A view of the 21st century? Bespoke tailor Leonard Logsdail conducts a fitting over Skype.
“I would love everybody to be able to buy beautiful bespoke clothes, believe me. But that’s just not realistic. These posts on here often going on about full canvas this and that, just put undue pressure on young people on StyleForum with its young demographic. I remember being 19 looking at GQ and it had an article about things you need to be a man, one of them was a suit that’s made for you bespoke. At the time I was sort of like ‘whoa really?’ It’s the male equivalent of thigh gap.”— Bespoke tailor David Reeves
“Keith and I would sell and fit all at the same time. We had an ashtray into which we would scrape our chalk dust when we sharpened them. We could have made a fortune. So many of these guys, who were so used to seeing cocaine in piles, thought it was cocaine and wanted to buy a line!! The other comment we received was that we should hide it from the hotel staff as they would probably steal it. To them, this was clearly a common sight. It was crazy, it was fun and it was quite lucrative.”— Bespoke tailor Leonard Logsdail, on his experience fitting Wall Street guys in the 1980s.
The Sports Coat Derby
The Kentucky Derby was this past weekend. This reminded me of another derby that readers here might be interested in - the London Lounge Sports Coat Derby, which has been happening for the last couple of years.
The London Lounge Sports Coat Derby is supposedly a “bespoke Masters competition,” but it’s really more of a showcase. Members post photos of themselves in custom sports coats made from London Lounge’s Shetland cloth. The idea is that by having members all employ the same cloth quality and design, their tailors’ talents can be isolated, studied, and compared.
Although it’s out of most people’s range to buy a few meters of London Lounge’s Shetland cloth and throw their hat into the ring, I thought it would be worthwhile to at least post photos from the competition. Men from Europe, Asia, and the United States have entered, and they’ve used their respective regional tailors. Studying each of these cuts is perhaps the best way to figure out what kind of silhouettes you like the most.
My favorite is in the first photo. This classically styled jacket has slightly extended shoulders and a fuller chest. The combination of these two things makes the wearer look more athletic and masculine. At the same time, the softer shoulders and three patch pockets give him a causal and relaxed look. Additionally, the front’s forequarters cut away a bit towards his hips, creating a pleasing line from the top of his lapels down to the hem. The gorge on the lapel also seems more classically placed - horizontally across from his shirt’s collar points. These days, it’s not uncommon to find gorges placed so high that they nearly sit on top of the wearer’s shoulders. Too distracting and extreme, at least to my mind.
Take a look through the photos and see what else you like. Exercises such as these can help you develop a critical eye for silhouettes, which in the end will allow you to better choose a style for yourself (bespoke or not).
As a note, check out the second photo, which shows a member named Costi wearing a tribute to the late sartorial Godfather, the Duke of Windsor. While it’s not something I think I could pull off, I got quite a smile out of seeing it.
The Custom Shirts Series, Part VI: How to Tell if a Shirt Is Well-Made
Whether you have something custom-made or buy ready-to-wear, it’s useful to know how to examine the quality of a shirt. How can you tell if a shirt is well-made?
There are the obvious dimensions. Fit is paramount, of course. Even if something was made with impeccable construction, if it doesn’t fit well, the fabric and sewing will mean little. Know what to look for when examining the fit.
There’s also the fabric. Generally speaking, two plys (or more) are be better than one. Fabrics woven on older, slower looms also tend to be more durable than those woven on faster, modern machines. Outside of that, much of the fabrics’ quality can be judged on how soft or luxurious it feels. Part III of this series covered some of those basic points.
In addition to the fit and fabric, you should also consider these three things:
Stitches per inch: Low-end shirts tend to be made with fewer stitches-per-inch than high-end shirts. That’s because the speed of a sewing machine is measured in stitches-per-minute. The fewer stitches a machine has to sew per inch, the faster it can go. Since poorly made shirts are banged out as fast as possible, they have lower stitch counts. These rougher looking stitches detract from the shirt’s durability and elegance.
It’s important to know how to examine this properly, however. On very high-end shirts, the number of stitches per inch can vary depending on where you’re looking. The collar and cuffs, for example, are meant to be replaced and refurbished over time, so they need to be attached with a lower stitch count in order to aid the disassembly process. The topstitching you see on them can also be made with a higher stitch count since the fused interlining can overpower any tendency for the thread to pucker.
