Men's neckties -- once the epitome of the Christmas gift that no one wanted -- are a bright spot for many clothiers in a largely gray holiday shopping season.
But forget about ho-hum striped ties. The big sellers now are the bold ones, including neckwear adorned with playful "conversational prints" depicting giant frogs, cowboys, cologne bottles and, well, you name it.
"Anything with whimsy," said Robert Rosenthal, fashion director for one R. H. Macy & Co. division.
Two years ago, these novelty ties -- along with today's equally popular cravats with extravagant floral and abstract designs -- were snapped up mainly by fashion-forward shoppers. But now, Mr. Rosenthal said, "we're seeing more men take the plunge into bold neckwear."
Precise sales figures aren't kept on the estimated $1.1 billion-a-year U.S. necktie business. In its monthly survey of 3,500 small specialty retailers, however, consultants Retail Merchandising Service Automation found that ties racked up an average 20.2 percent dollar sales gain in November.
Menswear sales overall, the survey found, were up just 3.4 percent from November 1989. Retail Merchandising said tie sales began to take off about four months ago.
"After all these years of tie-bashing Christmas advertisements, it's good to see ties as an 'in' gift," said Jerry Andersen, executive director of Neckwear Association of America, a manufacturers' trade group.
Why are ties collaring so much business? Explanations, some of them contradictory, abound.
Some subscribe to the idea that new ties, just like women's accessories, are tailor-made for hard times, when one might not have the money to buy anything more elaborate. "You can really change the look of an old suit by wearing a new tie," Mr. Rosenthal said.
There also is the notion that consumers, possibly depressed by bad economic news, could use some cheering up.
"Ties are fun again," said Mr. Andersen, looking snazzy in a $65 tie with an Oriental rug-type design. "You can put on a tie and attract some comments."
Yet another theory is that bold, colorful fabrics appeal to women, who often buy neckwear for their husbands or boyfriends. "I like to see men in more color," said Sheila Seitz, shopping for a gift for her husband.
But there are a couple of knotty problems with those theories. For one thing, Americans usually hunker down, fashion-wise and otherwise, in hard times. They dress conservatively.
For another thing, many of the hottest ties are hardly cheap. Ties made by New York's Nicole Miller Ltd., which is credited with firing up the novelty tie business, retail for around $55, and other hot designers' styles go for $100 or more.
In fact, some crusaders for the clothing industry argue that the boom in tie sales demonstrates that consumers -- despite the nation's recent economic blues -- still are willing to spend good money for fun or exciting merchandise.