginary bow tie gangs!

I’ve always wanted to ‘do’ something but I’ve never had a thing to do, that’s why I work in Marketing, I quite like marketing but there was never any calling to do it.

So no Joan of Arc whisperings from god?

But then actually when I got into bow ties and it could be a thing, now it feels like it makes sense. Part of that whole reason of designing stuff was to have somethingthat was different, and I’m pretty good at research on the internet, so I know if I couldn’t find something different, it probably didn’t exist. Through chatting to people, I’ve got a lot of friends who work in fashion, business creative stuff, and no-one told that it was a stupid idea.

And when you’re wearing this stuff out and people are commenting you’re gauging, general response. Also, bow ties are a bit fashionable with Dr Who and Kanye, and Tinie Tempah, all these people.

There is a bit of a dandyism resurgence

I sort of feel that, but it doesn’t feel like a fast trend. It’s a part of the reason I started dressing smartly is because I didn’t want to… We’ve just become so casual. A lot of people don’t want to be so casual, a lot of the people I know, who dress in suits, it’s not out of a fashion need, that want to look good and they want to look like that.

There’s a bit of a distinction between flash in the pan I want to look cool and I’m an adult and I want to look like an adult.

That’s the thing, I used to spend a lot of time reading magazines, going to shops, as I was approaching 30 I was like I want to step outside of this and find a look that is timeless which means i don’t have to worry if that jacket is this season or last season. I used to work at Vice and I used to work at Dazed and Confused ages ago. I was working in events, there was this whole thing, if there were two bands that sounded the same, one was cool and one was shit. It’s that thing that when you’re younger that shit is innate, you’re like ‘of course so and so is better than the other people’ but as you get older it fucking sounds the same.

And it’s not important

And the reason why it’s cool and one isn’t is fairly arbitrary, and that was the reason I wanted to step outside that. Listen to classical music because you can’t really diss classical music or a classical suit because that’s just what it is.

And around that sort of time it would have just been after that kind of Shoreditch Hipster thing where it all got a little out of hand

Yeah, it was like Klaxons, Super Super era and you were like, oh sweet, but I’m 28, not 18, I’m not going out with some fluoro nonsense. Like I think it’s important, I’ve lived in Shoreditch since I lived in London. I think its; important that there are people who experiment, people who do that. I watched the Leigh Bowery documentary the other day and I think it’s fucking awesome, and he was probably much more conceptual…

Do you not kind of think you’re doing that in a more subtle way? It’s just not as in your face. Like that thing when you’re 15 you want to write the name of your favourite band on your bag, because you need to be identified by The Things That Are Cool and when you get older you just don’t give a shit.

Yeah, I think so. It’s weird because that was all about image, projecting an image. I focus more on what I wear now even though it’s not blander, but it’s still projecting an image. The interesting thing is, for me wearing a suit you think could walk into the City and blend in but it’s actually not at all like that. Most of those guys wear suits that don’t fit and load of them don’t wear ties and they ALL have the most awful shoes.

The worst!

The worst shoes!

The longest clown shoes!

The longest pointiest, but with the curl up at the end.

They’re like the medieval poulaines

It’s not that difficult to find something that fits. It comes from that idea of me and my mate when we were 12, we used to wear baggy jeans, the baggier the better. If we were going to wear smart trousers it had to be the baggiest trousers you’ve ever seen. So some of these guys just dress in shapes they wear at home in the evening or at the weekend.

I’ve got a thing about, fashion for fashion’s sake is a bit of a cultural vacuum

But then you have Bill Cunningham, he says fashion is so important and looking good is so important because life is fairly harsh and pretty grim often, it’s not that people shouldn’t do that. If it looks like your look, style is when you can be a little bit original and understand what you’re wearing and how it fits with you. Like when skinny jeans came around, a lot of my friends were in bands and a lot of them had been to Chelsea [art school], and they looked great, like little Mick Jaggers. But then you’d get people who were built like me and you’re like dude!

