Joel Walters wears a mustard yellow shirt, coffee brown pants rolled up mid-calf, and a dark green, thick bow tie with long ends.
He carries two shopping bags out of his bedroom his rugged past hiding inside them. They’re filled with something he wears almost every day.
Walters dumps the bags and over 50 bow ties pile onto his dining room table.
“I have more back at my mom’s house,” he says. “But these are the ones mostly from my collection.” The 22-year-old senior entrepreneurship major started his own bow tie company, Joel Franklin Co., a little over two months ago.
He’s getting ready to go film an interview for his YouTube channel as he explains the styles in his new collection. His roommate, FAU alumni Troy Pindell, walks out of his room wearing black basketball shorts, no shirt and a snow hat.
“It’s going to be very hard with Troy [Pindell] around,” Walters says. ”He tends to distract me a lot.”
Pindell casually strolls into the dining room past the display. “I’ve only made like two jokes in my head while you were explaining that,” he says.
Walters’ laughs, saying most of his friends joke and mess with him like Pindell does. But there are things in his past only his closest friends know, not even his mother.
When he designed this collection, he kept that in mind.
“My dad didn’t teach me how to tie a tie or a bow tie —the internet did.”
Walters bought his first car, a white 2001 Mitsubishi Galant, before he even had his drivers license.
As a freshman in high school, he saved his tips working at Steak and Shake in Coral Springs. “He used to work on the weekends,” his mother says. “Managers used to call me and ask if he could work until one or two in the morning.” If he didn’t have school early the next morning, Sandra Spencer usually said yes.
“The more I started to do on my own, like buy my own car, the less I had to really report to her,” Walters says. “And I kind of made my own maturity.”
Growing up without a father figure, Walters quickly learned to be more independent. “My dad didn’t teach me how to tie a tie or a bow tie,” he says. “The internet did.”
Spencer recalls when the family lived in the Bronx, New York City, N.Y. before moving to Florida. Her son was a bag boy at the store across the street from their home. It was his first job, and he was nine years old.
“He was always an ambitious child,” she says. “Anytime he made money, he was never selfish with it.”
Even today, he claims his biggest struggle is growing up without a father — ambition or not. “At home, my mom taught me some key values,” he says. “But certain values that a man should teach you, I never got that.”
Moving to Florida when Walters was in middle school didn’t help either. “I told him ‘look I know what you’re going through,’” his mother says. “I think he had a hard time processing his dad not being active in his life.”
Walters looked for other male figures to look up to, people like his neighborhood friends and his classmates.
But Spencer says he started acting out mostly because of his missing dad.
“That plays a major role in him getting into things,” she says. “Getting into trouble.”
“Breathe, stop stressing.”
Troy Pindell and America’s Next Top Model: British Invasion semi finalist, Annaliese Dayes, wait impatiently for Walters outside his house. She borrowed a heart shaped bow tie made of red silk from Walters and it rests under her chin.
They were supposed to film an interview for Walters’ company’s website and YouTube channel two hours ago. He’s still inside looking for his car keys. “As soon as he gets his life together, we’ll go,” Pindell jokes.
At the interview, Dayes plans to ask Walters about his company and have him explain to viewers how each bow tie in the collection represents an important point in his life. He calls it an evolution.
Five minutes later, he runs out of the house, keys and shattered iPhone in hand, and they’re off to FAU. The trio sets up chairs on the second floor of the College of Business. Walters forgets his video camera and has to drive back. Pindell and Dayes say this happens all the time. They look back on Walters’ fumbles while he’s gone, remembering his other ditzy moments, like leaving his car parked at FAU because he lost his keys — for four days.
Walters pulls into the parking lot a few minutes later. As he’s walking up the sidewalk, he sees Pindell through the window and shakes his head laughing.
“I hate you,” he mouths and Pindell laughs.
“This is what my friends do to me all the time,” Walters says. “You would think a guy in a bow tie — they would take me more seriously.”
Pindell sets up cameras for the interview. They’re finally ready, and Dayes adjusts her red bow tie before the camera starts rolling. Walters is nervous and keeps rehearsing what he’s going to say under his breath. He shuffles in his chair to keep from slouching and adjusts his clothes. “Breathe,” she tells him. “Stop stressing.”
After three takes, they start from the beginning once again. “I keep speaking with my hands,” Walters says. “And I have gum in my mouth.”
“He always does this,” Troy murmurs.
“You overanalyze this. There’s only so much you can control,” Dayes tells him. It takes six takes for Walters to approve.
“Done?” Dayes asks. “You look unsure.”
“Yeah,” he hesitates. “It’s good.”
“He sees something he wants to go after, and he goes after it.”
Al’s Tailors is tucked away in the back of a shopping plaza out of the public eye. The 40-year-old shop is mostly a small room with colorful spools of thread lining one white wall and six vintage sewing machines.
Soft spoken and carrying a Trinidadian accent, Michelle Francis owns the shop with her sister and makes all the bow ties in Walters’ collection. She keeps her heels next to her sewing machine for when she gets off work, but wears casual flip flops around the store.
