It’s been so long since I experienced bespoke clothing for the first time, or indeed most of the luxury, craft-based things I write about, that I find it interesting when friends do so for the first time.
Each finds pleasure, or value, in different things, and their experiences help validate my continuing recommendations – or perhaps reminds me what a newcomer’s priorities should be.
I’ve been encouraging one friend, R, to spend more on clothes for a long time. He earns enough money to buy entry-level bespoke, or good Northampton shoes, but never used to. Like many men, he splashed out on travel, technology or food instead. That has gradually changed, and I found it particularly interesting which of my recommendations stuck.
1. Good shoes
The biggest success. Good shoes do last longer and should be more comfortable, but really the benefit is aesthetic. They look a hell of a lot nicer when polished. (If you’re not going to look after them there’s almost no point.)
R upgraded from £100 shoes to Crockett & Jones, and now to Edward Green. For him, the big surprise was how much pleasure he got out of shoes that look good. The upgrade to Green was largely about aesthetics, but it was worth it. Coupled with this was the fact that shoes actually get better with age, which few other things do.
2. Bespoke suit
The least successful. Although the first bespoke suit, from Graham Browne, did fit well, R missed the design aspect of branded RTW suits. The fact that the next suit would also fit better was a little off-putting. It’s a lot of money for something that isn’t perfect. For me, this is a binary thing – you either get bitten by the bespoke bug (the choice, the process) or you don’t.
3 Fountain pen
A big success. Writing with a good fountain pen after years of biros is huge pleasure – perhaps the most sensual pleasure of any men’s clothing or accessory (only fragrance is close). Like many nice accessories, there’s also a pleasing ritual – filling the pen, putting it away in the desk in the same place at the end of the day.
4 Shoe horn
Also a success, and one that surprised me. A 14-inch buffalo shoe horn, it is a lovely thing but without the obvious appeal of other recommendations. It has the same sense of ritual, however – you use it in the morning every day, to put on those shoes you are taking care of, and there are very few men’s accessories you handle so often.
5 Raw denim
R bought raw denim jeans from Albam. As someone who is sceptical about spending money on clothes, something that is physically uncomfortable was not an easy sell. But they’ve gone down very well, due to the way they adapt to the body. Like shoes, they also get better with age.
Finally, shirts have never been upgraded. Given last week’s shirt piece, it should be obvious why. There is much less value in bespoke – all you really need is something that fits well. R may try getting a tailor to put darts in his existing shirts.
If there is one consistent theme to all this, it is how things age. It’s obviously a theme I’ve covered a lot, but it has an immediate, tactile appeal to men that is also easy to communicate. As always, interested to hear anyone else’s experiences.
Pictured: raw jeans being made at Levi’s
The simplicity of classic wedding attire – in colour, in pattern, in tone – is a reflection of respect for the importance of the event. Business attire, once-upon-a-time, was similarly restrained; but while I can see the argument for relaxing clothing around the office, some formality should be kept for weddings, funerals and other one-off events.
The nice thing about a wedding is that, unlike a funeral, the classic combination is also light and joyful, with a good deal of style to the monotone mixing of whites, greys and miniature patterns. You can see similar examples in the old images produced in linked posts below.
The ‘wedding tie’ is usually a Macclesfield: woven black and white silk that produces a small repeated pattern and, overall, the impression of a pale or mid-grey. The suit can be grey or blue, but is perhaps most stylish in a similarly mid- to pale-grey, with the background details of white shirt and white linen handkerchief.
In the case of the outfit above, at my sister’s wedding earlier in the summer, the seriousness is leavened slightly by the replacement of a boutonniere lost during the day with a paper cocktail stirrer. Still, the pink works rather well.
Photography: Cotton Candy (as always, click on images to enlarge)
I believe that I’ve read every post you’ve written about shirts. Italian, Spanish, British, even the one on Charvet in How To Spend It. I’m always looking for the same thing but still haven’t found it. Maybe I missed one, maybe I didn’t.
What makes a quality shirt? Not fit, but the construction specifications that make quality. Are collars and cuffs fused or how are they supposed to be made? What parts need to be hand stitched? What are the materias that get used to make a quality shirt? How does a quality shirt manage to hide the top button flap underneath the tie knot (poor quality shirts always seem to show some cloth and don’t allow the tie to sit between both sides of the collar).
I really hope you can help me with this because I’ve been puzzled by what makes a quality shirt for a long time and haven’t found any proper answers yet. Anywhere.
It’s a good question, and the reason you haven’t found much so far is that there isn’t that much to say – at least not compared to a suit. Here’s a list of the many things that don’t make a difference to quality, and those that do.
- Material: material doesn’t really matter, but it’s what you pay for in many luxury shirts. There is little benefit in terms of comfort, and what you are paying for is usually a finer (thinner) cotton, which makes it lighter on the skin but also more delicate (like big Super-number suitings). It can also give the cotton a sheen that is rather showy.
- Buttons: mother of pearl is nice, and certainly preferable to plastic. But where that mother of pearl comes from is pretty irrelevant, and more expensive ones just tend to be chunkier, which again is rather showy.
- Machine stitching: some shirts have more stitches to the inch. This is certainly better, but it makes little difference to longevity. If looked after properly, even cheap shirts can last you 10 years or more.
- Closeness of stitching: Fine French side seams, with the material folded over three times and then sewn together very closely, are to some extent a sign of quality. It certainly looks neater; but who do you know who has had their side seam rip open? (Same goes for single-needle stitching.)
- Gussets: the little bits that end the side seam, stopping it coming apart. As above.
- Off-set side seams: when the side seam and the sleeve seam don’t line up, because the sleeve has been turned to change the pitch. This certainly has a functional advantage, but I’ve worn both and never noticed a difference in look or comfort.
