State of the Art: A Q&A With Knotty Tie’s Jeremy Priest & Mark Johnson

Jeremy Priest and Mark Johnson didn’t have a background in clothing design when they decided to start Knotty Tie. They just had the desire to help refugees who had been resettled to Colorado.

Photography: Ellen Jaskol

Photography: Ellen Jaskol

About 1,500 refugees come to Colorado every year, they say, and many don’t have employment opportunities. But many do possess exceptional sewing skills. The Denver entrepreneurs (with only $500 each in the bank) built a business to provide refugees with jobs, launching a custom tie business, which allows customers to work with a professional to design a tie quickly and inexpensively.

Knotty Tie opened in 2013, and in two years the business has blown up. It started in a 300-square-foot dark room and recently outgrew a 3,000-square-foot property in the Santa Fe arts district. Here’s a closer peek at the spirit driving this unusual apparel business in Denver.

Why did you decide to make custom ties?
Priest: We got thinking about how ties aren’t meaningless, but they’ve just become meaningless in the way in which they’re sold and designed. We thought by creating a blank canvas for anyone to put their ideas on, for them to participate in the design process, it would be an entirely new way of customizing a product and making something that was meaningless become meaningful. In addition, everything is made here in the U.S.—for some people, that gives more meaning—and we hire exclusively resettled refugees and provide very fair wages and help develop their skills and English and have a great American experience.

How can someone order a tie from you?

Priest: Online or come visit. We do everything here: manufacturing, fabric printing, sewing. You can do a live design with someone. Tell them your ideas and see something manifested immediately.

How have you grown?

Priest: We now have 15 employees and are hiring four more designers this week. We are moving into a new building on Santa Fe in a month and a half, and we will probably outgrow that in eight months and will build a new factory for manufacturing and textile printing. We sell to colleges, hospitals, companies, bands, weddings. When you wear something custom, people take notice. It isn’t selling the product that’s difficult, but it’s informing people that custom ties are even a possibility. You have to educate the market before you even have a market.

Photography: Ellen Jaskol

Photography: Ellen Jaskol

What do many people not understand about Knotty Ties?

Priest:Because we make things in America, we can do things in an extremely fast turn-around time. For local folks, you can come in and buy something in stock, or we can make something in five days. There are no minimum orders.

What do you find most rewarding about this job?

Johnson: The interactions we have every day with the staff here are some of the most enjoyable I’ve had in my entire life. Getting to know people from all around the world on a deep level and hearing their stories, where they come from, what motivates them and helping them achieve their own goals.

What are the biggest challenges?

Priest: We’re not able to bring ideas to life as quickly as we’d like, but we are solving that by adding more staff to free us up to be managing change on a daily basis.

What is your favorite tie that you’ve made?

Johnson: One with a bicycle pattern. None of us have cars here — we bike or walk everywhere. It’s a favorite symbolically. The designs that come through here are constantly changing. We’ve got something here called the Tiebrary. Anyone who buys a tie from us is a defacto member. You can check out a tie from the Tiebrary, which has a couple hundred designs. I struggle to pick out a tie every day. There are too many options.

Priest: We make our fair share of bad ideas. A whole office will send bad images of their faces and put a whole office worth of faces on a bowtie for somebody. It’s like, ‘Wow, that was a terrible idea and it came out ridiculous and they loved it so much. We enjoy when anyone actually takes advantage of the customization. That’s what we hope for, even if it’s customizing a tie into what is a really regrettable thing. Some of the worst ideas are some of the coolest things that we make.

Bems Namugoya, driven from the Democratic Republic of Congo during a vicious war, now works on the companys manufacturing team in Denver. Photography: Ellen Jaskol

Bems Namugoya, driven from the Democratic Republic of Congo during a vicious war, now works on the company’s manufacturing team in Denver. Photography: Ellen Jaskol

What’s in Knotty Tie’s future?

Priest: We’ve learned all these lessons from ties and built systems around this idea, and now we want to apply it to a lot of other textile products, like apparel and home goods.

What’s your take on Colorado’s art scene?

Johnson: It was intentional to be located in the Santa Fe arts district. We knew we wanted to be surrounded by artists and creative people pushing boundaries, and this was a great, natural fit for us. The creative scene in Colorado blows me away constantly, from the music scene to the art we see walking around the neighborhood and the people we talk to. The amount of creativity that goes into everything here in Colorado is pretty awesome.

How do you enjoy art in Denver?

Johnson: First Fridays down here are some of my favorite times of the entire year. Seeing the neighborhood packed full of people is awesome and a great opportunity to connect and see great art.

What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Priest: I don’t know what that even is.

What advice do you have for other artists?

Priest: Everyone has ideas and is really protective of those ideas. You need to let go enough to consider formulating a team to accomplish what it is that you’re considering. What seems like it’s possible 10 years from now is actually possible one year from now, if you can formulate a team to execute it. How is time travel possible? Gathering a team of impassioned people around a singular vision and making it happen.

What inspires your business?

Johnson: The social mission is what drives our business, trying to create a business that is self-sustaining and successful so we can expand the mission further and further.

855 Inca St.

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