The Return of the Gentleman

Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue has always been quite vocal about the need to remain engaged in one’s surroundings no matter where you are. This is mainly to avoid missing something interesting, arresting or if you’re truly lucky, inspiring. I was recently at an event and got introduced by chance to Tim Brenninkmeijer, one half of the  men’s accessory brand Willow & Warson and instantly knew that this his product was something worth paying attention to.

Born from an old family friendship forged deep in Devon between Brenninkmeijer and Theo Andrews (Creative Director), Willow & Warson present hand-carved wooden bowties, each unique and beautifully crafted using off-cuts of wood which would otherwise go to waste. The brand got started in 2013 after a chance conversation between the two friends at an event and they’ve not looked back since, with the company earning mentions in the Telegraph and The Gentleman’s Journal.

I’ve seen various incarnations of the bow tie: patent leather, plastic and even paper, but never wood. Seeing these pieces ‘in the flesh’ and appreciating the subtle pattern made this material seems like an obvious choice. I decided on the spot that I needed to know more about inspiration and men behind the idiosyncratic bowties, so I sat down with Tim to find out how it all started, bizarre bespoke requests and his ultimate tips for those wanting to add a traditional touch to their wardrobe.

How did you really get started producing ethical wooden bow ties?

As the saying goes; everything is a remix. It was at my younger brother’s 21st black tie dinner where Willow & Warson’s seeds were sown; a small affair with only close friends, of which Theo was one – being my brother’s oldest and best friend – [and later] my business partner and W&W’s creative director. Over dinner, Theo was telling me about his recently launched furniture business, where everything was handmade in his newly hand built workshop in Devon, having moved down 4 years ago. Considering the evening’s theme, we were both in bow ties. Although mine was of a certain texture he’d come to know quite well: wood. It was a bow tie my father had discovered in an old, traditional ski hut restaurant in the Austrian Tyrol many years ago… There and then I said, “Fancy giving it a go?”
Whilst I enjoyed the novelty of my father’s [tie], I was intrigued as to what Theo could do to its design, to “elevate” it from novelty to luxury perhaps. He didn’t hesitate, scanned it with his craftsman’s eyes and said to leave it with him. A few months passed and the proposition was forgotten somewhat. But then the email came, with a photo attached of his first attempt. Whilst it was only a “personal commission” for myself, so as to have my own against my father’s, Theo was quite quick to mention he’d made it with a perfectly sized piece of beech off-cut from his furniture projects, and that he could envisage quite an eclectic collection using the array of off-cuts in the workshop otherwise deemed as firewood or waste. From that point (May 2013) the idea and its potential was born between us; appealing to my love for wood and its use in beautiful design, and to Theo’s own delight at having an innovative and intricate challenge for the workshop and his off-cuts. Which together informed W&W’s own ethos of showcasing the natural beauty of wood through intricate design, by remixing the simpler wooden bow tie design from Austria into something more dynamic, embodying the flows of silks through handcraftsmanship, whilst ensuring the wood we used was always of a “recycled” nature.

Who are your favourite designers? Are you avid followers of fashion or do you stay quite close to the Saville Row roots?

I think we’re quite the mixed bag. We both share adoration for the beautifully tailored suit, especially if it’s come off The Row. Theo’s more of the ‘three-piece, textured suit’ type, whereas I think I’m more of the ‘midnight blue dinner suit’. But otherwise neither of us really considers ourselves “avid followers” of fashion. Rather more interested in anything with functional, beautiful and most importantly timeless design, whether that’s a jacket, pair of trousers or even a piece of home ware. Although we’ve certainly come to pick up a few new favourites in the fashion world since starting W&W: Sir Plus and their Nehru jackets, Trashness and their shirts, Henry’s Shoes and Cubitts’ spectacles.

Are your bow ties more popular with men or women? Why do you think that is?