One good place to look, then, are the side seams. If these are neatly and finely sewn, you’re likely to be holding something of decent quality. The picture you see above is a French single needle seam made with 22 stitches per inch, which is pretty good.
Pattern matching: If your shirt has checks or stripes, the pattern should match up well along the yoke, armhole, and placket. Pockets should also be aligned on the shirt according to their pattern. If you happen to be working with a lower-end shirtmaker, opt for solid colors, or at least forgo things such as split yokes and pockets. If you don’t, you might end up with something that looks like a patchwork quilt.
Single needle seams: The side seams on a shirt can be made with single or double needle stitching. Single needle is neater and cleaner because it leaves only one row of stitches visible from the outside. It also won’t pucker over time due to the thread and fabric reacting differently to washing. As you can probably guess, however, single needle stitching takes more time, and since time is money, cheaply made shirts will have double needle stitching (many of which will pucker right out of the box).
That more or less concludes the “how to” portion of this series. We’ve talked about fit, fabric, and where to get something made (both offline and online). Today, we’ve covered how to examine the quality of your shirt. That should more or less take you from start to finish if you’d like to get something custom made. Given that most dress shirts retail between $60 and $200, and rarely even fit well, getting something custom can be a good idea. Just make sure you have realistic expectations. Renowned operations such as Charvet and Turnbull & Asser will give you a better made, better fitting shirt, but they’re also more expensive. More affordable operations might not fit as well, but if you work with them over the course of two or three shirts, they can sometimes dial in on your pattern. If you can have a few made by a renowned house, you could also have the shirt copied by a lower-end operation. The construction won’t be as nice, but at least you’ll get the most important part right - the fit.
Later this week, we’ll close out the series with a very special interview with my favorite shirtmaker, Ascot Chang.
The Custom Shirt Series, Part IV: Where to Get a Custom Shirt
There are hundreds of places to get a custom shirt made. This week we’ll review some of them, starting with some of the traditional (and not so traditional) models for custom shirtmaking.
The Traditional Tailor
The most traditional way is going through a specialized custom shirtmaker. These include places such as Turnbull & Asser, Anna Matuozzo, and CEGO Custom Shirtmakers. What’s available to you depends on where you live, and if you search around StyleForum, you may find a number of recommendations.
There are a number of advantages to seeing a specialized tailor in person. For one, you’re more likely to get a bespoke and not made-to-measure service. This means that a specific paper pattern, from which your cloth will be cut, will be made for you. In made-to-measure models, a computer adjusts a pre-designed pattern to fit your measurements. Depending on your body type, bespoke may result in a better fit. Seeing a specialist also means the tailor can account for things not captured by simple measurements – things such as whether your shoulders curve or slope, what your natural stance is like, and whether you have protruding shoulder blades. Other shirtmakers mentioned in this series may be able to do these things for you, but your chances go up when you see a renowned specialist in the field (though, again, not everyone in this category can, so it’s best to inquire first).
I myself use Ascot Chang, and couldn’t recommend them more highly. Of all the custom shirtmakers I’ve gone to, none have made anything as cleanly, precisely, and consistently well fitting. In addition to the product, you’re also paying for their expertise and service. They can advise you on what cloths and collars suit you best, and once they make your order, they keep a stock of your shirting on hand so that they can make replacement collars and cuffs when you need them. If well taken care of, a custom Ascot Chang shirt can last for quite a long time.
The downside to these types of tailors is the price. Most shirts in this class start around $200, and there’s often a minimum first order of three to six shirts, depending on the tailor you use. At the same time, it’s important to note that these tend to be the best of the best. When compared to the price of high-end designer shirts – none of which will fit well – these represent an infinitely better value.
The Traveling Tailor Model
If you can’t go to a specialist, a specialist can come to you. A number of tailoring outfits travel around Europe and the United States in order to meet with clients. Such outfits include Napoli Su Misura, Dege & Skinner, and MyTailor. The upsides here are generally the same as the ones mentioned above (quality, fit, and service). The downside is that they can sometimes take longer to get your pattern right. With a traditional tailor, once you get your first shirt, you can take it home, wear and launder it a few times, and then bring it back so the tailor can see where adjustments need to be made. If your body changes over the course of time, your pattern can easily be adjusted as well. With a traveling tailor, you have to wait until they return, which sometimes isn’t for another four to six months. Still, if you’re not able to see a renowned specialist in your area, a traveling tailor is a good alternative.
