Otis James didn’t start making ties because he wanted to take over the fashion industry. “I learned to sew because I love the idea of being self-sufficient,” he said. “I wanted to be able to make everything for myself.”
When the Knoxville native moved to Nashville in 2009, he didn’t even know how to sew, but he was intent on learning. “I looked for jobs at tailor shops,” he recalled during a recent interview in his backyard studio in the heart of East Nashville. “I was like, ‘I’ll just sweep your floors – anything. I just want to watch what you do.’”
An internship of sorts at the high-end Nashville store Levy’s hooked him up with his sewing mentor, Loretta. “She appreciated that a young man wanted to learn from her,” he said. “I learned how to use a machine from her, how to handle materials, how to take things apart and put them back together. It was really invaluable experience.”
The first visited he our store, he wasn’t yet making his signature ties, which he sells in both regular and bow tie styles. “I had ideas for what I wanted to make; all I needed was a venue. And when I came to Imogene + Willie, I knew I’d found it.”
Otis quickly taught himself to make ties by deconstructing factory-made ones. He proved to have real talent: Matt ordered five of the black and white gingham linen tie sample he brought us back in the spring of 2010 on the spot. A business was born.
The years leading up to this sale had very little to do with cloth and needles. Otis spent a good part of 2007 and 2008 on major U.S. bicycle trips, looking for inspiration and a life purpose on the road.
We think he’s found it: folks really respond to the custom ties and hats we have on our floor. For Otis’ sake and ours, we’re happy that he is living proof of the old adage that all who wander are not lost.
I was never really serious about bikes until after college. I was living in LA. My car broke down and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed, so I started riding my bike everywhere.
I became obsessed. I got a job at a bike shop in West Hollywood, about 15 miles roundtrip from my home in Silverlake. Because traffic is so bad, I could get to work faster on a bike than I could in a car.
I decided to do a big bike trip, inspired by two things. The first was a documentary about an Army troop in the late 1800s that experimented with getting rid of their cavalry by replacing horses with bikes. There was an all-black brigade that rode from Montana to St. Louis, in the shittiest conditions – they were on railroad tracks for a lot of the trip, riding on solid rubber tires and carrying like 120 pounds of gear, in the winter. But they did it. I was, like, holy crap.
Then, I picked up a mountain biking magazine that had an article about a guy who did a bike tour on the absolute cheap. He was extreme: he ate road kill. The article also talked about how he trained for his trip, taking shorter ones first. It basically laid everything out for me.
I rode mainly on the Pacific Coast Highway. One nice thing about riding up that coast is that there are a lot of bike riders. You share stories, give advice, camp together. There are campgrounds every thirty to fifty miles, so I would get on the Internet and plot all the stops for the next 250 miles, write down how far apart they were. On a short day, I’d go to one 30 miles away; some days I’d go farther. I averaged about 50 miles a day.
I hit Big Sur on July 4th. That’s a magical place, but it was an intense ride to get there. A few miles out, I faced the worst head winds I’d ever been in – 15 or 20 miles per hour. I was pedaling as hard as I could and still only going about four miles an hour. I almost threw down my bike, crossed the street, and stuck out my thumb to southbound traffic. It was that bad.
When I got to the first main hill leading in to Big Sur, the winds died down but the incline got really nasty. Just up and down. The payoff was big, though: at the top of each hill, you find yourself on a cliff with redwood deciduous forest on the right and nothing but blue ocean on the left. I almost cried the first time I saw it. Sure, you’re struggling so hard to get up those hills, but every time you do, you’re rewarded with the most amazing view – plus, then you get to coast back downhill to sea level. For every hill you climb, you know there’s an equal downhill. I wish all of life were like that.
I made my way all the way up to the Olympic Pennisula, where I stayed for a while before heading back to LA. I got home on August 21.
When I got back, I had no direction. I also realized I was tired of living in Southern California. So I left. It was May of 2008.
I was 23 when I moved home to Knoxville. I lived with my dad for a couple of months. I was lost; I didn’t have anything going for me. So I was like, Fuck it: I’m gonna take off again.
The path for this trip wasn’t as direct as the last one; there are also fewer campgrounds and people along the way. I was gonna need more stuff. I made as much as I could. I made the front rack and bags for the bike. I found something online about how to make an alcohol stove out of Heineken keg cans, and I made a couple of those. I took very little clothes. It was really bare bones.
When I rode up the coast, my bike was a one-speed; it had no gears. It was a ten-speed when I bought it, but I like the physical simplicity of fewer gears. It means there are fewer things that can go wrong. (It also offers mental simplicity: you never have to think about whether you’re in the right gear if you don’t have any choices. If it’s a harder ride, you just work harder.) This trip crossed mountains, so I upgraded to a three-speed. Maybe one day I’ll make it a ten-speed – you know, if I decide to ride the Himalayas or Alps or something.Laughs.
On July 2, I headed to North Carolina. I left Knoxville with a hundred dollars to my name, hoping it would get me to Rhode Island. I ate simply – cans of beans and things. (I had one dumpster diving experience and it wasn’t a good one.) I barely spent anything until I got to New York, where I stayed with friends and spent like forty bucks in two days. I was broke when I got to my grandparents’ house.
I stayed in Rhode Island for a while and visited family. When it was time to move on, I still had no destination. Part of the reason for this trip was to find a city where I wanted to live. I really liked Portland, Oregon, when I was there the year before so I headed west. I planned my route based on where I have relatives to stay with: I have cousins in Chicago and Minneapolis, an uncle in Great Falls, Montana…
After a few weeks, the trip started to wear on me. Every day it was just, like, here I am and here’s my bike and this is what I’ve been doing for a month and a half. This is my life. Same thing, every day.
I was alone. I was exhausted. I had everything I owned with me. It was an incredibly lonely experience. Eastern Montana was especially hard: high desert, hot, with very few cities. One day I passed only one town in 110 miles. I didn’t have cell service for almost four days at one point. I had a couple breakdowns.
By then, I’d had a lot of flat tires, which just added to my mental strain. One afternoon, I got a flat four miles outside of Santa Fe, on a busy road with no shoulder. That town shuts down early, so the bike shop was closed when I got there.
I stayed in a hostel that night; the next day I found a campground about thirty miles away. I wanted stop for a few days and just think about what I was doing. The first day was beautiful; the second, it got cold.
I wasn’t used to being still: I was bored, and it was hard for me to relax. That afternoon, I tried to make arrowheads, just to keep myself busy. I was carving on one when a snowflake landed on my hand. I was like, Now what? All of a sudden, it got really windy. The snow was coming in sideways. All my shit was getting wet. The snow finally stopped but he wind didn’t. That was the last straw. I was done.
I packed up camp and got a hotel room. I found the hot tub, drank some liquor, and passed out. The next morning I rode to Albuquerque and caught a train to LA. That was November 3rd or 4th.
I was back in California, and still directionless. I was talking to my dad on the phone one day about how I had no money and no idea where I wanted to go or do. I felt like I had nothing to lose. I said, “I could go to Denver, Portland, New York, Nashville” – that was honestly the first time I’d ever thought about Nashville. Right then, it just made sense.
My dad helped me out; he bought me a ticket home. I flew out on February 1, 2009. When I got to Knoxville, I promised myself I was gonna be in Nashville by March 1. And I was.
-I + W
You never forget your first:
About our photographer: Lauren Owens, native to South Carolina, landed in Nashville two years ago. She’s a photographer for Vanderbilt, shooting everything from heart surgeries to faculty headshots, and is currently working on a number of personal projects. Visit her website at www.laurenowensphotography.com and keep up with her on her blog at www.laurenowens.tumblr.com