Traditionally men, of course, but since W&W has been gaining traction in the online fashion world, and whenever we’ve been at shows with the bows, we’ve come to find a lot more women than we initially expected have been interested in our wooden bow ties; as a concept and a piece of neckwear. Most recently we’ve heard them being called “androgynous”; making them more accessible to both men and women. As they’ve been looked at more as an item, an “object of desire” as some have remarked, rather than in the same light as the traditional fabric bow tie associated with menswear. Due to the beautiful and intricate craftsmanship that’s been applied to them, we’ve found that when held in the hands, people look at them quite independently of the bow tie label, and more as “a piece of jewellery”, as some have remarked. Now this is all quite ambitious speak for a brand with quite a niche product offering. But at the same time, it’s been so enjoyable to hear this direct from customers who’ve come into contact with the product, whether bought online or at a show, as essentially what we’re aiming to do with W&W is create beautifully designed products which people will take joy in handling and wearing, appreciating the craftsmanship, whilst also cherishing them for years to come, given the (hopefully) timeless nature of the designs. As we always say, you’ve got to feel them to believe them.

What has been your most bizarre request?

Wooden flares! A gentleman who was in the navy got in touch via our website and remarked how the officers were always “obsessing over the creases of their regulation No. 4 standard rig trousers”, so thought to mention he’d have given almost anything for a pair made from wood. Unfortunately nothing ever came from the query… but it was nice to hear from him and his enthusiasm for our initiative nevertheless. However, it did come at a time when we were developing both our bespoke service as well as a new striped wood bow tie design which we took to Henley, which resulted in some members of both regimental and rowing clubs remarking that the natural wood combinations (Purple Heart with a Maple stripe, and the reverse) complimented their own club colours quite nicely – as a result further fuelling our bespoke service where designs and particular wood combinations have been the favourites.

Do you have a styling tip for anyone who wants to try a bow tie?

Layers are great, but not 100% necessary. Essentially it’s mostly about “framing” the bow tie in some way for example with a V or round-neck jumper; a waistcoat; the lapels of a jacket; braces and their straight lines etc.
With a necktie, or anything that drapes the length of a shirt, it creates a divide in the composition of your outfit’s torso section. With a bow tie, there’s empty space on the shirt below it if you were to wear nothing else than a shirt, trousers and a bow tie, which is totally fine of course especially if you’re matching the bow tie with either your belt, socks or another accessory of the outfit – minimal styling wonderful. It’s also the way a black tie suit is usually worn with just a bow tie on a dress shirt and a dinner suit; but then you do have the jacket framing the bow tie somewhat. Wearing a bow tie outside of the formal black tie setting is heavily encouraged though, especially when wooden, as it adds quite a simple yet subtle quirk to an outfit, and allows for interesting experiments with layering, framing and matching. So really, it’s an open palette when it comes to a bow tie. It can at once dominate an outfit, especially if it’s quite ‘zany’ in its design. However we’ve been fortunate to find people remarking at how subtly and naturally our wooden bow tie fits into most outfits, given it’s quite neutral colouring and texture, allowing for it to be paired with a variety of styles.

Where does the inspiration for the different styles come from? Would you consider using another material?

Most of the time it’s the wood that gives us the inspiration. Whether it’s an off-cut from a beautiful furniture project, salvaged from a storm damaged tree, or reclaimed from something quite remarkable…it’s the wood’s own story and its capability to live on, regardless of where and on what it is used for next, that gave us the initial inspiration through a shared love for trees and their infinite natural design. The woods are then also able to give us quite a variety of styles through natural colourings, whilst also offering us new ways in which to use it, for example through offering a “clean” Birch Plywood bow tie as well as a blue stained variety, where each has its own character, yet come from the same source.
We offer the option of a Classic, Slim or Quirky design across each wood type as well, mainly out of our own passions in design and the unique character each offers, but also to assist the general “bow tie style” in gaining traction across both the formal and smart/chic arenas; where a Classic bow tie could be suited to a more formal ensemble, the Slim bow tie could compliment a more slick/trendy/casual ensemble with its slender, minimal silhouette. For the bow tie, I don’t think we’d consider another material given how “set-up-for-wood” the workshop already is. But as we expand the W&W product offering, we’re looking at a variety of areas where the material combinations are very exciting. So stay tuned for 2015.

What’s next for W&W?

We’re launching wooden cufflinks and the striped wood combination bow tie style online imminently. We’ve recently done an exclusive collaboration with a children’s wear brand Elfie London for 3 mini wooden bow tie styles. This year sees quite a range of projects come to life; additions to the menswear range of wooden accessories, a more focused approach to wooden bow ties and accessories for ladies, the first edition of our Heritage series of wooden accessories a hugely ambitious and exciting project for us, given the history of the wood which we’ve been so fortunate to work with and an exploration into a whole new area of the product arena, hopefully providing a “luxury essential” to the W&W collections.

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