The Tie Jones Average

“Maybe to hang themselves,” quipped Karen Hippner of Howard Beach, who stopped by Hermès later that afternoon as the Dow reversed course yet again, sinking 449 points by the close of business.

“I could have told you the housing market was going to tank a year ago,” said Ms. Hippner, who works at a nearby law firm. She turned to colleague and shopping companion Carolyn Ward: “Remember the case we worked on with the overinflated broker prices?”

“I kind of went off on these guys last night,” said Ms. Ward, who lives in Williamsburg. “This guy that I went to college with and his friends. What do they do? Private equity, hedge funds, whatever. I was just like, ‘Good job, guys.’”

The pair had come to Hermès that afternoon to browse the store’s collection of designer horse saddles, not ties.

“I saw some dude fondling his new tie the other day on Broadway,” noted Ms. Ward. “Except he had taken it out of a Century 21 bag! Sign of the times.”

OVER THE NEXT several days, I periodically dropped by Hermès to check on the status of the volatile tie market, oftentimes as the only potential customer. Occasionally, others would stroll into the store, look around briefly and then exit. Rarely would someone walk out with one of the store’s trademark orange shopping bags.

For nearly a half-hour last Thursday afternoon, an employee with a stepladder cleaned out the crevices of the storefront’s ornate metallic door frame, without having to stand aside for a single patron.

The store always seemed busiest when stocks were rallying across the street—an observation echoed by the company CEO, Mr. Chavez, in an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box last November.

“Sometimes if he can’t get time to read about the market, he’ll go down to the Wall Street store during the lunch hour, and if the store is busy, then he’ll know that the market’s doing well,” noted Bernice Kwok-Gabel, a spokeswoman for Hermès USA. “But if it’s quiet during lunchtime, he knows the market’s not doing well.”

Hermès’ foot traffic isn’t always an accurate indicator of the broader economy.

Just before the closing bell last Thursday, as the Dow edged up some 400 points on the day, a balding guy in a pinstriped suit and leather briefcase—the spitting image of Hermès’ target demographic—came hustling down the sidewalk past the storefront. For a brief moment, he turned his head to peer inside at the ties, then kept on walking.

Ms. Kwok-Gabel of Hermès described sales at the store as “stable” since Sept. 15.

Displayed prominently throughout the tumultuous week was a sleek black tie emblazoned with an ominous gray storm cloud shedding raindrops.

“It’s called a mood tie,” said Daniel, a tall, handsome Hermès salesman with wavy dark hair and glasses, who added that it was the store’s last piece of cloudy neckwear left. On the back of the tie, he pointed out, was a tiny cartoon character stomping his hat in disgust.

Even amid the week’s dire economic outlook, the symbolically gloomy tie didn’t budge from the rack.

“People are trying to be more optimistic,” noted store manager Linda Mendell around noon on Monday, amid another slow lunch hour at Hermès.

The prophetic neckwear’s alter ego, a navy tie with yellow rays of sunshine, had no takers, either.

And so the economic uncertainty continued, as the Dow dropped yet another 372 points that afternoon.

Even less chichi tie-sellers were feeling the financial impact.

Hawking purported designer ties, with labels including Bill Blass and Perry Ellis, for just $1 to $2 apiece, sidewalk vendor Felix Jones described business as “slow” shortly after the closing bell on Monday.

“At this time, I usually have $200 to $300—I’m only at $75,” he said. “It’s usually a swamp of people out here. Not now.”

The Tie Jones Average