New neckwear line a fashion statement with political and personal ties

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LOS ANGELES — 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 percent (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."

There's even a back story to the label's logo, which appears as an allover embroidery on several of the ties.

"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."