- Pleats up the sleeve: when you attach a cuff to the sleeve, there is excess that must be taken in somewhere. You can do this through a number of pleats, or in constant gathering like the Neapolitans do. The latter is harder, but in no way better and too effeminate for some. There is an argument that pleats can through fullness into the right places – perhaps around the elbow, where you need room – but it’s very minor.
- Aesthetic hand-sewing: hand-sewn buttonholes; hand-sewn buttons; hand-sewn side seams; hand-finished bottom hems; hand-attached plackets, etc. Some are purely aesthetic, some claim to be functional. Only pay for them if you want the aesthetics.
- Fit, as you mentioned
- Style, which is largely the collar length, shape etc, and highly personal
- Functional hand-sewing: having the collar and sleeve attached by hand. It gives a natural roundness to both, which is particularly useful with the collar, and a softness to the seams that is one of the first things people comment on when they have a handmade shirt. The softness is mostly due to the increased width of those seams
- Fused/floating collars: this is a personal choice, but it is one of the most fundamental aspects of a shirt’s construction. Floating collars take more time, and for that reason are often held up as a sign of quality. I find them uncomfortable when buttoned and too ready to collapse when open. A good fused collar will not bubble when wet, or in any other way age badly. It is more likely to require collar stiffeners when worn buttoned.
- General care: a lot of the details in the first section above are used as short-hand for the general care that has been taken in the making of the shirt. Care is important. If buying a brand for the first time, there may be weaknesses in the way the shirt is sewn that you can’t see easily – such as the way the thread is knotted off after a button is sewn on. But then again, a manufacturer may also add fancy gussets and so on in order to distract from all the shortcuts he has taken elsewhere.
Buy shirts for their fit, then their style, then functional hand-sewing. And look after them. Don’t dry clean; hang dry; tackle stains quickly. Most shirts get stained long before their side seams rip.
Image courtesy of Drake’s
Johnston’s is one of Scotland’s best-known and oldest knitwear companies. Most of its production is for third parties – it is the preferred supplier to several of the biggest men’s luxury brands. But it also produces under its own name, which you can buy online as well as department stores.
Like many such manufacturers, it has struggled a little bit over the years to get that balance right – at a certain point, the branded goods can start undermining the white-label. Today, the balance sits at a comfortable 30% branded, with plans to only grow that slowly. Unlike others at the top of their industries, such as Bresciani socks or Drake’s ties, there is no rush to chase the higher-margin, but more more risky retail business.
“We’re comfortable with that split, and it’s easier to maintain with knitwear than other goods,” says Graham Wilson, sales director at Johnstons. “There is less emphasis on design than with accessories, for example, so we can produce fairly plain branded products that are sufficiently different from the third-party production.”
Interestingly, Graham points out that the difference between levels of production is mostly in the finishing, rather than raw product. While we as consumers tend to focus on lambswool, merino, and cashmere the bigger differentiator is actually the way different products are washed and teaseled. “That’s a huge side of the business, and where a lot of the investment and innovation is,” he says.
Johnstons has been owned by the same family going back to 1797 (the Johnston name was lost at one point through marriage – the current owners are Urquharts). Graham’s parents also both worked in the knitwear industry before him, and he has worked in various parts of the Johnston’s business. The company has a knitted operation in Hawick and weaving in Elgin - something that is convenient when there is a lot of cashmere around to do something with. “When we can’t use all of the material often there is a use for in it Elgin, although knitting is generally harder. You need far greater variety of yarn and colour,” he says.
Johnston’s has an impressively complete archive and, like many heritage companies, has turned its attention to it more in recent years. Expect details after a site visit later in the year. “The fabric books and the receipts are something special,” says Graham. “You can see the first purchases by Brooks Brothers when they started, or by Burberry.”
Photography: Luke Carby
Following a request on last week’s Finagon post – the cardigan we created with John Smedley – here are some details on the rest of the outfit, above.
One reader drew attention to the shirt collar, a button-down made by Satriano Cinque, the Neapolitan maker I use for most of my shirts. I think I’ve mentioned before that this is a design I created with the cutter, Luca, which involved moving the buttons that secure the collar a couple of millimetres higher. This gives the collar more roll, forcing it to curve outwards as its reach down the shirt is reduced.
The biggest advantage of the design is that this roll remains when the shirt is worn with a tie. All too often a button-down lies flat when fastened under a tie, creating an unattractive, short point. This collar is also slightly higher than most RTW buttondowns.
The shirt could be blue or white, but white is smarter and helps to create contrast. Elsewhere, we’re working with pretty standard menswear colours. Navy is the most versatile colour for knitwear and suiting (indeed almost anything apart from shoes, shirts and hats). And tan is among the most versatile for casual trousers.
A reader requested more suggestions for outfits like this, that are formal enough for the office but fall between suit/tie and T-shirt/jeans. For me, the most important things here are fit and colour. Stick with a simple palette and pay attention to fit – a suit is flattering and formal because of the way it fits, as well as its worsted surface.
The trousers are not actually Incotex, as mentioned on that earlier post (apologies) but a substantial cotton-twill from Panta Clothing. I haven’t written about Panta for a few years, but they’re worth considering for RTW trousers with an eye to bespoke detail. I particularly like these for the side tab sitting on the seam, not the waistband. The heavier cloth also makes them easier to wear with casual clothing.
The shoes are unlined Edward Green loafers.
For anyone who missed the Finagon posts, you can see more details on our perfect cardigan here. The model is not limited, but Permanent Style readers get free shipping for another three weeks. And midnight (worn above) is still available in all sizes!
Photo: Luke Carby