When General Electric gathered employees at company headquarters recently to address an upcoming change in leadership, it had all the markings of a high-profile corporate get-together. There were the company bigwigs — outgoing CEO Jeff Immelt, and his successor, John Flannery — seated onstage. And the oversize company logo looming in the background.
The only thing missing? The neckties.
Once viewed as the centerpiece of the American business uniform for men — a knotted symbol of power, prestige, and professionalism — the tie today seems to be going the way of the cufflink and cummerbund: still around, but rarely heard from.
“Before, it was kind of a requirement — almost the number one requirement — to looking professional,” says Jeff Lahens, who runs Boston’s J.L. Companies, a retail marketing and consulting agency. Now, “it’s more the norm for guys to not wear a tie.”
Indeed, everywhere you look these days you’ll find the bare neck of some prominent business mogul or politician.
In the months since leaving office, Barack Obama has created a minor stir by making various public appearances sans necktie. Billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban often can’t be bothered to wear a collared shirt, let alone a tie. Even the royal family isn’t immune to the occasional venture into the casual; Prince Harry made headlines — and received some light-hearted ribbing — when he broke convention by going tieless at a reunion of militaryveterans.
So what’s behind this shift toward casual? Who, exactly, is to blame?
A good place to start would probably be Silicon Valley and its hoodie-and-sneakers ethos.
Years ago, Steve Jobs made it acceptable for a company leader to set the neck free, opting for his trademark mock turtleneck at high-profile public appearances. Later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took it a step further, famously wearing the same plain gray T-shirt day after day.
Today, as many companies — GE included — have sought to adopt a more innovative and forward-thinking approach, that same casualness has begun to seep into the boardrooms and corner offices of corporate America.
Take prominent Cambridge-based tech firm HubSpot. On the company’s website, the management team page features headshots of 17 company bigwigs, ranging from the CEO to the president to the chief financial officer.
Not pictured: A single necktie.
“If someone shows up [to the office] wearing a tie, we ask them what position they’re there to interview for, because there’s no chance that they’re coming for day-to-day work,” says Katie Burke, HubSpot’s chief people officer.
It’s not just the tech industry. Even the most buttoned-down businesses are starting to loosen their ties a bit — if not rip them off completely.
Last June, Wall Street giant JPMorgan Chase informed its nearly 250,000 employees that it was shifting its dress code to business-casual. And as the recent meeting at GE confirmed, the company has made efforts to move away from its more staid past.
“I would say we have more of a casual dress guideline,” says GE spokesman Jeff Caywood, who adds that ties are neither required nor prohibited. “And that’s our effort to fit in more with the community in which we work.”
As more men have opted to go tieless, meanwhile, clothing purveyors have taken notice.
At Mr. Sid, for instance, the men’s fashion shop in Newton, owner Stuart Segel reports a 35-to-40-percent drop in tie sales over the past three years.
“It’s not that long ago where every suit that we sold, the guy would buy at least a couple of ties,” Segel says. “Now, he might buy one.”
Instead of ties, Segel says, men are now looking to other items to inject their suits with a pop of personality. Colorful socks, pocket squares, and interesting dress shoes have all gained momentum in recent years, he says. Even bowties, which have come and gone over the years, have reemerged as the preferred neckwear choice of some men.
And while it’s true that ties might not be flying off the racks like they once did, men certainly aren’t forsaking dresswear entirely.
“We see the ties declining, but not the suits,” says Ari Gil, who owns ARI Boston — The Men’s Store, located on the edge of the Financial District. “And our shirt sales are great.”
Despite its apparent decline, however, it might be unwise to start digging the tie’s grave just yet.
Folks have been predicting its demise for years, after all, as evidenced by the obituary-esque headlines that have popped up from time to time (“Tie Use In Decline,” “Let’s Face It, The Tie Is Dead”). But thus far, at least, it’s still kicking.
Look no further than The Tie Bar, a Chicago-based specialty tie company with a younger-trending clientele. It would seem like a doomed enterprise, akin to running a Blockbuster in 2013. But after the company opened a pop-up shop on Newbury Street last October, business has been promising enough that it is in discussions to turn it into a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.
Like many, company CEO Allyson Lewis has heard all about the necktie’s imminent demise.
“I guess our response is that maybe your grandpa’s tie is dead,” she says, “but what we offer isn’t.”