Mr. Klean Kut dresses for success
By Erica Naone
Keylon Mayo (B.S.’06/MC) says most people don’t guess that he has a passion for sewing when they first meet him.
An alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in broadcast journalism, his aspirations initially included sportscasting. After his relationship with his now-wife, Jentae Scott-Mayo (B.S.’07/H&S; M.Ed.’09/E), who he met at VCU, became serious, Mayo decided to settle in Richmond rather than traveling around the country working his way up at TV stations. The couple now have two daughters, ages 7 and 2.
Today he’s a football coach and history teacher at Highland Springs High School in Highland Springs, Virginia. For most of his life Mayo, 36, had no particular interest in fashion or fabric arts. But when the spark hit, it hit hard. For the past two years, Mayo has sewn daily. He is a fixture at a local fabric shop, and he travels with his sewing machine. “Even if it’s for five minutes, I work on it,” he says.
His devotion to his hobby almost immediately grew into a business, Mr. Klean Kut, which keeps him at the sewing machine late into the night and drives him there early in the morning. The bow ties he creates have been featured on television in the Richmond, Virginia, area five times. He designed a special collection for the shop at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for Black History Month earlier this year. He sells his wares at craft fairs and through his website.
“It was something that I just felt was a calling,” Mayo says.
The calling came unexpectedly. Mayo had been teaching for 10 years, wearing neckties to work every day, and a co-worker talked him into trying out a bow tie for a change. “I was free,” he says. No more embarrassing incidents of getting his necktie caught in a desk drawer and half-choking himself in front of students. Mayo felt better moving around, and he found himself wanting to wear a bow tie every day and to express his personality with it.
Unfortunately, when he went shopping for more bow tie options, he discovered the expense of expanding his collection. Or perhaps this was fortunate because Mayo responded by learning, via YouTube, to make bow ties, and the rest is history.
“The first 20 that I tried were horrible,” Mayo says, but he stuck with it. Soon, he added lapel flowers and pocket squares to his repertoire. He posted about his progress on social media, and special requests began coming in from family and friends.
When his players were graduating from high school, Mayo began making them custom bow ties. First, he simply used fabric in the colors of the colleges they planned to attend, then later, as his business grew and his design ability developed, the bow ties became more elaborate, including images and logos representing particular colleges.
A trend developed for local seniors at graduation: wearing a bow tie to reveal their college plans. “It’s a different way to show your pride for your new school that you’re headed off to,” says James Vithoulkas, an incoming freshman at VCU, who was coached by Mayo for two seasons at Glen Allen High School in Glen Allen, Virginia.
Mayo says he can’t take credit for starting the trend, but he’s worked hard to use it to grow his business. Mayo says he’s gotten orders for graduation bow ties from high schools throughout Virginia, as well as some from other states.
He sought official permission from VCU to use the university’s trademarks on his bow ties, choosing VCU first because of his Ram pride. He’s now working to expand his line of college bow ties, most recently with the official trademark of Virginia State University.
Vithoulkas really liked Mayo’s VCU tie and bought one for himself. After wearing it to graduation, he hung it from his car’s rear-view mirror. He expects it to be in heavy rotation as an accessory soon. “At pretty much every opportunity at VCU, I’ll be flexing it,” Vithoulkas says.
Mayo is always looking for people who might wear his bow ties with pride and get his name out into the world. Mayo prepared for a recent trip to Los Angeles with his wife by making bow ties for opportunities that might arise. He made one for the pilot of his commercial flight, one on the off chance he might meet basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was scheduled to speak at an event he planned to attend, and considered which bow tie might catch a cameraman’s eye as he and his wife sat in the audience of the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” TV show.
The bow tie for the pilot got snapped up by a flight attendant instead, who proceeded to keep the couple well supplied with juice for the rest of their journey.
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” proved to be an even greater success. Before taping began, Mayo sent a custom-made bow tie to Kimmel through a producer. About 15 minutes into the show, going into a commercial break, Kimmel responded by spending several minutes on air talking to Mayo about his bow ties and business. During the next break, the host sent Mayo a bow tie of his own as a gift. Mayo’s wife was crowned queen of the crowd for maintaining a high level of excitement throughout the show.
Mayo has recently been seeking investments that could help expand his line of college-themed bow ties. A local businessman approached him with an opportunity to open a storefront, but Mayo was concerned about adding that level of regular monthly expense. Instead, he has identified people he might hire to help if business picks up. His bow ties have followed his players to college, and he’s already considered how they might one day follow his players to the NFL. He dreams of improving his sewing skills to the point that he can sell vests and, eventually, suits.
“I always try to encourage people to find your niche, find your passion and go for it,” Mayo says. “You may not have a clue what you’re doing. I started off and just took that leap.”