Exploring A Lifelong Passion For Bow Ties – Ray Frensham Interview
21 April 2017
There is something fascinating about passionate people. Whatever it is they are passionate about, they are the people who keep this an interesting place to live in. They are the ones who show us, by their ardent love and dedication for their interests, that life is much more than going aimlessly through the motions. After all, I believe all human breakthroughs have their origin in a passionate mind.
Quite recently I had the opportunity to interview a good friend of mine and passionate bow tie wearer, Ray Frensham. With the recent rebound of the bow tie as a staple in many hipster outfits, the sight of a bow tie these days may not be considered as anything particularly special, but Ray Frensham has remained a bow tie advocate for most of his life, including those decades when bow ties and bow tie wearers were the target of criticism from… well, pretty much everyone.
It was a real honor to have the privilige to pick Ray’s brains for this interview, learn more about his personal story, his undying passion for bow ties and his take on the role that the bow tie plays in the current state of classical (and modern) menswear.
I hope bow tie enthusiasts, those on the fence and even its detractors can get something from this interview. If nothing else, at least the inspiring effect that all passionate people have the virtue to convey on those who cross paths with them.
Ed: Ray, first and foremost, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for My Dapper Self. It is a real honor for me to have this opportunity to ask a few questions to such an iconic bow tie wearer. So, let’s start by getting to know a bit more about what you do. How would you describe this genuine man that is Ray Frensham?
Ray: Born in 1952 (that now makes me 65) in London (where I still live), I was brought up in an era of the ‘one-job for life’ mentality; trouble was, I never felt comfortable with that. So my cv/resume bounces from banking to music, from media insurance to film production. I started out in music, selling records, organizing Rockabilly clubs in the 1970s thru 80s, which developed into starting an indie record label and a song publishing company, then moving on to Music TV, radio production, then into Screenwriting and eventually (early 1990s) running an organization – the Screenwriters’ Workshop – in London for a few years. By 1995 I was approached by publishers, Hodder-Hachette / McGraw-Hill, to write a book (Teach Yourself Screenwriting), which has been thru numerous updates and expansions and developed, over the years, into one of the standard texts of the industry. It’s still around (now called Break Into Screenwriting) and translated into quite a few foreign languages – there’s a new South Korean edition coming out in 2017, so I shall be over there later this year. From thence I started a new career as a Script Doctor and lecturing and running workshops with new writers. By this time I discovered I was considered a “script guru” (even though I never liked the term).
Americans would have called this a “checkerboard resume”, but it’s very much like the techie careers of today’s kids: do one job, had enough of that after a while, bounce to another job, until you get bored, then move on. It must be my short attention span.
By 2008 with the bank collapses and the subsequent unemployment, I got to know a lot of the home start-up businesses that began to spring up – people going back to their bedrooms and rediscovering their own core talents and skills, creating their own men’s accessories, bow ties, handkerchiefs, all sorts, and using the internet as their store front; reinventing themselves and building themselves into a new business model. I call them Micro-Labels (more of that later) and I’ve always supported them.
Then in 2013 Rose Callahan’s book “I Am Dandy” happened – I’d known Rose a few years anyway and I also put her in touch with a couple of other British individuals who appeared in the book. I’ve never considered myself a “Dandy”; I’m just Me, an Individual. Judgements like “Dandy” I leave for others to make if they wish.
These days? How about professional bohemian – boulevardier – flaneur (retired)? I’ve been officially retired for a few years, I guess. It’s great because (a) as soon as the word goes out you’re retiring, you suddenly become in demand again; and (b) it means I can wake up each morning and decide exactly what I want to do that day. It’s great not thinking in terms of “schedules” or deadlines and to have a completely free and flexible diary (and mind-set). It also means I don’t have to see my life in terms of career arc or ambition. It’s very stress free. These days, I like travelling, so if I wake up one morning and feel like spending a few days in Amsterdam or Berlin, I’ll just get on a train or coach and turn up there.
Being ‘retired’ has also given me a flexibility to indulge my interests in menswear and music. If I can’t find some item of clothing I’m looking for, I just design something and find the right people to make it up – everything from bow ties, silk handkerchiefs, stiff detachable collars, shirts, cufflinks, suits, and so on. (I’m currently working with an artist on a series of silk handkerchiefs, so if anyone wants to get behind that project and finance it, get in touch!)
Musically, I like to support and encourage artists who just need a little bit of advice or guidance – not management – just maybe knock some rough edges off and focus them more. I never interfere with the music itself but I have to like their music first; and I noticed the artists I work with all have a great sense of style about them, a clear vision about how they want to present themselves and their music.
