The menswear Internet forum culture of the 2000s has spawned countless blogs (*cough*), and almost as many clothing brands. But without question, the real pioneer of those clothing brands was Carlo Franco, purveyor of Italian seven-fold ties. They placed themselves firmly at the high-end of the market, aiming at the big boys like Brioni, Stefano Ricci, and Kiton.
After early rave reviews, including for their own line of Italian made dress shirts, Carlo Franco’s decline was even faster than their rise. Expanding too quickly, family demands (caring for a dying father), and personnel missteps that led to neglected order fulfillment, ended Carlo Franco’s brief reign. Carlo Franco became something of a cautionary tale of how quickly the world that celebrates you can turn against you if you don’t stay on top of your game.
I was intrigued, then, when I heard that Carlo Franco was coming back. I have been an Internet friend (full disclosure) with original Carlo Franco co-founder Jill Speck for a decade, first through the menswear forums and now on social media. I reached out to her about her relaunch.
Jill agreed to the interview, and she addresses why she is relaunching Carlo Franco, faces up to the troubles when Carlo Franco’s first run ended, and why she’s not backing away from the woven seven-fold tie.
Why have you decided to relaunch Carlo Franco?
Jill: Well, I’m an entrepreneur at heart. And while I joke that Carlo Franco was started as an excuse to go to Italy every year, the fact is that I never got over the thrill of how I felt the first time I walked into my weaver’s workshop in northern Italy and saw all the beautiful silk samples surrounding me on every wall. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how lucky I was to have stumbled into possibly the premier weaver in the entire world of woven silks. Today, I’m blessed to call their art director a friend.
I also never shook that kid-at-Christmas feeling when my very first six designs arrived from Italy in 2003. I was officially in business! I could not have been happier. For some strange reason, I’ve always loved beautiful menswear. Perhaps it’s just because I love seeing well-dressed men!!
So, when life threw me an unexpected little curveball a couple of years ago, making change inevitable, I felt empowered knowing that I was the one who got to choose how it would change. I could put my tail between my legs and head back to the dugout, or I could hold my head high and swing for the bleachers, which is what I decided to do. I didn’t rush into anything. The more I thought about, re-launching Carlo Franco—the one business that has brought me greater joy than just about any other entrepreneurial endeavor in my adult life—seemed like the logical thing to do. A complete no-brainer. It would bring me happiness. That would be the selfish answer!
And yet the pragmatic businesswoman in me never would have brought it to market had the brand not received constant inquiries from former customers who wanted to see Carlo Franco back on the scene again. Hopefully, I could bring back to the market the superior-quality ties that our wonderful customers always appreciated.
After the difficult ending last time—and my understanding is Carlo Franco co-founder Chuck Franke is not involved with the re-launch—why did you decide to use the Carlo Franco name rather than restarting with something different?
Jill: That is a perfectly understandable question, and needless to say, this is not the first time I’ve heard it! The brand itself, “Carlo Franco,” is obviously a fun play on words of my former business partner’s name. We never really thought that “Jillo Specco” had the same ring to it! It is no secret that we are a U.S.-based company. However, 100% of our products are sourced from and produced in Italy. Hence, the Italian reference in our name. But despite the handful of hiccups associated with the brand seven or eight years ago, the brand name “Carlo Franco” still sees hundreds of keyword searches every month, even after we unofficially closed the shutters more than seven years ago. Our customers who had the opportunity to experience the quality of Carlo Franco firsthand still remember it today. Despite a few bumps in our own little Silk Road, we are proud of the superior quality the name connotes.
There were some people frustrated with Carlo Franco’s service last time. What can you tell them to convince them that they should buy from CF this time?
Jill: Admittedly, this is not a fun topic of conversation for me, to say the least; but it is a fair question that deserves an answer. The short answer is that we had fulfillment issues because we did not have enough quality control on the supply side. But at the end of the day, I will take 100% responsibility for every unhappy customer. To be candid, there really were not that many customers affected. However, as you know, in the world of the Internet, that’s all it takes.
The long story is we decided to close down shop because tie-making was merely a labor of love for us. We had many other personal and professional things going on in our lives that were higher priorities at the time. We asked our office staff to make sure that every order was filled and every customer issue was resolved, and then we closed the doors. The young, naïve businesswoman in me believed that it would be done as requested. And frankly, I never looked back. I was working 2,000 miles from home while dealing with a dying father, and the tie business just wasn’t a priority. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, there are many, many, many things I would have done differently. The biggest personal lesson I learned was that people do what you INspect, not what you EXpect. Nevertheless, I still take 100% responsibility for everything that went wrong at that time.
