This church janitor crafts high-end bow ties for stars like Beyoncé
Christopher Chaun Bennett has two jobs, two work spaces, and what to an outsider might seem like two separate lives.
At the Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan, he’s the energetic, outgoing maintenance man, adored by clergy for his work ethic, happy to break down and set up tables, fix busted sinks, and wield the vacuum cleaner he calls “my best friend.”
It’s a show-stopping contradiction that at first glance makes no sense, even to church staffers who found out about Bennett’s bow tie business after he took the job in early 2015.
“I said to him, ‘Why are you here?’” Chris Sumner, executive pastor at Jubilee, recalled recently. “Where is this coming from? He’s working maintenance in our building!”
But both jobs make perfect sense to Bennett. He says maintaining the church gives him as much satisfaction as hand-crafting a bow tie.
“Raw process is what I find to be amazing about everything,” Bennett said in the janitor’s office in the church basement, pausing to extol the virtues of the vacuum cleaner. “I tell everyone I’m all about process.”
To demonstrate the process of making a bow tie, Bennett opened his tiny atelier in Hyde Park, located a 15-minute walk from the church.
It’s in his room, a few feet from his bed, in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother. It’s another seeming contradiction for a designer who gets written up by fashion magazines and has a publicist in New York.
From a drawer cluttered with ties and patterns, Bennett took stretches of red and turquoise leather and cut them into even strips with a pair of shears, “really, really sharp ones from Japan,” he said. Then he ironed the leather — “I can’t live without my steam iron!” — and set it aside to take a phone call from his sister at the hospital.
She was about to undergo spinal surgery, and he said a prayer for her over the phone — “My family often asks me to pray,” he said — and returned to his work. He folded the tie, and stitched it with his sewing machine.
And suddenly, little more than an hour after he started, the bow tie was completed, a piece he said he would sell, “somewhere between $195 and $225,” if he chose to.
At the moment, he wasn’t thinking about that.
“I just like it,” Bennett said. “This makes it worth it. That’s very pretty.”
Bennett said he’s always enjoyed figuring out how things work, and making them work well.
And that’s the story of his first bow tie.
It was 2009, and Bennett, an aspiring actor, was looking for the right thing to wear at a preview party for “Business is War,” a film he starred in that was written and directed by his friend and fellow Bostonian, the late Kemal Gordon.
Bennett had picked an outfit and he wanted an oversized raw denim bow tie to go with it. But he couldn’t find one.
“Knowing what I wanted, if I couldn’t get my hands on it one way, I’ll figure out another way,” Bennett recalled. “I have a fairly technical kind of mind. I’ve always built things. I could just look at something and tell how to put it together.”
So he got some denim and made himself the tie. His found his first customer soon after he made his second tie. Bennett was wearing it in New York’s SoHo district when he was confronted by Roberto Carrillo, who was strolling the streets, taking in fashions and trends.
“I stopped him and said, ‘Excuse me, I have to know, but where do you get that tie?’” recalled Carrillo, now 33, who manages a bar in Washington, D.C.
Bennett told him he’d made it, and Carrillo offered to buy one.
“We exchanged numbers [and] a week later I was the owner,” Carrillo wrote in an email.
After Gordon’s sudden death in Jan. 2010, Bennett quit filmmaking and dedicated himself to his bow ties. Bennett honed his craft and built a following. Through New York acquaintances, a stylist for Beyoncé chose one of his “Finale” ties for her performance on Oprah Winfrey’s farewell gala in 2011.
Since then, he estimates, he’s sold “hundreds” of ties, which is a lot, but not enough to survive on. He’d held various jobs in Boston and New York, many in fashion retail. But after his mother, Martha, suffered serious burns in an accident, he moved in to take care of her.
“I did prefer to be in New York,” Bennett said. “The industry is vibrant and filled with opportunity. My plan may have been one thing ....”
But the janitor job at Jubilee Christian Church, where he and his mother worship, presented itself.
“In the end it’s really about my doing God’s work, serving,” Bennett said.
The church, he said, is flexible about hours, and understands when he needs to take business trips to New York. Sumner, who bought a made-to-order tie from Bennett, said the church benefits from his enthusiastic approach. The two often discuss fashion, and Sumner half-jokes that he’s excited to know an up-and-coming star in the fashion world.
“He’s going to be great and I want to get on early,” Sumner said.