I guess I just like putting people together, and it’s only recently I’ve realized that is a skill.
Plus I do the odd bit of Background Artist / Extras work in films – it keeps my links to the movies, and it’s a social thing too, meeting up with the same faces…. And I do like observing the way different Directors go about their craft. FYI, you’ll find me all over the film Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut – second half of the movie: front row of the audience…. in the bow tie!
I don’t think I ever was a child of the internet – so I don’t feel the necessity of living my life on Facebook, although it’s handy to keep in touch with my friends abroad, and when they visit London. I fully understand those who need the internet and use it to promote their talents and their businesses to create their ‘Brand’, it is a remarkable tool. I guess I’m just too old to be turned into a brand now, or maybe I just like the idea of being an enigma. Ha! But I keep busy.
Several times I’ve been urged to write my autobiography (a foreign TV reporter once told me he thought I was one of the five most interesting people in London). Trouble is, I’m far too busy actually living life to wanna sit down in front of a computer and rattle on about it.
Ed: How did bow ties find a way into your life? Did you find them or did they find you?
Ray: I think I was always attracted to formal wear ever since I can remember – I remember looking at photos and ads of men in suits, especially evening wear, and thinking how striking and eye-catching they looked (I guess people might call it a fetish now). I got my first black clip-on bow tie from Woolworths when I was about 10 or 11. But I guess I only ever wore it when my parents were out!
I remember being on holiday aged 12, I saw a selection of silk pocket handkerchiefs in a menswear shop that really stopped me in my tracks. I had enough pocket money to buy about four of them and I spent all my savings and starved for the rest of the holiday. (I still have them today – real quality silk and things of beauty).
I can also remember my first proper made-to-measure suit, when I was about 13 (in 1965), a beautiful midnight blue mohair number, three buttoned single breasted – clearly I was a Mod!
But I think The ‘transformative moment’ with bow ties came when I was about 16. I’d bought my first self-tie bow tie and spent ages in front of the mirror trying to tie it. Finally, I managed to tie it properly (and eventually doing it without thinking). At that moment I looked myself in the mirror and secretly vowed to myself “if ever I have cause to wear a suit or a jacket in future, I shall always wear a bow tie and a silk pocket handkerchief”. In the years that followed it felt like I was carrying a flag for a (then) dying article of menswear.
Ed: It would be safe to claim that bow ties are a statement piece of clothing that can send a very specific message. However, I feel the message conveyed depends a lot on the person actually wearing the bow tie. What would you say is the message you, Ray, would like to transmit by your choice of neckwear?
Ray: They are definitely a statement, but not (as some people assume) a kind of ‘look at me’ statement. They are distinctive, yes. With me, I guess it signals me out as being creative, slightly rakish perhaps?; an independent thinker, certainly a challenger or bender of ‘Rules’ and most definitely a fearless Individual.
What’s that slogan I read online sometimes?: “Wearing a bow tie is a way of expressing an Aggressive lack of concern for what Other people Think”.
But I’ve never been one to consciously think “what kind if image do I wish to project?” I just wear what makes me most comfortable (bearing in mind the weather outside). Think: Traditional, with a twist.
Ed: Beyond style, which is the obvious facet, how has the bow tie influenced or altered other aspects of your life ever since you started wearing them
Ray: I think it’s fair to say it has helped enhance and reflect my individuality, made me more determined to forge my own path – consequently, it’s helped me become more self-confident.
And more comfortable about being outgoing, but not in a brainlessly extrovert way. I’ve been described as an “eccentric” or even dandy, but I don’t know; I’m just me – passionately Individual.
Over the years I did start to realize that the bow tie and suit had become a kind of ‘Signature’ look for me – people almost expected to see me turned out like that . And I found it was certainly easy to pick me out in a crowd or at a conference: “where’s Ray Frensham?” / “he’s over there, the guy in the bow tie”.
Something I try to impress upon any young men I know is this: your teenage years are all about fitting-in and peer-group approval: am I wearing the right this, am I saying the right that. Thing is, the older you get, the more you grow into who you will become, and you realize it’s those things that make us different – interests, passions etc – are the things that also make us unique, and they are part of who we will become. They will also usually inform and indicate where our future career paths might take us.
Ed: What has been the most awkward situation you have experienced as a result of your being such an avid wearer of bow ties? Any interesting stories you would like to share?
