SIDEWALKS/Chicago, July 8, 2001
Against the tide by Rick Kogan
Photo by Charles Osgood
Lee Allison was a successful advertising man in 1995 when he decided that he wanted to make ties. He quit his job at Leo Burnett and set up a tie company in his Old Town home.
This might, in retrospect, have been a silly thing to do, especially given that the casual dress trend among men was aborning at the time and would soon make ties about as necessary in the workplace as pencils and mimeograph machines.
"I did not consider myself foolhardy," says the 40-year-old graduate of Williams College and Harvard Business School. "But many others did. People I talked to in the tie business tried to convince me that I was making a huge mistake."
Operating out of a 5,000-square-foot loft in what was once a tannery near Clybourn Avenue and Webster Street, Lee Allison Co. makes its ties available to such stores as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Mark Shale. They sell for about $80.
We stumbled on Allisonís operation by accident. The loft was being used for a TV shoot by a mutual friend, who noticed that off in the corner were piles and piles of ties. One of them featured a pattern of small martini glasses and olives. Another contained the repeated @ symbol.
Allison told us that the designs are all original, created by himself and assistant Steve Mayer.
"We can be inspired by all sorts of things," he said. "A lot of it is stuff we see in magazines."
Hereís what happens next: The design is put on computer and sent to mills in Europe, primarily England and Switzerland, where the silk fabric is woven; the fabric is then cut and sewn by hand in Chicago and New York.
There are now more than 100 designs. Osgood, who to the best of my knowledge does not own one tie, liked, but did not buy, a tie adorned with tiny monkeys.
An increasing amount of sales come via www.leeallison.com, which was named one of the "Best of the Web" by Forbes magazine in 2000.
"No secret why," says Allison. "You donít have to worry: "Is this tie gonna fit?í You can see exactly what youíre getting and they are easy to ship. This isnít like sending a bag of dog food. One guy in New York recently bought 19 ties on the Net."
Nice to know Manhattan is getting hip to Chicago style.