Imagine the headache of having to choose from among 2,000 items of clothing. Stephen Hoare, a tie fanatic, faces that problem every morning. Last Tuesday he made it worse, by going to the opening of an exhibition, The Tie as Art.

After admiring the work of more than a dozen designers, and some personal collections, he bought two more ties. One, showing a fish being hooked by a cat, is to wear at his wedding. It was designed by Vicky Richards, who recently gave one of her ties to Gianni Versace at a book signing. (He said it was 'fun'.)

According to Mr Hoare, 'English tie design is experiencing a resurgence.' The tie, he believes, is 'the last bastion of English eccentricity'. It is the most obvious form of self-expression for traditionally well-dressed men. The exhibition, mounted by Susannah Cartwright and Gill Davidson, treats the tie as portable art and shows a range of designs both traditional and avant-garde. It also displays small collections from such personalities as Jon Snow, Paul Smith, Des O'Connor, Bob Holness and Roy Hudd.

Most collections grow by accident. Simon Albury, a television publicist, has been collecting ties since 1963. One of his first was bought in New York in the Sixties. 'It was a yellowy, flowery thing, made out of polyester, that a Fifties gangster might have worn,' he says. He now has about 100 ties, and a selection appears in the exhibition

Mr Albury says of his ties: 'They're a way of speaking. I'm quite an exuberant person so I wear exuberant ties. I'm also large, so I wear large ties.'

He is not interested in designer labels. His key criterion when buying ties is that they shouldn't cost too much. His working ties, though purchased in upmarket Jermyn Street, are found in sales.

One of his favourites ties (it is in the exhibition) is a pink-and- blue design he bought for pounds 4 in Oxford Street: he has had it renovated by a tailor, because he wore it so much that it fell apart. Another tie was given to him by a man he saw in a restaurant. 'I asked him where he bought his tie. He said it was from Germany, and he took it off and gave it to me. So I gave him mine.'

Mr Albury's collection also reflects his interest in pop art: the Roy Lichtenstein-like bathing- belle is in the show. He bought it, along with a red tie with a cello print, in a shop off Carnaby Street. It was only later that he realised the 'strange, Hasidic- looking chap' who served him was Boy George.

But Mr Albury's top favourite is not in the show: he could not bear to be parted from his Andy Warhol-style flower-print tie. It brightens his days: 'It's a sunny print and on a sunny day, people sitting on pavement cafes smile and comment as I walk past.'

Another collector, the Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow (voted 1992 Tie Man of the Year), has six ties in the show, five of them designed by Susannah Cartwright - who wrote to him after seeing him wearing one of her ties on television. Since then he has bought direct from her. He wears 50 ties in rotation, never putting on the same one twice in a three- week period. He offers surplus ties for charity auctions.

Mr Snow first broke away from traditional ties about three years ago when his news programme was redesigned, 'because I became the most boring thing on it'. Now he has learnt exactly what will work on television. His ties are abstract: he cannot wear anything specific in case it jars with the news he is reading.

Stephen Hoare, whose collection of 2,000 includes demob ties, 10 ties from the 1953 Coronation and one with Sputniks painted on it, says: 'A tie collection is your own private gallery.'

The mark of a really good tie, he says, is that it should be 'soft and tactile, and hang floppy around your neck, like a dead cat'.

Mr Snow offers a marginally less surprising analysis. 'Ties are a science and an art,' he says. 'They give our sex something to play with.'

'The Tie as Art' is at the Alternative Art Galleries, 22 Chiltern Street, London W1, until 21 July, Mon-Sat 11am-6pm, Thurs 11am-8pm. Susannah Cartwright's ties start at pounds 20. For information, ring Susannah Cartwright on 071-935 6192.

(Photograph omitted)