By his own admission, Caleb Conradi is not a flashy dresser. He would much rather dress comfortably for a hike in the woods than dress up for a night on the town. But Conradi, an MBA student in Lehigh's College of Business and Economics, may one day be known for revolutionizing men's neckwear.
As founder of the Refined Bowties Co., Conradi has taken industrial materials—metals, concrete, wood and marble—and crafted them into bow ties that he now sells via a website and through a few local boutiques.
The idea proved novel enough to win Conradi a $1,000 prize in the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation's annual Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurs Competition.
But bow ties?
"It is a conversation starter because neckties are more traditional," says Conradi, who moved to the Lehigh Valley from Detroit two years ago. "It's a good way to meet new people."
Bow ties have enjoyed resurgence in relevance as a fashion accessory for hip, young athletes and other celebrities. The NBA's Dwyane Wade has his own line of bow ties. Fox Major League Baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal is never on camera without one. And a headline in GQ proclaimed: "Idris Elba Really, Really Loves Bow Ties (And So Should You)."
Admitted science fiction nerd Conradi speculates—and a 2010 article in The Daily Telegraph in London agreed—that part of the resurgence might be owed to British television series Dr. Who. The Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, declared on many shows, "Bow Ties Are Cool," a phrase that became an Internet meme.
It is for these reasons that Conradi has paid special attention to marketing his wears around college campuses, where he is more likely to find younger customers. He markets to wedding planners and photographers who want to give a unique look to the wedding party.
Conradi will also custom design and make bow ties for special occasions for a little extra cost. Most of the stock designs sell in the $55 to $60 price range, which Conradi says is an inexpensive way to give yourself a distinctive look.
As he was being interviewed for this story, he was preparing for a Comic Book/Steampunk Convention, which is fitting. What could be more steampunk—a sci-fi and fashion aesthetic inspired by 19th century industrial technology—than a metal bow tie?
It was Conradi's own sense of aesthetics, along with pragmatic concerns, that set him on the path to making his own bow ties. A full-time packaging engineer with local manufacturer Victaulic, Conradi is required to wear a tie for work. But neckties can be impractical or even dangerous to wear on a machine-filled manufacturing floor.
"So I was thinking, I always liked the industrial engineering, industrial design style. Being an engineer, I decided I could make my own," Conradi says. "It starts conversations. A lot of people grab it and go, ‘Is that made out of metal?' It turned out really well, so I thought maybe I could start selling them and make it a business." The company name, Refined Bowties, is a play on words reflecting both the process of refining—to create new from raw materials—and to be refined, a word describing someone who is "elegant in appearance."
But marketing bow ties made from materials associated with heavy industry can sometimes be a challenge, he says.
"If you hear a metal tie or a concrete tie, the first thing people think is, ‘Oh, it's going to break my neck.' We worked very hard to make sure it wasn't like that," Conradi says. "Most of these are within an ounce weight of a standard necktie, if not less."
At the same time, the materials used to make the bow ties are part of what makes them unique.
"We don't want to hide the fact that these are typically an industrial product," he says. "We wanted to do it so that it would have enough thickness and girth to it, you could feel that this is something that is built to last. We want the tactile feel."
But for a few contractors who mold some of the raw materials, Refined Bowties is a one-man show, starring Conradi, who is responsible for sewing, marketing, customer service and all other business operations. For an MBA student, he says, it has been an eye-opening experience that is quite different from the classroom.
"One of the things I underestimated when starting it was how much is actually involved in running a business, and coming from the engineering side, the impact of marketing and sales," Conradi says.
"It's one of those things where you could have a great product, but if no one sees it, you're not going to sell it. It's been a crash course in the marketing department. It's gotten better and we're starting to get more traction. It's been an interesting journey."
Story by Daryl Nerl