For transcontinental solo sojourner Otis James—with shelved filmmaking aspirations, a backpack’s worth of possessions, a list of personal ties countable on one hand and a trusty ten-speed—being tied down to Nashville can only be attributed to…well, ties.
“I went to film school, but I found out about half way through that I wasn’t as interested in film as I thought I might be,” said James. “So I finished with kind of just nothing else to do, and then really had no direction, so I just wanted to explore. That’s what the bike trips were about. Sounded fun and seemed interesting. Through those, it taught me a lot about myself, basically.”
With a hankering to rekindle his southern, Knoxville-bred roots and explore uncharted territory, James headed to Music City; however, unlike most migrating hopefuls, he did not come at the urge of a six-string and the promise of a record deal.
“Most of this was just born out of the idea of self-sufficiency,” said James. “I wanted to be able to make my own clothes. There were always things that I wanted that I couldn’t find, and if I could find them I couldn’t afford them, so I thought, if I can make them, I can make exactly what I want. That was what I started with, and then I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to learn how to make clothing and get into it, maybe I can make a business out of it, and maybe I can do custom stuff.’ Then I fell into ties. I was working in a tuxedo shop and a co-worker asked me to make some for Father’s Day.”
His two-tie commission in 2009 carried him from apprenticeship to entrepreneurship overnight. Since, he has transitioned from a recording-studio-turned-garage in his backyard to his current residency on Buchanan Street.
His unique style and signature traditional southern flare have earned him an international reputation as a post-modern craftsman of custom-made neckties, handkerchiefs and vintage newsboy-style hats, all unconventionally textured with wool and cotton blends rather than the standard silk.
“I don’t really do anything in silk,” said James. “Most ties you see are either silk or polyester. I’m just not really drawn to those kinds of materials—I like something with a little more texture. I use a lot of silk-wool blends, for some of them we do a lot of cotton blends. The colors and the patterns we use are a lot more traditional—plaids and checks. I don’t really do many prints. A lot people want to call it vintage style, and I guess it is.”
Since his first notable feature in “Garden and Gun,” James and his craft have been showcased in such publications as “Southern Living” and Nashville’s own “Native,” the pinnacle of them all being his two-feature year with “GQ” in 2012.
His success grew almost as quickly as his stack of commissions, from weddings around the globe, to special events, to the casual passerby looking to spice up a look with a small, classic splash of Nashvillian eloquence.
Despite the mounting reputation he’s earned for his artistry, ties were never the be-all-end-all of James’ textile dreams.
“I never wanted to do ties,” said James. “It was something I fell into. “I tried to quit it a couple of times, but stuff just kept coming, so I finally embraced it and decided to make the best ties I can.”
Like the city of Nashville itself, James’ self-named shop harmonizes the cultural and aesthetic blend of old and new South.
The shop is lined on floor and ceiling with rustic wooden boards reminiscent of the renovated factory’s historicism and accented with furnishings that, while maintaining a vintage appearance, elicit the contemporary, artistic vibe characteristic of 21st century Music City.
A long window along the right wall grants customers a glimpse into a large shop room resembling a theatrical costume closet, with various shades of fabric coloring the surfaces of long sewing tables, at which James and his right-hand seamstress, Katie, spend hours perfecting each item displayed in the store.
“I want to keep doing this for awhile, and continue to expand our offerings,” said James. “Come out with new products, kind of change what we’ve got. I’ve got about 20 new hat ideas in my head right now that I’m just waiting to develop. I would like to do stuff other than accessories. That’s what I originally wanted to do. At this point it’s just pipe dreams—something for down the road.”
As a small business owner with a determined nose to the grindstone, James has relied not only on his hard work and set of skills, but also on the support of the tightly knit small business and entrepreneurship network that fuels the heart of Nashville and cultivates its spirited sense of community.
“Nashville has been great,” said James. “From the beginning it’s been a supportive city. I didn’t have a name for myself. No one knew anything about me or whether or not I was any good, but people were really supportive from day one. When I moved here, I basically told everyone ‘I want to make clothing.’ And that was enough for everyone. They didn’t need to see anything. They were just like ‘Great!’”
“Just through word of mouth I got a lot of really great business, and everyone was just so excited to support it and to watch it grow,” said James of local business owners and fellow entrepreneurs, such as Nashville’s own Imogene and Willie. “It’s been so fortuitous that the city itself has gotten so much national attention. It’s such a hot city. It was featured in almost every magazine last year, so that doesn’t hurt at all. If I were in a city that wasn’t doing as much I don’t think I’d have as much going for me.”
Some of Otis James’ favorite Nashville experiences:
-Mas Tacos Por Favor