Alexander Olch plays the piano nearly every day: New Orleans jazz, mostly, and not only when he’s at home in downtown New York. He’ll often seek out a free piano when he’s traveling, and has found them everywhere from the back of a music store in Brussels to a hotel in Malta.
Funny thing is, Olch is not a musician by trade—he’s a designer and filmmaker. But perhaps we should just call him living proof that a man can be successful at more things than one. People used to ask him which of his two job titles was the true one, but Olch, 35, increasingly sees that as a dated question. “Anyone under 30 takes it for granted you want to do both,” he says.
Of the two, it’s the neckwear that has given him a global presence. Savvy traditionalists and risk-takers alike swear by Olch’s quirkily old-school ties and bowties; Bergdorf’s started carrying them in 2007, and since then Barneys New York, Colette, Japan’s United Arrows, and a host of other top-shelf international outlets have jumped on the bandwagon. His ties have a literary side, but also a sporty one, and befit on a guy who’s changing the world or blithely sipping tea at a garden party. “Simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar” is how Olch wants them to feel, and they do. The cashmere (Italian, naturally) is thicker than you expected; you think you know that brown necktie, until you realize it’s made of corduroy.
The line has expanded to include handkerchiefs, suspenders, belts, scarves, tote bags, and—launching this spring—shirts. Strangely enough, the whole thing started as a total accident. Olch designed his first batch of ties a decade ago, as gifts for the crew on the short movie he’d just completed for his Harvard thesis. He wore one to dinner with friends one night, and by dessert he’d made four sales.
Proceeds from the growing business helped fund Olch’s remarkable breakout feature, The Windmill Movie, which was picked up by HBO in 2008. Hard to categorize, it’s a documentary comprised largely of footage left behind by the late Richard Rogers, an experimental filmmaker and former professor of Olch’s. It’s a seriously engaged and searching piece of cinema, one that weaves themes of memory, family, and mortality into scenes of idyllic Hamptons beaches and Rogers’s on-camera confessions of existential turmoil. (The Los Angeles Times called it a “fascinating portrait.”)
Olch is currently writing his next film, details of which he keeps close to his chest. He works constantly, but at his own pace. Being a designer means meeting a never-ending demand for new product, but it’s also taught him to “have ultimate faith in process and following one’s instinct.” And there’s an upside to independent writing: “I don’t want to have to explain what I’m doing at, say, a weird library in Connecticut.”
An information junkie, Olch loves such places. Practical knowledge in particular has always intrigued him. On play dates as a child, the first thing he’d do was ask to see all the electrical outlets in the house. He wishes more people knew the average capacity of a water pump. He keeps notepads in his bedroom and bathroom—naturally, designs them too, bound in tie fabrics—and doesn’t hesitate to whip them out in restaurants or movie theaters. Much of where he is today comes from his largely self-taught computer skills, which allows him to put his hands on everything from film edits to look-book layouts.
Unlike better-known hyphenates, Olch hasn’t used renown gained in one territory to pry open another. “Success in field A generates no success in field B,” he explains. “For me, what’s interesting in life is just learning things. To some people, that comes across as intellectual.” It may be that. But Olch has more important labels to think about.