“I love spats. Oh, what I’d do for a great pair of spats!” Christopher Lester declares, laughing and reveling in his enthusiasm for all things dapper. “It’s true! Spats. Suspenders. And nothing says ‘dapper’ like a bowtie. In fact, bowties are having a bit of a moment.”
Lester would know. He’s the founder and chief proprietor of Clifton+Leopold, a brand of bowties and other men’s accessories, launched online in 2020. “I’ve always loved classic men’s accessories,” he says. “Clifton+Leopold isn’t just about men, though. We want to be more reflective of the world now. Just human. We’re making men’s accessories for the dapper human,” he explains.
Those accessories — ties, bowties, pocket squares, kerchiefs, twillys (and for the moment, masks) are gorgeous. They come in glorious florals, jewel-toned geometrics, and pretty paisleys — lush patterns with names like Chrysalis, Wild, Flash, and Alice, so eye-catching they dare you to wear them. Yes, even the pocket squares, because, as the website suggests, “We adore a well-dressed pocket, and a little peacocking never hurt anyone.”
“For me, ‘dapper’ has always been about the idea of going above and beyond and putting a little effort into a look, being a little extra. And it was a word that used to just get applied to men. But dapper is something all humans do,” Lester says.
“So, we make our ties in two sizes for a wider spectrum of body types. Anyone can wear our kerchiefs and twillys, so we show that in our marketing and in our stories on the site. Like, you’ll see a woman, and she’s not just wearing that bowtie, she’s rockin’ it and looks really, really great. And you’ll see a guy with one of our kerchiefs around his neck, or a twilly maybe wrapped around his wrist.”
We want to tell a story that other people can see themselves as part of, and we want the experience of Clifton+Leopold to feel personal. We get a lot of really generous feedback from our customers on the website and on our social media, and that has been really important in shaping what we do.
Dapper style isn’t a prescribed way of costuming oneself, though. “I love the hipster movement. I think it’s dapper as fuck, but it’s its own version of it. Dapper can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean a tuxedo or a pocket square. It can be steampunk. It can be the hipster who put together the perfect outfit to look like they didn’t try,” Lester observes.
For him, a put-together look isn’t just about appearances. It’s a way to connect with others, to show appreciation. “When you’re going to an event or something at someone’s home, that little bit of extra work to look good is a sign of gratitude. I appreciate being invited into your space. If you’re going to put together a cocktail party, the least I can do is put together an outfit.
“I’ve always loved accessorizing since I was a kid. Like tying a red bandanna around my leg and going to school because that’s what Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson were doing. A friend and I made trash bag outfits once just because we thought it would be cool. It was the ’80s. I also was the kid who, in junior high, wore a bolo tie and had a fedora in my yearbook picture. I would say the whole idea of ‘never be afraid to be too much’ has always been a theme for me,” Lester says.
Clifton+Leopold accessories are meant to be conversation starters. “It’s a way to introduce yourself. The tie catches their eye. Now all of the sudden you’re in a conversation with someone,” he says. “And maybe that’s also because you feel good wearing it, and you’re exuding something because you feel good.” Lester hopes Clifton+Leopold products encourage customers to make brave fashion choices with confidence, and that those choices will help them feel more authentically themselves. “I understand it’s just clothing. And someone else could read this and say that’s so dumb. And that’s okay. I’m not calling you out for what you’re wearing.”
“The truth is most people now don’t have to buy a tie. Except for a wedding or a funeral, you can get through most of your life without a tie. So you buy a tie, or a kerchief, you buy our products because you love them. People buy it because it just resonates with them.”
Part of what resonates — besides the look of the tie, or kerchief, or pocket square — is the story that accompanies it. As customers explore the website and click on the names of the various products, they’ll discover a thread of a story, a micro-narrative inspired by the piece. For instance, the one that accompanies the tie called Sweetheart reads: “He straightened his tie twice before he got to the door. It might be 20 years late, but he was finally taking her out on that date.” The story for a grey and yellow floral kerchief dubbed Rise reads: “This was their time, and now, it was their story to tell.” The micro-stories for the various products feel connected and a little mysterious, like an overheard conversation. The characters feel like people we might know. As Lester sees it, the narratives he and his team write become part of the tapestry of Clifton+Leopold, woven into the experience of the brand and the website, which also includes danceable playlists, cocktail recipes, and a “How They Do Dapper” series featuring customers who have connected with the brand.
The experience of the brand doesn’t end with clicking “buy” and getting a brown package from UPS. The folks at Clifton+Leopold ship out orders in individually wrapped, scented boxes, each with an added personal touch like a handwritten thank you, and a waxed seal with the initials C+L. “It’s that little extra detail that says, ‘I care, I was thoughtful about it,’” Lester explains.
“We want to tell a story that other people can see themselves as part of, and we want the experience of Clifton+Leopold to feel personal. We get a lot of really generous feedback from our customers on the website and on our social media, and that has been really important in shaping what we do,” Lester says.
The name of the brand is part of Lester’s personal story. When he first conceived the project several years ago, he decided he didn’t want to create an accessory brand in his own name, but he still wanted to feel connected to it in a personal way. He took the thoughtful path to arrive at Clifton+Leopold. Clifton, it turns out, is the name of the neighborhood in Cincinnati where he was born. The name Leopold means brave, which Lester says is the aspirational version of himself. “If in the end people just say, ‘He was a lot of fun, and he was brave,’ I’m good with that.” The initials of the company, then, are the same as Christopher Lester’s. “Every time we wax seal a package, there are my initials, and it’s a way of saying, ‘You’re in this, say a good thought as we ship it out the door.’”
Another aspect of Clifton+Leopold that feels personal to Lester is the choice to have all products manufactured in the U.S. Because there is almost no textile manufacturing in the states, the fabrics themselves are imported from Italy, Spain, Japan, and Brazil. But the ties and kerchiefs are manufactured in the South, handstitched by artisans in North Carolina. Clifton+Leopold also added candles to their collections during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those are made in Tennessee. “The world doesn’t need another tie made in China. That market is fine. It’s all taken care of. Having everything we do made in the U.S. isn’t necessarily about being pro-U.S. over some other place. It’s more about the fact that manufacturing here means more jobs, and more jobs means a better life for our neighbors and our friends and their friends,” Lester explains.
What was Lester thinking when he launched a new business enterprise at exactly the same moment a pandemic was wreaking havoc across the planet? “Be brave,” he says. He’d been sitting with the idea for Clifton+Leopold for a while, he says, and even before the pandemic struck, he’d made the decision to launch online and forego a brick & mortar establishment. That turned out to be a fortuitous choice, as customers worked from home and bought pretty things from there. “If you don’t ever launch, you’ll never sell anything, so you just have to run really hard and not be scared,” he says. Perhaps it was that fearlessness that led, at least in part, to the Nashville LGBT Chamber Commerce recognition of Lester as an Entrepreneur of the Year in June. “It’s such an honor and a gift,” Lester observes.
After a year of selling luxury goods online in a pandemic economy, what’s next for Clifton+Leopold? “We’re definitely broadening our collections,” Lester says. While the initial launch catered to dapper adult humans, fans can look for additions to the brand that will be more suited to other dapper creatures in the family, along with some custom options. Also, Clifton+Leopold products are finding space in boutique shops like the one at The Hermitage Hotel. And of course, there will be more playlists and cocktails, and stories. Always more stories.
“It’s all just art, just different ways of expressing beauty. They all get us there together.”