Me and my friends used to call them parsnip legs!

So let’s talk about the patterns, one of my friends knows your stuff and was like ooh those african print ties and I was like, no they’re not.

It’s patchy my memory, but I must have been making bow ties, we went to the Ashmolean in Oxford, it’s like the British Museum but it’s a museum of archaeology so they’ll have some pots but then they’ll also have stuff about the archaeologists.

There’s this massive photo of this guy in 1850, sat in a three-piece suit with a hat, in the middle of this excavation with a bow tie. Normally in these photos because they’re black and white and the definition isn’t amazing it just looks like a black bow tie, but because it was blown up you could see this African fabric and it sort of dawned on me that that was a great age of Gentlemen adventurers and discovery. This was a great flourish, you couldn’t just buy that fabric in Soho, you had to go there or someone who went there brought it back for you, it would be a great extravagance.

So your designs, do you think they show you’ve been to the furthest reaches of the internet and back?

I’ve certainly spent a lot of time on Excel not wanting to focus on the numbers, I used to put a lot of colour in my spreadsheets which people used to immediately remove- they’d always be really bright and garish.

And you’re colour blind aren’t you?

Yeah, so they’d always clash. But I’d do it on purpose, lots of blues and yellows because I can tell the difference, but a mix of reds and greens is more difficult. As it progressed through experimenting with the different designs, I definitely love certain African fabrics like the Ndebele, they have sweet geometry in the way they paint their houses and fabrics and the colours are awesome. There’s something about people like Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, she was another Bauhaus chick, they did really interesting repeats.

So what you tend to get in fashion or art it references where the world is at or things in culture, and what a striped bow tie doesn’t reference anything. Especially if you put paisley with it, it’s pretty much dress up like Winston Churchill. Whereas Excel is so prevalent in all our lives it just seems right. It’s like retribution, or taking back ownership of this thing that has been inflicted in our lives. It wasn’t built to do that and it ruins our lives in numbers.

There’s ones that are based on old Windows file icons, and these are pizzas, because they’re all digitally printed you can do small runs, so in theory if a small boutique wanted to collaborate we can do a small run. I’ve literally got about 100 designs that I want to use and it’d be interesting to take some designs to people. I’ve been playing around for about a year, so that’s quite a lot of designs. There’s a guy called Philip Stearns who basically gets digital cameras, opens them up, fucks with them a bit and takes glitched images. He works with weavers making these glitch rugs that look awesome, so there’s a whole load I’ve done using glitched images. There’s a load of other stuff where I’ve looked at brickwork from Nintendo games, it’s that thing from a distance that you’re like ‘oh that’s a nice tie’ and you get closer and it’s like ‘oh shit, is that?’

Conversational prints are so big in womenswear at the moment and it’s like, oh a cat, or something cute, and why not do something that is culturally relevant?

That’s what was interesting growing up with trainers, you have an Air Force One but what can you do with it? Each design should be like a trainer, you bring it out, run it for ten seasons and then retire it for a bit. It’s not like womens’ couture where everything has to be reinvented. A bow tie in itself is quite a heritage-y old school item but if you can introduce it to the internet and spreadsheets then actually it doesn’t have to be an old thing. Like how an iron is an old concept but the new ones have steam and it works.

When I first started growing a beard and because I was wearing bow ties all the time, [a mutual friend] used to call me a Victorian pervert but it got me into all that era. One of the ties is named Henry Mayhew, who wrote that thing called London Labour and the London Poor, he went round and interviewed poor people and there’s chapters about mudlarks and rat catchers, all these weird characters, and then one of them is called Johnson after Samuel Johnson who wrote the first English Dictionary, but he was also a massive tea fiend. Boswell was Johnson’s best mate and biographer, he has these journals from when they would go into Hyde Park and they had these live cows and he’d go and get milk from the cow and chuck a bit of gin in it and that’s your drink.

That sounds fucking disgusting.

But probably quite good in the winter.

Check out his bow ties here: Charles Olive

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