ROCK HILL — Ellie Stager. Wife, mother, songstress, seamstress.
Success seems to follow her whether it’s planned or not. Certainly she never envisioned the path taken by her entrepreneurial spirit.
Like most cottage industries executives, she started at home, finding time for her business in the late evening hours when her children were asleep. In March she moved her cottage industry to a cutting room created in a corner of a former courthouse. All the time, her focus has been on a men’s collars.
Stager makes bowties. Stager and her four employees work at their “factory” on the second floor of the Gettys Art Center in downtown Rock Hill, the city’s former courthouse and post office. A holding cell complete with bars is just outside their space, a reminder of the building’s past.
Business can be brisk, sometimes she sells as many as 100 bowties a week. Stager, who holds a business degree from the University of Akron, followed none of the traditional business models to success. She didn’t write a business plan. She didn’t design a fancy marketing campaign, and she had her husband, Andy, didn’t have a complicated investment strategy. The business didn’t even have a name when it started. No, all Stager had was an story people connected with. The emotional tie, and bloggers on the Internet, are her secret to business success.
The story? It started in 2009 when her husband, a pastor, asked her if she could make him something from the leftover seersucker she had used to make a jump suit for their son, Deacon. Andy was thinking a suit. A transplant from Ohio, he had been consumed by all things Southern while a graduate student at the University of South Carolina -- and nothing says Southern gentleman more than a seersucker suit.
Instead of a suit, he got a bowtie. It took Ellie about two hours to make the tie. He wore the bowtie. After all, if you are willing to wear a seersucker suit you certainly have the boldness to wear a bowtie. After all, he did ASK his wife for something, and a Southern gentleman rarely refuses his wife.
Andy, under his Internet screen name the Cordial Churchman, wrote about his seersucker tie on a fashion blog.
Others read about it and inquired about getting a Cordial Churchman tie for themselves and a business was born. Now in two hours time Stager and her staff can make as many as 12 bowties.
She has refined the process. Instead of scissors to cut material, the shop has a rotary cutter. The two sewing machines are twice as fast as the models you purchase for home use. The process is fairly simple. It takes about one-quarter of a yard of fabric to make a tie. Stager prefers to use fabric that is woven and does not have a printed design. She stays away from polyesters and rayons, preferring natural fibers such as cottons, chambrays, corduroys, silks, velvets, wools -- and, of course, seersucker.
The process starts with a pattern. After the fabric is cut to size, the pieces are sewn and then turned inside out so the seams are on the inside. Adjustable sliders are added. Then it’s ironed and you have a bowtie ready for shipping. Stager includes an illustrated card on how to tie a bowtie with each order.
Price are between $29 and $49.
Old neckties can be converted to bowties for $29. After production the real magic starts. The Cordial Churchman has not done any traditional advertising. Word of the business has been passed among friends and customers largely via the Internet. The result is a worldwide customer base, Stager said. “I don’t think we have a typical customer,” she said. “We have hipsters, frat boys, gentlemen, doctors, lawyers. There are Islamic sects where bowties are worn. “The only thing in common is our customers are good with computers and comfortable with Internet shopping.”
Stager hopes to expand the Cordial Churchman’s sales base. She gets some drop-in customers at the Gettys Art Center. She would like to make ties for a few retail locations, as well as expand their wedding and special projects business, which includes a fundraising project for children in Haiti.
The shop has a steady wedding business, she said. Recently, it made bowties out of a “Persian” print from fabric made by Springs Industries in the 1940s. The bowties are in connection with an upcoming art exhibit of Springs advertising at Winthrop University. Most of all, Stager said, she is excited to revive a portion of Rock Hill’s history. “I’m bringing cloth back to downtown Rock Hill,” she said. “That’s what this city was built on.”