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Knots ready for prime time

With spikes and studs, local designers reimagine the bow tie

By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2010

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On a recent afternoon, the most eye-catching element of Christopher Bennett’s ensemble wasn’t his leather motorcycle jacket, his silver David Yurman chain looped in a thick knot, or his electric orange Louis Vuitton high-top sneakers.

It was the black leather bow tie hanging languidly around his neck. A pinwheel of spikes adorned the center knot and studs dotted the corners.

That tie, called the Knight, is one of almost a dozen styles in a growing collection of unapologetically over-the-top bow ties that Bennett, 23, and Bruce Franklin, 22, his friend since middle school, have designed as the inaugural line for their label, Robot & Brucling.

“We’re at a point in the fashion cycle where gentlemen need more to express their style,’’ said Bennett. “I’ve always had a respect for accessories. You can’t have an outfit that says who you are until you accessorize.’’

Lately, bow ties have increasingly been the accessory of choice among hipsters and celebs, who for years have eschewed them at formal events like the Oscars, the Tonys, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Ball. Though they’ve been around for eons (the bow tie is thought to have evolved from a scarf first worn back in the 17th century),

But they haven’t been cool for decades, maybe since Elvis wore one onstage at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami in 1960. Ironic, yes. Winking, yes. Hip, not so much.

Primarily, bow ties have been a mainstay for beaming grooms, pimply prom dates, and tweedy academics. The big bow had its share of fans, of course: Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra among them. Liberace, Elton John, and Pee Wee Herman gave the staid neckpiece an infusion of eccentric kitsch. But in the last few years, a raft of celebs ranging from soccer stud David Beckham to hip-hop heroes Pharrell Williams and Andre 3000 have tied one on. Women, like Rihanna and Gwen Stefani, have sported them, too.

With that long legacy in mind, designers Bennett and Franklin set out to subvert it. They make their ties from denim, leather, or lace over silk. Embellishments run the gamut from Swarovski crystals to studs, spikes, and brass skulls. Several designs are named for a place or mood they evoke. The Chelsea, made of raw denim and adorned with snaps and hand stitching, calls to mind the skinny jean set of downtown Manhattan. The Vienna, rosewood silk with black lace and flecked with crystals, evokes the baroque aesthetic of the Austrian capital.

“After a while, the standard red, black, or white bowtie gets a little tired,’’ said Franklin, whose style is best described as urban dandy, complete with flashy red argyle socks and perforated patent leather shoes. “We wanted a statement piece. So we just started designing for ourselves first.’’

“And then it got out of control,’’ Bennett added.

Bennett, 23, of Roxbury, and Franklin, 22, of Mattapan, were working in sales and picking up modeling gigs. Bennett acts, too. Like many trying to break into the fashion industry, each got his start by designing T-shirts. But when the two friends teamed up, they took their urban fashion inclinations on a Savile Row bender. (Bennett describes his penchant for “funky stuff’’ while Franklin says he was always partial to “churchy clothes.’’) They started with a few oversized, Mad Hatter-style bow ties they constructed with needle and thread.

“We just used the kind of kits you get for $2.99 at CVS,’’ Bennett explained with a laugh.

Bennett wore one on a visit to New York, where a few tourists snapped photos. Others stopped him to ask where he got it. Those curious few were Robot & Brucling’s first clients. From there, a steady buzz on fashion blogs has driven traffic to their site, www.robotandbrucling.com. In January they went to Los Angeles with a briefcase packed with five ties. Now the pieces are on display at fashion hotspot Magnet Showroom.

With no formal tailoring experience, Bennett and Franklin asked around at local fabric stores for recommendations on a mentor before they expanded their line. Since March, they’ve been apprenticing under Roger Hinds of Hinds Lines & Designs. A graduate of the Fashion Industry of Technology and veteran of the industry, Hinds opened his pattern and production company in the South End 14 years ago. Interns and apprentices from local art schools regularly hone their tailoring skills at his warehouse studio.

“When I think of a product, I think of it having to move from concept to something that can be a business,’’ Hinds said. “When I saw their ties, it was like a diamond in the rough. I realized they were onto something.’’

He’s been teaching them intricacies of pattern-making and technical design, as well as well as guiding them on how to devise a business plan and figuring out cost structures.

Of course, creating buzz helps too. At a party at the Greenhouse, a club in New York’s Soho, reality TV star Tila Tequila spotted them and, as Bennett is fond of telling, exclaimed, “Where’s my tie?’’ By the end of the night, she was wearing one. Her friend, Luke Destin, a celebrity fashion stylist whose clients have included Denzel Washington, Brooke Shields, and Natasha Bedingfield, tracked down Franklin and Bennett.

“As soon as I saw the bow tie on Tila, I knew I loved their style. It’s just so unique — I’ve never seen anything like it,’’ Destin said on the phone from New York. “I told them that I normally do not wear bow ties. I’ve never been a fan, but for some reason, I could see myself wearing theirs.’’

But like anything iconoclastic, their ties don’t win everyone over. They got mixed reviews when a reporter took samples to a few boutiques on Newbury Street.

“They’re a cute artisanal thing, but I don’t see a ‘wow’ factor in them,’’ said Ricardo Dallai, owner of the Newbury Street boutique, Riccardi. “There’s not a lot of creativity behind it.’’

Across the street at Marc Jacobs, Brent Timothy, a sales associate, was more taken on first sight. When asked if he thought the ties had staying power and if he’d wear one, he said “Hell, yes! Most definitely.’’

Send comments to gsection@globe.com

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