Emmy-nominated actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays the red-haired lawyer half of a gay couple on the hit ABC comedy "Modern Family," and his real-life partner, Justin Mikita, are mixing fashion with political activism.
The recently engaged pair are behind a limited-edition, 20-piece collection of neckwear called Tie the Knot that went on sale just a few days ago exclusively through online retailer the Tie Bar. Proceeds from sales of the jaunty, all-silk, self-tie bow ties are earmarked to benefit groups working for marriage equality.
On a Sunday afternoon, just days before the general election that would see the number of U.S. states where same-sex marriages are legal grow by 50% (from six to nine), Ferguson, 37, and Mikita, 27, sat down with The Times in the Silver Lake home they share to talk about their Tie the Knot Foundation, their foray into fashion, what inspired the inaugural collection and the importance of humor in the fight for same-sex marriage.
Ferguson says he first started thinking about delving into the bow tie business about a year ago. "I wear a lot of bow ties, and we thought this would be a fun way to dip our toes into the fashion world in a simple, easy, low-key way," he says. "I wasn't looking to design a full clothing line."
It was Mikita's idea to make the fashion statement a philanthropic one. A development associate with the non-profit American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that brought the federal court case seeking to overturn California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage in the state, he suggested using the proceeds to support groups working toward marriage equality.
Ferguson says that trying to line up manufacturing and retail partners in the early stages of the project "felt like a slow-moving train." Mikita thinks that's at least partially because of the cause it's backing. "It's such a high-profile social issue right now," he says, "that I think major corporations are tentative to get behind it."
Then, this summer, Ferguson decided to reach out to the Tie Bar, a Chicago-based e-tailer of men's furnishings from which he'd purchased neckties. "I think we just looked up their contact information on the website and called them up," Ferguson says. "And I think we were talking to them about an hour later. ... Once they said they'd do it, it was full speed ahead."
Greg Shugar, who started the Tie Bar with his wife, Gina, in 2004, knows gay marriage can be a divisive issue. "As a business you try to stay away from hot-button political issues," he says. "But for whatever reason [marriage equality] has always been an issue with me, and this was right around the time of the whole Chick-fil-A thing" — when the fast food restaurant's president touched off a wave of controversy by expressing his opposition to same-sex marriage.
So when Ferguson and Mikita explained their plan for a line of bow ties that would generate funds that would go to U.S. organizations working toward marriage equality, Shugar decided that the risk of alienating a few customers would be outweighed by the benefit to civil rights. And, as he had expected, he did lose a few customers.
"When the partnership was first announced back in September, we did get a few guys who said: 'I'll never order from you again'" he says. "But we also had customers who said, 'I'm proud that your company is doing this,' and 'I used to like your company but now I love your company,' and I wasn't expecting that. All I'd been able to think about was the negative — about having customers leave us."
The Tie Bar isn't just the exclusive retailer of the bow tie collection. It also is the design and manufacturing partner for the line, helping shepherd Ferguson and Mikita's vision from design inspiration to finished product.
"We would send them photos of things that inspired us," Ferguson says, "and they would create fabric designs based on that inspiration and we would tweak them from there. I didn't actually think it could be that easy."
As Ferguson guides a guest through their house it becomes readily apparent that the design inspiration is as personal to them as the cause. Ferguson points first to an upholstered chair and then to a quilted wall hanging. "That was the starting point for one of the floral ties," he said of the chair, "and that blanket we hung on the wall to cover a couple of outlets was the inspiration for the tie with the zigzag pattern."
Mikita scoops up their dog Leaf (whose full name, Leaf Coneybear Ferguson-Mikita, is an homage to the character Ferguson played in the Broadway production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") as Ferguson explains how the pet unwittingly inspired another design.
"Our dog came back from the dog groomer's one day wearing a bandanna, which is what inspired these," Ferguson says, holding up two bandanna-print ties, one red and one blue. "We named this style the Jack & Ennis after the characters in 'Brokeback Mountain.'"
Ferguson points to a navy blue tie with a silver, bubble-like pattern that he says was inspired by a favorite roll of wrapping paper and to several plaid patterns that are riffs on images he found in a book of tartans that had belonged to his grandmother.
There's even a back story to the label's logo, which appears as an allover embroidery on several of the ties. Mikita said he suggested the visage of a wide-eyed, bow-tie-wearing horned owl after noticing the bow-tie-wearing figure that serves as the logo of Beverly Hills' Mr. C Hotel. And why the specific choice of an owl over, say, a penguin (which, after all, already appears to be wearing formal attire)?
"Everyone knows the owl represents wisdom," answers Ferguson. "But they also represent patience and dignity. That's something I think the people who are in the fight for marriage equality have to embrace, that there's a certain amount of patience that comes with [the fight]."
The initial offering consists of 15 hourglass-shaped butterfly-style bowties and five with a slightly more fashion-forward diamond tip. Each tie was produced in a limited run of just 200 pieces. All net proceeds — roughly $20 of each $25 tie — will be donated by the Tie the Knot Foundation to U.S. organizations working for marriage equality, with a single group as the beneficiary each season.
Mikita says that the approximately $80,000 raised from the first fully sold collection will be donated to the group Human Rights Campaign.
A spring collection is already in the planning stages, and, if the concept catches on, the couple has discussed saying "I do" to a whole range of products.
"We're thinking about doing cuff links with the owls on them," Ferguson says, "or maybe teaming up with a really great stationery company to make wedding invitations ... and we've talked about doing wedding bands, [scarves] for women and pocket squares. But we like the idea of keeping it in the wedding arena."
As for their own wedding (Ferguson popped the question to his boyfriend of two years in July, during a trip to Mexico to celebrate costar Sofia Vergara's 40th birthday), the couple has yet to decided where and when they're going to make it legal.
"We have some ideas," Ferguson says. "We're thinking about New York, where it's legal now, and it could be as early as the spring of next year — or as late as the spring of the following year."
But there's no doubt that when it happens, the choice of nuptial neckwear is a no-brainer — especially considering a tie slated for release on Valentine's Day.
"The collection was originally 20 ties," says the Tie Bar's Shugar. "But this 21st one is a black, satin bow tie with a very subtle version of the owl [logo] on it. It's meant to be a formal tie to be worn for a same-sex wedding. We see it as marriage equality's version of the Lance Armstrong bracelet or the pink ribbon."
Ferguson says the humorous approach to the line, from the label's name to the very funny video the couple made to announce the project, will make it easier for some to tackle the topic.
"If you can talk about something very serious like civil rights and marriage equality with humor and grace and wit, you're going to get a lot farther than with just the dry facts," he says.
"That's something I learned from being on 'Modern Family.' We deal with a lot of sensitive issues on the show, but we have writers who do it with such grace and humor that I feel like we get a lot farther. We're not going to be on the front lines angry with a bullhorn."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times