Sharp! Peter Watkins and Robert Jensen of Sette.
Styleforum regulars won’t need a primer on terms like seven fold and bartack, places like Como, Italy, or names like Robert Talbott. Them’s tie terms. Sette specializes in limited runs of handmade ties—not everyday ties, maybe, but neckwear you can reach for when you need your “closer.” Fok talked with Peter Watkins about Watkins’ luxury neckwear line. Sette will be a vendor at Styleforum’s 10th anniversary showcase and party in May.
Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell me a little about your background and the genesis of Sette?
Peter Watkins: I lived for a time in Italy while I was in college and have always wanted to find a way to do business there. I worked in politics and spent 5 years at the White House in various press aide type of roles. One time, during an official White House trip in Rome, we had a free afternoon, so I wandered along some streets and stumbled on a very small shop which sold only neckties. On the walls were photos of the proprietor and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, among other dignitaries. At the time, I was intrigued by anything custom made for a head of state for obvious reasons. It sort of opened my eyes to an entirely new echelon of neckwear that I’d never really thought about. I’ve always wanted to have some type of business which would give me a reason to be in Italy, and neckwear seemed like a logical product.
FYL: When you went to Como, Italy, what did you say? “I want to make ties for titans of industry…and the president?”
PW: Ha. It shouldn’t be lost that titans of industry and presidents are expected by us to hold to a higher standard in their wardrobes. I would argue heads of state and industry drive neckwear trends because a necktie by its nature is a “power” accessory. You’ll be hard pressed to find a shop in Italy, especially the reputable ones, who don’t boast of having someone like President Clinton, Tony Blair, the King of Spain, or whomever else with power as a customer. If I were selling t-shirts or jeans, I’d want Justin Bieber or Timberlake to be my brand ambassadors. But for ties, give me people with real or perceived power. I heard a story once from a major neckwear manufacturer who said they sold out of light blue neckties when President Bush started wearing the color with more frequency. There was even a hypothesis that his advisors suggested the color was a political calculation in order to try and have a “calming” effect on the country in the aftermath of 9-11. (I doubt it was that calculated, but a fun story.) So our goal in creating a product was to aim for a standard in fit for a president.
FYL: Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to accomplish from the beginning? Did your vision change with your visits to talk to tie makers in Como?
PW: We knew we had to be different. We wanted to combine a few things which we haven’t seen altogether in one necktie. 1. Make true seven folds. 2. Give each necktie a name and a number and stick to it. A few of our ideas caused some head scratching with the manufacturers. For instance, we wanted to have any and all labels woven into the silk. No after-market tags. It’s nicer. It’s personal. But it makes it very difficult when constructing a seven fold, because the weaving has to be exact. I’ve heard rumors of products being labeled, “Made in Italy,” only to learn just a portion of the product was made there, and the label was sewn on after the fact.
Also, we had to decide whether we would be a true seven fold, and run the silk the entire width of the blade in the back, or if we would “cheat” as you see in some seven-fold ties, where the folds just sort of touch in back. We wanted our bar tacks to take on the shape of the number “7” (as Sette means seven in Italian)—a simple touch, but it’s painstaking in the manufacturing process. It all has to be done by hand, which speaks a lot to our brand I think. So far with our first runs of designs we’ve stayed true to this vision. But it hasn’t been easy.
FYL: Tell me a little bit about how you came to partner with Robert Jensen, and describe the creative process between the two of you.
PW: Bob is a legend in the industry. He has more than 30 years of experience in neckwear alone. It so happened his daughter and son-in-law were friends of ours from school. Bob was transitioning from Robert Talbott, and the timing worked great for us. Bob created the designs and colorways, as well as oversaw the manufacturing. I’m responsible to help get the word out and tell the story.
FYL: Could you guide me through the details that make Sette neckwear “worth it”? What is the value that you offer your clients?
PW: We are the first to admit a Sette is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. We make a finite number of each design and will never repeat it. If you own “#4 of Brilliant Blue with Stars,” the point is, you become a part of a club. When you take a look at the construction of a Sette, you’ll see we use an awful lot of silk. The finishings and construction of silk are second to nobody. There is a rush you get when you tie a knot with a Sette, that a necktie with a cotton or wool liner won’t have. My perspective is, when you need your very best results to come from your wardrobe, when you need your “closer” tie, you will reach for your Sette. When the occasion demands respect (a wedding, funeral, job interview, etc.) you want to show that respect with your best tie. Enter a Sette.
FYL: What is the retail climate, both online and off, for a new brand, in 2012? Are the purchasing habits of your clients affected by the economy, even?
PW: We are too young to give a wise answer to this question. That being said, I sleep well at night knowing I have a great product. It’s well made. It’s different than anything out there. It has a story. I feel confident there will always be a market for people who “quest for the best,” as the great Stanley Marcus put it.
FYL: I know that you cater to “titans of industry” and “heads of state”, but there are only so many of those. What do you offer to the rest of us?
PW: I consider informed readers of Styleforum to be “titans” of good taste. 🙂 [Editor’s note: wait til you meet us.]
FYL: How do you see Sette neckwear in 5 years? 10 years? Do you plan to offer other accessories? Shirts? Zen gardens?
PW: We plan to stay simple. Scarves, pocket squares, and other accessories are certainly on the horizon. When we launched Sette, we wanted to stay true to a few goals. 1. Do something fun. 2. Do something in Italy. 3. Try to leverage the professional network to achieve #1 and #2.
FYL: I’m sure that there is a question you wish I’d asked. Can you tell me what that is, and answer it?
PW: You forgot to ask how to buy a Sette. Online of course! www.setteneckwear.com Also, don’t forget fathers’ day is coming up.