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The conversation starter: Keefe Cravat founder helps men use clothing to tell their stories

If life imitates art, then perhaps business can imitate art school.

Keefe Cravat, Jordan D. Williams

Keefe Cravat founder Jordan D. Williams has evolved from a designer to a businessman with a clear vision of helping men to find their look. Photo by Scott Lauck

Jordan D. Williams first picked up the moniker “Bowtie Jordan” while he was a student at Columbia College in Chicago.

“I would always wear bowties on campus,” Williams said. “In college, no one was really dressing up. They just don’t. It’s very rare, especially at an art school. I wanted to stand out.”

What he quickly realized, however, was that standing out was just the beginning. Bowties, he likes to say, are “conversation starters.”

“It allowed me to walk into a room, someone would see my bowtie, they would compliment it, like, ‘Yo, that’s a nice bowtie,” he said. “And in my mind, I’m like, ‘Whoa, this person sees me. I need to seal the deal. What do I say back?’”

It’s now been six years since Williams ran out of money for his education, moved home to Kansas City and launched a fashion business initially based on his love of bowties. Keefe Cravat, launched in 2013, states its mission as: “To reintroduce men to themselves through the form of style.”

Yet as he has grown from a designer to a businessman, Williams has come to a dispiriting if not entirely unanticipated realization. “There’s no money in bowties,” he said.

He’s not being cynical, nor is he glum. Williams has a clear vision of what he wants. Keefe Cravat is going beyond neckwear, helping customers — men in particular — understand who they are and how their clothes can tell that story. At a time when one-click online shopping is the norm, Williams foresees a time when men will want to sit down with a knowledgeable person and entrust that person with their look.

The question is how to get there. In a way, Williams’ bowtie business has served the same purpose as it once did on his college campus: as a conversation starter.

Growing with his city

Williams’ start in the fashion business began humbly. Upon dropping out of Columbia College and returning to Kansas City, he decided he would “grow with my city” and launch his business in his hometown. He taught himself to sew by watching videos on YouTube. Using his mother’s sewing kit, Velcro and a hot-glue gun, he transformed $10 worth of thrift-store neckties into his first batch of bowties.

He managed to display them at a local fashion show. With six years now behind him, he looks back on his early efforts as “tacky.”

“I don’t understand how anyone allowed me to do that,” he said, laughing.

Nonetheless, Williams quickly made a name for himself. He joined the Entrepreneurship Scholars program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Management. He made the rounds in the city’s entrepreneurial community. Former Mayor Sly James, a noted bowtie aficionado, has sported Keefe Cravat creations.

Jordan D. Williams

Jordan D. Williams checks in with a client at The Gown Gallery, a boutique and business partner. Williams says his bowtie business is a piece of the puzzle in his business plan. As a consultant, he
provides guidance for men who aspire to a certain style but don’t know how to get there. Photo by Scott Lauck

Williams operated from UMKC’s Venture Hub for three years. With the end of that contract, and after leaving his job as a marketer for Metropolitan Community College to concentrate on Keefe Cravat full-time, Williams has moved his production office to the back room of his apartment in northern Kansas City. The walls feature diagrams and business plans. Above a worktable is an early rendition of Keefe Cravat’s logo crafted from letters cut out of magazines, ransom-note style.

“We thought it would be wise to just kind of downsize for a year to really figure out what this thing looks like,” he said.

Williams said his bowtie business is essentially an “expensive hobby,” with projected sales of $180,000 over three years. As he has come to understand, however, the bowties are just a piece of the puzzle.

“You can get a bowtie anywhere,” he said. “If you’re coming to me, you’re motivated by me. I have to look at you as an early adopter, as someone who’s not necessarily invested in just the bowtie, but you’re investing in my passions, you’re investing in my dreams, you’re investing into things that I believe in.”

Williams is gradually transforming himself into a consultant of sorts: connecting men in need of fashion assistance with the professionals who can provide it, offering advice and support for men who aspire to a certain style but don’t quite know how to get there. Williams knows that takes more than just putting men into a suit.