The Hybrid Model
Lastly, we have J. Hilburn, which represents a sort of hybrid model. J. Hilburn has a number of regional representatives that meet with clients around the United States. These reps take clients’ measurements, walk them through the custom shirt ordering process, and deliver shirts to their home or office. I have a couple of shirts by Hilburn, and admit to being skeptical about the model at first. These aren’t people who have lifelong experiences in tailoring, after all. However, the woman who met me knew her stuff quite well and noted that everyone who works for the company gets trained in Texas.
The upside to J. Hilburn is that they have representatives in almost every city and they’re much more affordable. The starting price for a custom shirt here is about $90, which is about half of what a good tailor in the other categories will charge. The downside is that this is made-to-measure, so the fit won’t be as precise. My Hilburn shirts are just a touch tight in the chest and lower back, which makes the shirts a bit slimmer than I’d like. A friend of mine, The Silentist, also went to them, but found the shirt to be fuller than he’d like. Still, mine are perfectly serviceable, and although Hilburn offers to remake or alter any shirt that clients are unhappy with, I haven’t made a fuss about mine. Like with all made-to-measure clothing, I don’t expect the fit to be as good as bespoke; it’s simply meant to be decent enough for the price. To be sure, my Hilburn shirts certainly fit better than my off-the-rack garments, just not as well as Ascot Chang’s.
If you care to go with Hilburn, you can use my referral link to knock $50 off your first order (full disclosure: I get a small referral bonus). You can also learn more about them in an earlier post I wrote here.
The advantage of each of these models – the traditional, traveling, and J. Hilburn’s hybrid - is that you can see someone in person. This means being able to show someone how the first shirt fits on you, so that they can better make adjustments. It’s a mistake to think that you can figure this out on your own, or that you can turn to places such as StyleForum for “fit critiques.” How well a shirt fits is more nuanced and complicated than people give it credit for, and if you want something truly perfect, it’s best to see a specialist in person (particularly one who will make you a bespoke shirt). You can also rely on them for advice regarding collar and cuff styles, try on different collars (if they have samples you can see), and handle the fabric swatches in person.
On Wednesday, I’ll review some of the online custom shirtmakers, and talk about which I’ve had the best experiences with.
The Custom Shirts Series, Part III: A Quick Primer on Fabrics
The number of options available through a custom shirtmaker can be both a pleasure and a pain. Any good shirtmaker, for example, will have hundreds, if not thousands, of shirt fabrics. If you haven’t given it much thought before going in, you can easily be overwhelmed by the options. To know which you should choose, it helps to know a little about shirtings (fabrics used for shirts). Here are some basic terms:
Of course, there’s more to fabric than plys, yarn numbers, and thread counts. The real character is determined by how the yarns are woven together. These can be broadly classified in the following ways:
It’s worth noting that fabrics woven on old shuttle looms tend to be longer-lasting than ones woven on more modern machines. That’s because newer machines speed up the weaving process, and the faster you run the looms, the greater inherent tension there is in the yarns. On today’s super-high speed looms, the resulting yarns have many microscopic breaks all over them. As you wear and launder your shirt repeatedly, these breaks will worsen with time and your shirt will degrade more quickly. Thus, don’t go off of weaves and numbers alone. The quality of a cloth is heavily determined by which machines were used to make it as well.
Before you go into a custom shirt maker, think about the colors, designs, and functionalities you want. If you know you want a blue Bengal-striped shirt, for example, that will allow the shirtmaker to pull out some swatches for you to consider. You should also think about the weave you want. A densely woven broadcloth will be good for winter, when you need to retain heat. Oxfords, on the other hand, tend to have more open weaves, so they’re better for summer, when you need more breathable fabrics. Similarly, think about whether you want something with a smooth finish, like a plain weave poplin, or if you prefer end-on-ends and twills for slightly more textural interest. By considering these things before you to go the shirtmaker, you can more easily decide between fabrics when they’re placed in front of you.
Come back next week, when we’ll actually review some of the shirtmakers out there, and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each.
