Featured in St. Louis Post Dispatch

Made in St. Louis: Needlepoint belts looking to shake their preppy past

by Debra D. Bass St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jan. 20, 2017

Founders • Patrick O’Hara, Stephanie Zipp and Jonathan Woo
Age • Woo is 29; O’Hara and Zipp are 28
Home • Woo lives in the Central West End, and both Zipp and O’Hara are in Chicago
What they make • Needlepoint belts
How to buy • There are three styles currently available for $95 at shopneverback.com. A St. Louis-themed belt is in the works for spring.

Social lubricant • Stephanie Zipp explained that one of the best selling points is the fact that their belts are conversation starters. Patrick O’Hara grew up wearing preppy needlepoint belts, so he knew the appeal of having other people comment on the accessory. He got the idea to bring the stereotypically East Coast country club look to the Midwest. Zipp said that they decided to design a few for the everyman —and everywoman; she also wears the belts. “It really is a social lubricant. The belts tell a story and people want to talk to you about them,” Zipp said. Since the company launched in April, she said that she’s been shocked by the level of support from the golf community and others looking to make a statement in their style.

Old Glory • So far the company makes three belts with an “old school” leather backing, including an American flag belt called Old Glory. Another features nautical flags as a tribute to one way people communicated before cellphones (the belt’s flags spell out “From Sea to Shining Sea”), and a golf belt pays homage to Jack Nicklaus and is called “The Golden Bear” with an alternating design of golf balls, clubs and flags. “So many belts are black or brown, so I automatically get a lot of interest when I wear one,” Jonathan Woo said. Zipp added that “men only have a few accessories, you know, the belt, shoes, ties, watches, so this is an unexpected place to personalize your style.”

Reformed preppy • OK, it’s going to be hard for these colorful belts that seem to be screaming for a pastel Polo shirt to leave their preppy past behind, but Zipp said that they’re trying. “We really did make them with a Midwest mentality as an opportunity to enhance a laid-back, casual style and attitude that’s not high brow.” She said that it’s a look that could fit in anywhere, and soon they’ll expand their offerings to maybe mix in symbols and patterns with less country club homages, such as geometric shapes, pin dots and stripes, “you know, so it’s not just flags and golf balls and feels more urban,” Zipp said. “Yeah, hopefully that gets us out of the golf look.”

One look back • The name, Never Back, is taken from a Henry David Thoreau quote, “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” The trio said that’s why they are focused on modernizing the look of the hand-stitched belts. Zipp said that symbols have always been a strong part of our culture and today is no different. “Just look at how millennials communicate with emojis. Why should it be any different with your wardrobe? … Fun belt options are scarce.” O’Hara still has belts handmade by his grandmother or mom that have personal themes, including a tribute to his hometown, another to his college, and a few other one-of-a-kind belts. But to keep costs reasonable, the company can’t rely on handmade belts, so they work with a factory overseas. “We hope that one day we’ll be able to bring some part of the production here to the (United States), that’s obviously going to be a goal,” Zipp said.

Friends forever • The trio have been fast friends since they were teenagers. “We all have an entrepreneurial” spirit, said Zipp. She met Woo and O’Hara at Maine South High school in Park Ridge, Ill. But Woo and O’Hara, who is originally from St. Louis, have been soccer-playing friends since middle school. Each went to a different college but remained friends. Zipp majored in communications and public relations at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Woo studied finance at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and later graduated from Washington University. O’Hara went to Indiana University to study business and finance.

What’s ahead • The trio is considering working on dog collars and products specifically for women, including thinner designs or other accessories. They’ve starting experimenting with initials and monogramming. “That would make it very giftable. We’ve already had someone order nine belts for his groomsmen. That was awesome,” Zipp said.

Jonathan WooComment