Sadly, it wasn’t for two or three more years, when I decided to clear out some old inventory, that I realized to my horror and embarrassment that there were still unfulfilled orders and very unhappy customers with whom I had to deal. While this was possibly the most difficult business challenge in my life—because it was a question of my personal integrity—I’m very proud to say that there is not a single person in the world, to my knowledge, whose issue was not resolved above their expectations. Customer service will never again fail to be at the top of our priorities. What can you tell me about the mills and makers you are using?
Jill: My weaver is in Como, Italy. They weave for many names you would know. They’re arguably the best in the world, and one of a very small handful who still actually does the weaving in Como—not China. My manufacturer is in southern Italy where each tie is hand-finished and hand-signed by the artisan who completes it.
As good as the quality was from our last manufacturer, we simply could not trust them for fulfillment. They are largely the reason for our loss of credibility the last time. As the saying goes, “Betray me once, shame on you. Betray me twice, shame on me.” So shame on me.
Are all the ties 7-fold?
Jill: Well, as you know, the debate could go on all day about what an “actual” sevenfold is. According to the Italian tie makers’ definition, yes, all of our long ties at this time are currently sevenfold. We are not currently offering the unlined sevenfold, however, because as much as we and our customers love the artisanship of a “true” seven fold, we just found that most customers prefer to have the added heft of the lined, folded tie. However, keep your eyes open! We hope to add a limited selection of true, unlined seven-folds to each of our future collections. But they truly will be limited editions.
Are all the designs woven or are you using any printed silks?
Jill: Well, as my sweet Daddy used to say, “dance with the one that brung ya!” We’ve always loved the way the light reflects off the texture and the richness of woven silks. So, I don’t foresee changing that anytime soon.
Are the designs your own or are you working from a mill’s archives?
Jill: We work in concert with them. We feel very fortunate that they afford us the latitude to make changes to the designs they provide as a starting point. This could mean changes and colors, textures, patterns, image sizes, etc. They also provide us the opportunity to create anything we wish to create from scratch. We’re blessed to have mutual trust and thoroughly enjoy working with them over lots of cups of cappuccino and silk dust!!!
There has been a rise in popularity in the last few years of lighter, printed silks (also grenadines) with light interlinings, no tipping, and handkerchief rolled edges. How do you see Carlo Franco’s heavier ties fitting in with this different market?
Jill: We decided a long time ago that we could not be all things to all people. Neckwear is art. I appreciate changes in the market styles as they come and go and love the beauty of any new artisanship. However, Carlo Franco will likely continue to make the same type of necktie we always have—heavier woven silks along with the occasional cashmere silk blends. But I never say never.
Will there be a bow tie version of each of your long tie designs?
Jill: Yes! In fact, there will be at least one bow tie to each of our 61 new designs this time. It seems that every 20 or 30 years the popularity of bow tie trends upward. And right now, the trend is being led especially by the younger guys, which is fun to watch.
How many designs are you releasing? Price point?
Jill: As mentioned previously, this new collection has 61 new designs. To be more specific, there are 15 different designs with a number of color variations, bringing the total of unique designs to 61.
Pricing is always a delicate subject, and one that we don’t take lightly. Due to the weakened exchange rate, increased costs of shipping, and general inflation, our new long ties will retail for $235, which is still substantially lower than our comparable competitors. The Mogador weave will be $255 and bow ties are $85. However, by way of gratitude for the loyalty of customers through years of good and bad, we will be instituting a “legacy program” for anyone who has been a customer prior to our official re-launch. Those individuals will be given a significant discount on their first order.
Are the designs limited editions or will you continue making popular ties?
Jill: As a rule of thumb, they are all limited-editions. On a rare occasion, we might do a second run. However, it would indeed be a rare occasion. The only exception to that will be our formal line. We plan to focus more this time on providing ties for weddings, New Year’s celebrations, and black-tie events—more of an evergreen collection.
Do you have plans for items other than ties and bow ties?
Jill: For the formalwear, we will probably add waistcoats and, perhaps, cummerbunds. There will be a handful of other high-end accessories such as our mother of pearl collar stays as well as a few other items that we’re not yet ready to announce. But beyond that, yes, we plan to just stay within the realm of accessories for now.