Surrounded by fabrics from all over the world, Brad Wellman, 29 years old and cofounder of Mill City Fineries, stands in a quiet, freshly painted warehouse in St. Anthony East. Bundles of pastels and plaids crowd a wire rack packed with Brazilian silk, soft Scottish wool, and swatches of houndstooth and herringbone. Arms outstretched, he holds a handmade bow tie in his fingers.
“This one’s reversible,” he says. “You could tie it so the railroad denim is on one wing and the floral is on the other, or you could tie it with all denim on the sides and floral going down the middle.” He demonstrates, crossing it like a necktie and leaving one end a bit longer than the other.
“The first time I tried I didn’t know what I was doing […] but now I tie them at events and pop-up shops so people can watch. It’s like I’m doing balloon animals or something.” Wellman’s hands work quickly as he names each step. First he makes the Fish, then the Elephant, and then he pinches the wings and pushes the tail through the hole before tightening and straightening the finished product—a perfectly tied bow tie. “It took a while to figure that out,” he says, smiling.
Wellman first learned to tie a bow tie just three years ago, in October 2013, after receiving a phone call from his college buddy Matt Brunnette.
“Matt was on vacation in New York and wound up in the garment district, which is basically the fabric mecca of the U.S.,” Wellman says. “So he called me and said, ‘I bought a handful of these really killer fabrics, and I’m going to learn how to make bow ties.’”
With Wellman’s encouragement, Brunnette, now 30, incorporated Mill City Fineries that very night at his hotel. Then, true to his word, he spent the next few months teaching himself to cut and sew the patterns in his South Minneapolis apartment. As Wellman kept tabs on his friend’s project, the two exchanged ideas and quickly discovered they enjoyed working together. “And that’s when I realized I’d have to learn how to tie a bow tie,” Wellman recalls.
Though they’d never previously discussed going into the menswear business together, both thought they might one day pursue careers in the industry, albeit separately. In fact, the former fraternity brothers at Sigma Chi’s University of Minnesota chapter initially bonded during college over a shared interest in men’s fashion, often helping their other brothers choose shirt and tie combinations for formals.
“Matt wore bow ties from time to time at the fraternity,” he says. “Sometimes he’d even mess around with an ascot. We just liked dressing well.”
Their bow tie business isn’t yet a full-time job—Wellman manages accounts for an ad agency and Brunnette works in consulting—but since launching the venture, that common interest has inspired them to add pocket squares, neckties, and scarves to their product mix. During vacations and on their own free time, they’ve visited wool suppliers as far away as the U.K., and they’ve sourced antique and dead-stock fabrics that sat unworn and forgotten for as many as 70 years.
“We’ve used fabrics from the 1940s that you can’t find anywhere else,” Wellman says. “And we have the capability to do small-batch stuff, so we don’t need, you know, 500 yards of a fabric in order to do something with it.” This nimbleness allows them to pick through the remnants and discontinued fabrics others can’t use. While traditional tailors can’t make a full suit from pieces so small—sometimes just a meter or two in length—Mill City Fineries can turn a unique cut of wool, chambray, or linen into 10 to 15 bow ties or neckties. And whether the fabric comes from Savile Row or is uncovered in a grandparent’s attic, it has a story.
“We want to share where it came from, when it was made, and how we came to get it,” Wellman says. “When we can do that, [the bow ties] become differentiated and unique. People gravitate toward that.”
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