Ray: Nothing really threatening that I can recall. You get used to the idiots who come out with things like “does it light up, does it spin round?” – I am of an age now when they don’t do that anymore, but you learn to perfect a look of pity mixed with disdain when someone says something silly like that! Sometimes some joker might reach over and pull the tie with the words “Oh I bet it’s on a piece of elast….. oh, I’m so sorry” (when it unravels in his hand). But you can soon tie it up again in seconds. And thus you get a sense of superiority over your fellow idiot as you look at them with withering scorn!. But I guess I am of an age where people don’t bother to try any of that now, I’ve seen it all. It is great being able to do and say anything now and people will simply be dismiss you as an “eccentric”!
(Read also: 7 Bow Tie Myths Debunked)
Ed: Bow ties have unquestionably made a huge comeback in recent years. Do you think this trend will stay with us for a long time or do you feel the bow tie is destined to fade into oblivion once again, or what’s worse, go back to the negative perception that people had of them some years ago?
Ray: I think that the popular rebirth started in two main countries: the USA (the attraction of the Preppy look) and in Sweden (those boys do like their Ralph Lauren out there) and they pride themselves in being able to tie their own ….. besides, their school graduation ceremony, at aged 18, requires them to wear full white tie and tails. I think they like to get it right!
(Read also: Best Dressed Countries according to My Dapper Self)
Another key turning point was the casting of Matt Smith in Doctor Who – and it was Matt himself who styled his own Doctor. I think he de-geeked the bow tie for a younger generation, and suddenly everybody agreed: “Bow Ties are Cool”. Bravo Matt. [I’ve just started working with a new tailor (about my age) and have discovered, by accident, he is also Matt Smith’s personal tailor].
And never underestimate the power of the Internet in the bow tie “revival” – at last we bow tie wearers and suit wearers weren’t lone voices in the dark anymore, we could link up – it gave us a sense of solidarity and self-empowerment. And those micro-labels I spoke of earlier that sprung up post-2008 banking crash – I don’t think they would have happened (or proliferated so rapidly) without the internet connecting us all up.
I’m a great supporter of these micro-labels: a favourite source of mine is Ellie at The Cordial Churchman [details later]: she will customize your own bow to exactly your spec, so every item she makes is individual – affordable prices too. She will also convert your straight ties into bow ties.
What’s also refreshing is, with many of these new fledgling businesses, there’s often an ethical dimension too – not just the sourcing of sustainable materials, but also donating part of their proceeds to various charitable causes (one of the most visible initiatives today is www.tietheknot.org).
Sadly, I think this currently popularity will pass. Bow ties will spend some time in the wilderness again, altho’ nothing like before (which lasted about 50 years). But it’s inevitable they will be back – probably with the same old negative attachments (people thinking they are the first to have thought of those connotations!).
Is it an increasing homogeneity of modern society?, but I think too many folks look for reasons Not to do something rather than buck a trend and just do it. However, everything is cyclical – in music, in art, and especially fashion – even tho’ style itself is timeless!
Ed: Speaking of this recent acceptance of bow ties, it seems the solemnity of this piece of neckwear has been lost and it’s been adopted as part of the casual options that men today have. Do you feel this tendency to underdress the bow tie is a good thing or a threat to the elegance of the formal bow tie?
Ray: Black tie – and white tie too – will always be there, and always mean the most formal. What I can’t stand is what they call Hollywood Black Tie – that means a dinner suit / tux with a white shirt and black straight tie.
The patterned / casual type of bow tie – the ‘day bow’ – has always been around too and will always remain for a core group of wearers, whatever the swings of fashion.
You see, a day bow is very versatile: it can be worn – and should be worn -with every type of combination, and if you want to wear them with a pair of jeans, that’s fantastic, I love the contrasts of formal versus casual. It frees-up any rules. However, I just don’t see the point of wearing a black (or white) evening bow with jeans (especially ripped jeans); it looks like they are trying too hard to make a point when actually they just look slovenly.
Ed: What would you say to all the young and not-so-young men out there who have an appreciation for bow ties, but are still afraid of wearing them due to the reactions they could get? You know, that fear of being that guy who wears a bow tie.
Ray: Don’t be nervous or scared about wearing a bow tie in public: put it on and forget about it. And if anyone wants to make an issue of it, just think to yourself “you know what? I don’t care”. You may well find that girls / women are rather attracted to a man who knows how to tie his own bow tie. Trust me, if anyone comments on it, it’ll most likely be a compliment.
Another thing you have to take into account, if you are starting out and trying to create a basic collection, is the cost of the bow tie. You will be faced with the high-end prices like Ben Silver, Paul Stuart, Drakes (usually about $95+ each), not a great place to start if you’re on a budget. And what’s the point of spending all that money if, in the long run, you decide that bow ties are not for you?
