Wrapped giftAnyone can walk into Macy’s and pull a dress shirt and tie off the rack. This year, instead of running half-crazed through the mall, make a gift special by finding one that carries a great story with it.

From stylish dress shirts from North Carolina to socks direct from Alabama, below are several unique alternatives to navigating the local department store clutching a 20 percent off savings pass, along with a nod to the entrepreneurs behind the products.

1. A North Carolina-made shirt suitable for work and play.

Eric Powell was working at Deloitte when he first had the itch to start his own custom clothing business.  “It is really frustrating to walk into a store like a J Crew, see something you like, try on every size and realize that nothing works,” he told me.  In 2011, he opened his own online business, Colorado-based Ratio Clothing, which focuses on custom-tailored shirts, including casual and dual-use items that are appropriate for the boardroom and barroom.  Ratio’s shirts are made at a North Carolina factory, and the online ordering system is straightforward and simple. If you know your guy’s neck, sleeve and suit size, you can get him a great shirt, like this purple and blue tattersall, from $89. Order by November 30 for Christmas delivery, or get a gift card anytime up to the big day.

2. A hand-sewn necktie from a San Francisco school bus driver

A school bus driver by day, Greg Walton started sewing because he wanted to learn how to make his own suits and shirts, but turned to ties under the tutelage of a trusted sewing instructor.  About four years ago, he began to make ties for himself and a friend’s shop.  He developed a business from there, launching Louis Walton in January 2012.  Greg designs all of his own patterns and constructs each tie by hand.  His ties, including this understated blue Japanese cotton pattern, can be special ordered in precise widths and lengths, and hover around $100. They “are a labor of love, and that love shines in his work.

3. Incredibly soft socks from a second-generation Alabama manufacturer

Gina Locklear has manufacturing in her soul.  The daughter of a textile manufacturer, she established her own sock company, Zkano’s, in Fort Payne, Alabama, even as the U.S. textile industry dwindled around her. Zkano just released a new combed organic cotton collection that features a higher thread count and thus finer and softer sock. (It’s the same principle as the thread count in sheets.) Personally, I’m a fan of the navy and grey striped pattern socks. Zkano socks for men, from $15.

4. A smoking new suit from ex-Wall Street entrepreneurs

An investment banker during the Great Recession, Warren Liao decided to get out and pursue his passion, founding custom clothing label Black Lapel with business partner Derek Tian in 2008.  While it would take a spectacular amount of stealth to secure the precise set of measurements needed for Black Lapel to construct a proper suit, a gift certificate is a safe bet. Black Lapel suits start at $449; dress shirts from $99.

5. Vintage-inspired cufflinks from an Ohio artist

Columbus, Ohio-based artist Jamie Riley established White Truffle Studio in 2006 to fill a gap in the wedding market, but many of her creations are appropriate for everyday wear.  Her cufflinks range from the whimsical (peppermint candy spirals) to the oddly innovative (personalized QR Code), but my favorites are her vintage-inspired models, such as her surfer-inspired palm trees. White Truffle Studio cufflinks, from $40.

6. Delicious Prohibition-era Rye from Iowa

In Iowa, Frank Schroeder continued to produce rye secretly from his farm near Odebolt during prohibition.  Fast forward some eighty years, and Scott Bush and Keith Kerkhoff, “two small–town guys with a shared family bootlegging history,” resuscitated the recipe, built a distillery from scratch, and now run an annual “Rock and Rye” festival in town.  They also make one heck of a rye.  Templeton Rye, around $40.

The nice thing about buying from entrepreneurs like these is that you can actually get to know the creative people behind the gifts you buy. Staff members tend to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable not only about their product line but the history of the company and industry.  In some cases, the contact forms and telephone lines route directly to the CEO.

Supporting small businesses is a noble cause, but the point is also to put some meaning and sincerity behind the gift you are giving. It’s not just another dress shirt and tie when you can tell the recipient about the person who sold it to you, where it was manufactured and why you were excited about buying it.

In that regard, amazing stories and experiences are not limited to young companies and entrepreneurs.  Stories abound, even occasionally at the mall.

Get reacquainted with Brooks Brothers, who is now manufacturing all of its neckwear from a factory in Long Island City, New York and whose CEO is reinvigorating the brand for the 21st Century. Check out Club Monaco, which has produced a made in the USA collection and improved style and fit under its head of men’s design Aaron Levine.

Whether the company started two years or two centuries ago, the idea is to shop with purpose, seeking meaningful gifts and stories that will make giving and receiving more meaningful.

This holiday, given the number of entrepreneurs out there doing great things, it would be great to say, “I discovered this gorgeous gift from an entrepreneur who quit his 9-to-5 job to follow his passion” as opposed to “I got it at the mall, and the gift receipt is in the box.”

Photo credit: CarbonNYC on flickr



About Jake

Jake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age.  Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.

Other cool stuff:

* The Essential List: These 48 innovative startup brands will transform your wardrobe
* Discover more than 30 thoughtful gift ideas for men from unique shirts to colorful socks
* Shop Modern Fellows' list of recommended menswear brands.
* Search 12 Thoughtful Gift Ideas for the Modern Dad for Fathers' Day, Christmas or his birthday
* Browse our list of essential men's style books.
* Discover the best places to buy men's socks online.
* Check out these gorgeous, affordable watches with numbers
* Find Alternatives to Warby Parker that also let you try on prescription eyeglasses at home.
* Explore 10 options for amazing chinos from these menswear startup alternatives to Brooks Brothers.
* Get $50 off your first suit at Black Lapel, one of our favorite online custom tailors.
* Score $20 off your first shirt at Proper Cloth, one of our favorite online custom shirtmakers.

Innovative Brands in Your Inbox

Sign up to discover impressive entrepreneurs and innovative brands.

Thank you for subscribing.