“The pains I’m wrestling with are men’s pride,” he said. “I’m wrestling with men’s ego. I’m wrestling with their insecurities, their character flaws.” As he later adds: “I know God is calling me to men, to raise up men through the form of style.”

‘Everything I wanted’

Williams sees potential customers as falling into one of three broad categories. “Sam the Man” knows little about fashion but is open to suggestion. “Modish Moe” knows what he likes but might not have the full range of knowledge he needs — he can be a bit cocky, Williams said, but he looks “damn good.” And “Dapper Dan,” of course, is impeccable — “the most stylish brother you’ll ever meet.”

On a recent morning at The Gown Gallery, a Kansas City boutique with which Williams has had a partnership since 2018, Williams met with Ronald Chisolm, who was preparing for his wedding next April. Unlike his process with his bowties, Williams doesn’t design the suits himself; instead he works with suppliers to provide made-to-measure suiting from which his clients can choose.

Chisolm appeared to fall somewhere in the Modish Moe range; he had bold colors in mind (burgundy, navy blue, ivory) and was particularly taken with the look and fit of the jacket that Williams brought out for him to try. Williams, who knows how to keep a conversation going, responded in kind; he pulled up a photo in his cellphone of the gold-tipped shoes he wore at his own recent wedding.

“Saucy, right?” he said.

Fully measured, Chisolm left, evidently pleased with the fitting.

Jordan D. Williams, Keefe Cravat

Williams measures client Ronald Chisolm for a suit after discussing Chisolm’s style goals during the fitting. Chisolm is preparing for hs wedding in April. Photo by Scott Lauck

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he told Williams. “But this is everything I wanted.”

That kind of personal service is where Williams wants his business to go. He’s bursting with ideas for how to bring fashion sense to the uninitiated: podcasts and pop quizzes to help increase men’s knowledge of fashion terms, building their confidence at the same time. He conducts profile assessments of his clients to understand their needs, while overcoming their “perceptions of what a suit man is supposed to be.”

“Once you wear a suit, are you ready for what’s going to come with that when someone compliments it?” he asks.

He envisions a service in which Sam-the-Man-style clients can buy a suit subscription for $1,000 a year. Once a quarter, they would get a new suit, allowing them to quickly build up a wardrobe ranging from a basic black suit to a “wild card.”

“I get to see you four times a year, which means I get to see you in all four seasons,” he said. “Seasons bring different things. You go through certain stuff, you lose weight, you’re up, you’re down, business is good, business is bad. I get to grow with you over the course of a year.”

Williams faces some headwinds, not the least of which is cultural. It’s been decades since suits were normal everyday wear for most men. Some of Williams’ clients balk at the price, unaware that paying an average of $250 (plus tailoring) for a suit is a bargain.

“I have to just make it plain to them and educate them and remind them, this is an investment into your wardrobe,” he said. “You’re building your inventory for life.”

Williams also is selling hands-on experience in an increasingly digital world, where brick-and-mortar stores are losing out to online retailers. It’s a tough environment to attract investors and venture capital — after all, he notes, menswear already exists.

Williams is searching for an idea that he can monetize, the kind of business that would give him the capital he needs to make Keefe Cravat what he thinks it could be. He envisions a mobile app that would pair shoppers in need of advice with local professionals in need of clients — a cross between Uber and Tinder, but for stylists, he said.

And if he could get that off the ground and build his fortune? Williams dreams of a place where customers could relax in a members-only lounge while they get a make-over.

“A lot of people are really interested in experiences,” he said. “They just are. I believe there’s going to come a time where people are going to want to come back full-circle to the experience of going inside the store, sitting down with the tailor, meeting with the shoe cleaner, getting fit, getting advice, maybe having a cocktail.”

He knows such a concept isn’t customer-ready. Not yet, anyway.

“People want to be indulged for a second,” Williams said. “People want to be seen. They want to ultimately be heard.”