Walters stands inside wearing a white button down, blue blazer and the same red heart shaped bow tie Dayes was wearing at the interview a few days before. Francis leans on the counter in front of him.
“First thing I liked about [Walters] is he’s a go getter,” she says. “He sees something he wants to go after, and he goes after it. That’s just like myself.”
Walters was on his way to see another seamstress in Boca, but took a wrong turn in the plaza. He noticed the shop, walked inside and met Francis. He had already seen seven seamstresses but chose Francis’ shop on the spot.
So far, she’s made over 30 bow ties for his website and each takes about 25 minutes to make. “The only thing I would really help him with is if the colors are going to clash,” she says.
“I don’t argue with her,” Walters says. “She’s always right.”
She holds up a lime green bow tie outlined with larger pink one that they disagreed on when making it. “I said ‘OK, I’ll do it my way and you do it your way and we’ll decide,’” she says.
Her work was better than what he already sold on his site, so he made the switch. Besides the ten styles Walters has on his website ranging from $35 to 50, buyers can custom design their own and transform regular, long ties into bow ties.
Walters says 10 percent of each bow tie he sells from September until March will go toward Relay for Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. But since October is breast cancer awareness month, 10 percent of this month’s proceeds will go to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. So far, he says he has raised $150 through sales and donations for Relay for Life and plans to donate in March at the annual walk here in Boca.
A little over a year after Walters was born, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor between his chest and his spleen. “That’s what really made me start doing community service,” he says. Too young for chemotherapy, Walters had the tumor removed and went through extra treatments until he was 8 years old.
Walters was in the fifth grade when Spencer got a phone call from his teacher. He and his classmates were making knives out of ballpoint pens, by taking the ink out and putting razors inside. Then one of his classmate’s got stabbed. The teacher told Spencer her son was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He was faced with a lot of challenges,” his mother, Spencer, says. “I wanted him to have a better life.”
After this, and seeing their middle class neighborhood grow with people Spencer didn’t want her kids around, the single mom packed up their home and moved the family to Florida. Walters was in eighth grade at the time.
“If I saw me four years ago, I would judge me completely.”
Four years ago on April 1, in a hidden alley off Hypoluxo Road near Boynton Beach, Walters and three of his friends brutally attacked a teenager who Walters claims sold one of his friends bad drugs. After allegedly hitting him and taking his money, the boys ran off and got into a car.
Minutes later, police cars caught up with them.
“They pulled us [out of the car] one by one, put shotguns to our head,” he says. “It was crazy.”
He never told his mother the true story of what happened that day. It wasn’t until the UP asked her about it a few weeks ago that she found out. “This is the first time i’m hearing of this,” she says. “He’s never told me about an arrest. I don’t know who bailed him out.”
Instead she remembers him getting into a neighborhood fight in his first years of high school and calling her from the hospital. “He was jumped by a group of boys,” Spencer says. “And he had to go to the hospital and had to get stitches. Again, him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“That’s the thing,” Walters says, the scar from the stitches still on his head. “There were a lot of different incidences.”
According to Florida Statute 943.0515, the police cannot release a minor’s history record for five years after they turn 19 years old when the record is expunged.
Walters, 17 years old, was released to go home that time in Boynton Beach. He caught a ride with a friend.
Unlike his put together look now, Spencer says her son would ask her to buy him baggy clothes, and they would argue about his pants being too low. “We first moved down here, and he wasn’t active anymore,” she says. “He gained weight and wore baggy Polos.”
Walters remembers rolling through the door the day of the arrest, his clothes dirty from the police roughing him up. This was after various incidents, like the one at the hospital, where Walters was fighting and getting in trouble. It was his last year of high school. At this point, it wasn’t a bow tie that made him want to turn his life around, but instead a look from his mother he will never forget.
After that, Walters came to FAU and made staying in Boca a priority. He got a job as a Resident Assistant, joined his fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, and studied abroad in London his summer of freshman year — anything except go home.
“The hardest thing was being taken seriously,” he says. “I saw people trying to bring me back to who I was, saying ‘You know you’re going to fight anyway.’”
Trading the baggy Polos for button downs, Walter focused on reinventing himself into a gentleman. He just needed something to tie it all together.
“If I saw me four years ago,” he says. “I would judge me completely.”
Still, to this day, he remembers the look painting his mother’s face.
“She wouldn’t yell at me, she didn’t cry, she just looked at me,” he says. “Horrible feeling.”
Tie it together
Walters sits on a New York train with his cousin Andrew Johnson, headed to SoHo. It’s the summer before his freshman year in college, and Johnson himself has already started his semester at New York University. Walters would return to Florida and start his first semester at FAU with bags of new cardigans and button downs from American Apparel.
Walters remembers a night where the two cousins were going out to meet some of Johnson’s college friends. As he got ready, Johnson casually handed Walters one of his bow ties. “He brought one and he was like, ‘Here try this on.’ And then I just,” he pauses and rubs his hand on his chin thoughtfully. “Never turned back.”