Modern Neck Wear From an Unlikely Source

Barton Strawn didn’t attend college to be a clothing designer. Now the 24-year-old N.C. State graduate, along with fellow sartorialists Justin Carey and Paul Connor, owns and operates Lumina Clothing Company, maker of skinny ties and bow ties that display a savvy, Southern sensibility. (It’s like Mad Men, only with gingham. And fewer martinis.)

Photo courtesy of Lumina Clothing Co.

Barton Strawn is good at design. At least, as an architecture major at North Carolina State, he was expected to be. So it only made sense that in 2009, during his junior year, Strawn found himself sitting behind—a sewing machine.

It all started with a few job interviews. Strawn, along with engineering-major friends Justin Carey and Jordan Pung, were beginning to look for work. “We were getting to that point in our college career where we were having to go to more formal functions,” says Strawn. “Job interviews . . .[a] variety of things that required us to dress a little more formally than we had in the past.”

Armed with a sartorial sensibility that belied their years, the three trekked through downtown Raleigh, N.C., looking for ties they could pair with the suits they already owned.

“We’re all fairly fashion savvy,” says Strawn. “But when we got to the store, there really wasn’t much of a selection.”

Pung and Carey seized on Strawn’s creative instincts and his background in design and, half-joking, urged him to make ties for the three of them; Strawn responded by making several skinny ties and a couple bow ties.

“The more we wore them around, the more we got complimented on the ties we were wearing from people in stores where we were shopping. That’s when it dawned on us that we could probably take this from just a hobby, essentially, into something that was an actual business.”

Enter Lumina Clothing Company. On a shoestring budget, the trio set out to create a line of neck and bow ties. Working out of Strawn’s mother’s house in Raleigh on a single sewing machine, they gradually built up their company to carry full lines of traditional ties, dress shirts, and bow ties that display a savvy sensibility, in patterns, colors, and cuts that are undeniably—and, perhaps, stereotypically—of the South (think: bright yellow, lime green, and light blue checkered and gingham patterns).

Today the company is still headed by Strawn and Carey; a third partner, Paul Connor, was brought in after Pung departed. And tomorrow at the inaugural Confirmed Stock event at 2640 Space, the team will be selling their signature lines of bow and neck ties, men’s shirts, and samples of their forthcoming line of men’s trousers. Fairly soon, says Carey, Lumina Clothing will release its first blazer as well was a line of women’s dresses.

Photo courtesy of Lumina Clothing Co.

Lumina Clothing borrows its namesake from the old entertainment and dance pavilion that opened in 1905 at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Early ties’ names befitted the overarching theme: the “Dapper Dodger”; the “Chapel Thrill”; the “Sunshine State” and “Limeade.”

“It’s definitely a very purposeful decision to have a Southern appeal come through,” says Strawn. “But it’s one that can be appreciated by southerners and people who are from other parts of the country.”

While the Lumina gents now source all their fabric from wholesaling companies and use large-scale manufacturers for production—ties made in New York, shirts made in South Carolina—the process of making ties, in the beginning, was a little more hands-on. Strawn thought up the patterns for the neckties and bow ties, and all three purchased material at local fabric stores. Then Strawn, along with his mother, Karen, would work out of her house sewing each tie by hand (with the help of a sewing machine, of course).

“When your clientele base isn’t all that large, you can afford to make one bow tie at a time and you can afford to make one necktie at a time,” says Strawn.

In addition, the scale of Lumina’s initial, capital funding minimized what the company was able to pull off at the outset. Strawn, Carey, and Pung poured their own savings into the project, not wanting to take out loans or seek the monetary assistance of a third-party investor.

“One of our goals was to try to build it up from a very small capital base into something that was larger,” says Strawn. “And that in itself has been tough. … You know, you don’t have to be 45 to start a company. You can be 20, and part of that is working on that shoestring budget.”

But while being young menswear entrepreneurs can be difficult—minimal funding in a capital-intensive industry; being one person yet performing multiple duties (in Strawn’s case, not only does he plan out the ties for each season, but he designs and codes Lumina’s website, without which the guys wouldn’t have a national selling platform); and, as Strawn puts it, “never really not thinking about the company . . . even when I’m out with friends”—working as newcomers in a fairly traditional industry affords the Raleigh gents opportunities not readily available to their older counterparts.

“There certainly have been moments when we all kind of take a step back, where we have that moment and that shock factor where we think we might be in over our head,” says Strawn. “But one of the benefits of being young is we didn’t know how it’s [men’s clothing] always been done. And so that allowed us to look at the men’s fashion world in a slightly different light. We have a chance to do things differently than how it’s always been done.”

For the Lumina crew, that means bringing together seemingly disparate elements—Southern patterns and colors with classic, preppy styling—into a uniform package they can call their own.

Photo courtesy of Lumina Clothing Co.

“When we first started doing the neck wear, we noticed a trend with menswear in general that was shying a little more toward sort of the brighter, what are traditionally considered southern patterns and colors,” says Strawn. “It was also shying more toward a sort of classic, preppy look . . . so we wanted to pick up on that and add our own little touch to it.”

That Lumina touch is the width of the neckwear. All of their ties and bow ties are a far cry from the Gordon Gecko-like eighties ties that were fatter than the StayPuft Marshmallow Man. But, says Strawn, people they speak with in North Carolina identify Lumina’s patterns as too edgy, or modern, whereas people in cities like New York and even Nashville flock to Lumina’s ties’ patterns and widths.

“It’s an odd merger,” says Strawn. “We really picked up on people from D.C. and Nashville and larger cities that tend to be a little more fashion forward than those here in the south, but are still rooted in some of that southern tradition.”

In addition, the guys recognize the value in pairing traditional items—like the bow tie, which is Lumina’s best-seller—with more modern looks. And that, ultimately, is what drives their styling spirit.

“The bow tie is an interesting piece of men’s accessory because there’s a certain following of older gentlemen who wear bow ties, love bow ties, and continue to wear them,” says Strawn. “We’re seeing kind of a resurgence of the bow tie. … They don’t have to look old. They don’t have to look traditional. They can be done in a way that’s fun and modern.”