So I often suggest starting with the imports from China, sold via e-bay: it’s a quick and fast way of building up a starter selection. Put “silk bow tie” into the search box and see what you get. You should find them for about $5.99 each, mailing included. They are remarkably good for their price (but stick to the patterned bows and avoid the plain colors as they tend to over-press those ones).
Other good affordable places to start are:
www.15ties.com [all ties are $15 – but their site is currently under a revamp]
www.KingKravate.com [$30-35, with regular discount offers]
www.thecordialchurchman.com [see above, approx. $32 each, regular discounts]
www.bowtieclub.com [$35-48 each, plus discount voucher codes]
www.beautiesltd.com [average $45, one of the oldest & most reliable companies in the field]
And now a word of caution: if you become a regular bow tie wearer, just be very aware of the addictive nature of bow tie collecting. You will amass many and get to a point where you say “enough is enough, I don’t need any more”….but then you will always come across that extra one you see that you must have it…. followed by another…etc. This is a truth.
Ed: I was reading an interview where you mentioned how your opinion on pre-tied bow ties changed when you learned the difficulties that self-tie bow tie pose to men who suffer from arthritis or another type of condition. I recently had a similar conversation with my good friend and blog reader, Robert, who happens to have arthritis, and it also opened my eyes about the different reasons why a man would break many of the so-called sartorial rules. Considering this is a very visual sphere, do you feel men involved or interested in it are too quick to judge without even considering the different life stories that can be behind one of these ‘blunders’?
Ray: Yes, there is a terrible snobbery about being able to tie your own bow tie – of which I have been very guilty of in the past. Today I have a much more benign opinion of pre-tied bows. Not just the arthritis debate but also those men who have had a stroke and now have restricted movement [again, that came as a result of a bow tie wearer I met who’d had a recent stroke].
Of course, there are those out there (especially you young men) who really should know better and try to learn how to tie a bow – there are plenty of tutorials on youtube these days – although sometimes you just need someone at your side who knows how to do it, just to guide you thru’ it.
And I am always eager to encourage and help younger guys learn how to tie a bow tie. Indeed, when Brooks Brothers opened up some stores in the UK about ten years ago, I was even asked to run some tutorials for their own staff – seriously!
Ed: So, before I let you go, let me ask you, had bow ties never been invented, how do you think your life path would be different?
Ray: I think my life would have been much duller, less adventurous and I probably would have stayed rather shyer, less outgoing (and definitely scruffier) than I am today. Like I said, it’s become a kind of signature look without me realizing it.
In fact, the only time I wear a straight tie is a black one for a funeral – and sometimes I’ll stand in front of the mirror and momentarily forget how to tie it!
Ed: Anything else you would like to add, Ray? The stage is yours.
- I do wonder sometimes if bow tie wearers are genetically inclined to think and act outside the box, beyond any notion of ‘Rules’ or constrictions about what is ‘the accepted norm’. It does often seem to be a glorious trait.
So, discover what any of ‘The Rules’ are, then ignore them or bend and shape them to your own design. Make your own rules then make them your own. I love encouraging others to discover and create their own individual “style”.
Following on from that, I have noticed with me: whatever the prevailing trend or fashion, I shall probably go the opposite way. For example, for a while I used to have a rather splendid moustache and some facial hair, but as soon as I noticed this tribe called ‘Hipsters’ emerging, it was a sign for me to shave it all off.
- Don’t be scared when you think of any looks you might get – trust me, they will be mostly admiring glances. Don’t be overwhelmed with worry about any possible criticisms you’ll get from others, they won’t happen. If you want to wear a bow tie – or anything – just say “F### it” and go ahead and do it; put it on then forget about it.
- Don’t be daunted about any imagined difficulty in tying it; once you’ve learned the knack it’s easy – it’s just getting that ‘knack’ takes a little time (and a few aches in the elbow joints!). But once learnt, it will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life – like riding a bicycle.
And remember, a bow tie, when tied, is never meant to look perfect (that’s why pre-tieds exist; they look too perfect). Indeed, one of the joys of being self-tied is: every time you knot it, it will look different.
- And in a world of the increasingly bland and average, don’t be afraid to fly that flag of uniqueness – rejoice in the bow tie and the unashamed ‘cool’ feeling of smartening up, because I say this: In today’s world, The Gentleman is the New Rebel.
So, try a bow tie – you might like it.
After all, as in life, we only regret the things we did not do, rather than the things we did do!
A final note of gratitude to Ray for agreeing to be interviewed for My Dapper Self.
If you have any questions or comments for Ray, please leave them in the comment section below. I’ll make sure they all get to Ray!
Stay dapper and remember, keep on dressing up in a dress down world!