(Pictured above: Francesca Romana and some fine shirtings at Mimmo Siviglia’s store in Rome. You can read about Mr. Siviglia in my article at A Suitable Wardrobe. Also, this article owes itself to a primer written by Alexander Kabbaz, one of the leading experts on custom shirtmaking)
The Custom Shirts Series, Part II: How Should a Shirt Fit?
Most men can find a well-fitting shirt off the rack. The question is just how well fitting they want it. SpooPoker, a member at StyleForum, posted a photo of himself in his made-to-measure pink Charvet shirt some years ago. I think it’s a good example of what a truly well fitting shirt should look like. Let’s talk about each dimension of a shirt’s fit in turn:
Now, as to whether you need to go custom in order to achieve a good fit depends on how well off-the-rack shirts currently flatter you and how demanding your standards are. Most men will be fine with off-the-rack, and they can get an alterations tailor to nip the waist, slim the sleeves, and tighten the cuffs if they need to. However, it’s also quite common for men to have curved or sloping shoulders, which in turn gives them a slightly less clean look. If you want to solve those issues, sometimes a custom shirtmaker is the only way to go.
Whichever you choose - custom or off-the-rack - it’s worth emphasizing that your shirt should allow movement. Most men wear shirts that are too baggy; many wear them too tight. Getting the right fit is about finding that delicate balance between flattery and function. Your shirt should look nice even if you extend your arms or sit down, so don’t judge its fit by just how well it looks in front of the mirror. Take Spoo’s shirt above as an example. It’s neither baggy nor tight, so there aren’t excessive folds of cloth or pulling in the waist or chest areas. It fits cleanly, just as a truly well-fitting shirt should.
Check back tomorrow, when we’ll talk about shirt fabrics.
The Custom Shirt Series, Part I: Intro
I’ve been meaning to write a series on custom shirts for - oh, I don’t know - a year now? Well, I’ve finally gotten around to it. In the coming weeks, I have a seven-part series about where you can turn to have something custom-made, and how to approach the process the best you can.
To be sure, few men need custom shirts. Most will find that ready-to-wear will serve them just fine, so long as they have reasonable expectations for fit and quality. If they’re a bit more demanding, however, they may need to go custom. The problem with ready-to-wear shirts is that they’re designed to fit everyone, but no one in particular. Take, for example, the shoulders. Shoulders can curve forward or backward, and usually one will curve more than the other. They can also slope in asymmetric ways. These nuances have to be accounted for on a truly well fitting shirt. If your shoulders curve forward or slope down, your shirt’s yoke has to accommodate. If it doesn’t, you’ll get wrinkles and folds near the collarbone or rib cage.
In addition to the fit, there’s also the matter of whether your shirt flatters you. Having something custom made can mean choosing the exact collar style that complements your face every time. A man with a long, chiseled face is best served with a spread collar, while a man with a rounder face should choose longer, narrower collar points. It’s possible, of course, to find these things off-the-rack, but you often have to compromise on other dimensions if you demand a very specific collar style.
Another advantage to going custom is the wider selection of options that becomes available to you. Obviously, you can dictate things such as cuff styles and monograms, but the real upside is in the cloth selection. In almost any department store, you may find some oxford cloths or even a linen, but the majority of dress shirts will be broadcloths. Most of these will be single-ply 80s, and the rest will probably be two-ply 100s. These will be limited further by colors and designs.
At a good custom shirt maker, you’ll find almost every type of fabric you can imagine, in a variety of thread counts, plys, designs, and colors. These can be advantageous not only if you’re looking for a certain style of fabric, but also if you need something to fulfill a certain function. Shirts with slightly more open weaves, for example, are great for summer, but are rarely stocked by department stores.
The best part about all this is that custom shirts are often not that much more expensive than their ready-to-wear counterparts. The entry-level price for a decent custom shirt is somewhere around $80-100, which isn’t too far off from the $60-70 that most department stores charge. These days, I rarely buy a ready-to-wear shirt unless it’s on sale for less than $40.
In this coming series, I hope to acquaint you with the basics of how a shirt should fit, some design details you should consider, and how you can assess quality. I’ll also review a wide range of custom shirt makers that I’ve had experiences with, and publish an interview with Ascot Chang, one of my custom tailors of choice. There should be something for everyone. Even if you’re not interested in bespoke shirts, I think you’ll find certain segments to be very relevant for ready-to-wear purchases.
The first installment goes up Wednesday, and I hope you enjoy it.