Just when local retailers had started pulling back from physical locations, Ella Bing’s Brent Kraus had the opposite idea. Kraus, who started the bow tie business as a three-person operation with his parents in 2012, recently celebrated the first anniversary of the Ella Bing Haberdashery in Hyde
Park Village. When they started, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition online; within a few years, the equation flipped. It became increasingly expensive to compete for attention with just a digital storefront.
“In Tampa, there really aren’t too many brick-andmortars doing what we are doing, so it’s a lot easier to compete in the Tampa market, and we see a lot more customers,” Kraus says. “Our product needs to be touched and felt and held and tried on.”
Ella Bing made its name with handmade cloth and wooden bow ties. Kraus’s mom makes the cloth ones, while his dad — a woodworker — creates the wooden ones. The wooden bow ties quickly became the company’s signature offering — after they shot down a more dangerous option.
“The initial idea was a glass bow tie because he’s also a pretty talented stained glassworker,” Kraus says. “But glass around your neck, if it breaks… that’s really not a good thing.”
The Kraus family intentionally chose bow ties as a business. In 2010, Kraus’s brother Matt died by suicide. He often wore bow ties sewn by the brothers’ mom, and when Kraus was dreaming up business ideas, this one struck him as a way to both honor his brother and help his family heal.
“It was really good timing. For two years, our family had kind of fallen apart,” Kraus says. “This really gave us the opportunity to come back together and work together.”
Kraus, his parents and a few local artists were hand-making the majority of Ella Bing’s products until the haberdashery opened last year (and they still hand-make all the bow ties). But as the business has expanded to include essentially a full range of mens’ accessories, they have begun outsourcing some production and bringing in other vendors to meet demand. One new opportunity the haberdashery has opened up is custom goods. Kraus has partnered with a manufacturer in Spain to create Ella Bing Black Label, which gives customers the chance to create made-to-order, customizable shoes, bags and other leather accessories. He is also working with Sir Dudley’s, a Tampa Bay-area custom clothier, to offer custom shirts, jackets and blazers.
“That’s been a really nice addition for us. It kind of makes us more whole, offering more than just men’s accessories,” Kraus says. Hand-making the bow ties is a time-consuming process (about 40 minutes for a cloth bow tie and anywhere from one hour to eight hours for a wooden bow tie, depending on its complexity). They are made in small batches, making them inherently limited edition. “I do not like having duplicates in the shop. I want everything to be unique, so when it’s gone it’s gone.”
One product Kraus sold that he thought would be limited edition was a face mask. The haberdashery, Ella Bing’s main revenue generator, had to close its doors March 15, sending Kraus into a panic.
His mom had begun sewing face masks for health care workers, so in early April he reached out to the customers on the Ella Bing mailing list to see if they would be interested in purchasing any.
“We had 50 masks premade by my mom, and I thought we would maybe sell all 50 in a month,” Kraus recalls. “We sold out in 15 minutes, so we were like, OK, maybe we’re onto something.”
To date, Ella Bing has sold 4,000 masks and brought on 12 additional employees to help sew them. “[The masks] really saved our April and it’s kind of carried us through to now,” Kraus says.
While the pandemic didn’t put a permanent dent in business, it has put on hold Ella Bing’s annual “Beer and Bow Ties” event, a craft beer and food festival that benefits the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. The Kraus family sought out the Crisis
Center to be a beneficiary of Ella Bing soon after starting the business. Last year, the sixth annual event raised $19,000 for the Crisis Center, which helps people dealing with issues ranging from sexual assault to suicidal thoughts. Kraus and his team are considering ways to bring the event virtual for 2020 and continue toward his ultimate goal of spreading the word about mental health and suicide prevention.
“Unfortunately, when my brother was going through what he went through, we didn’t even know the Crisis Center existed, so part of our motivation was to get people to know that there’s this amazing resource right here where we live that is dedicated to helping people,” Kraus says. “It’s just been so positive to see the community come together to support the Crisis Center and the topic of [preventing] suicide. It’s something that more people are talking about, but 10 years ago no one talked about depression or suicide in general… So now I think the arena has changed a little bit, and it’s a lot more socially acceptable to talk about what people are going through. I like to think in Tampa we’ve helped out a little bit.”