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Buttoned Up

While They Don't Come Cheap, Custom-Fit Shirts Can Be a Bargain

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The other day, to give you an instance, I asked Atam Sahmanian of Paris Custom Shirtmakers Inc., about his more prominent customers. "Well, we do have a number of prestigious customers--names I wouldn't want to mention, of course," he diplomatically mused, "but I can tell you that we have a customer who buys 400 shirts every year. I believe he changes his shirt three or four times a day."

Not up to Wall's standards perhaps--he regularly changed his outfit completely six times a day--but not bad. Since Paris charges from $165 to $300 for a shirt, I'll leave you to figure out the sum totals.

The majority of custom-clothing customers are, however, simply men who want a decent wardrobe of well-fitting clothes. They are also men who understand that quality is the best bargain. Quality clothing looks good even when old, while cheap clothes look cheap even when new. A good shirt, properly cared for, can have a life 10 times longer than an ordinary one. Superior shirtmakers still offer hand-laundry service and craftsmanship repairs, and change frayed collars and cuffs for new ones. And a well-fitted shirt is simply more comfortable.

There are several points to consider when buying a good shirt. Start with fabric. Superior cotton, regardless of the type of weave, should always be "two-ply" (2X2), meaning that two yarns have been woven together with two yarns, rather than single yarn. This obviously gives better strength and durability. Now look at thread count (per square inch) of the fabric, called in the trade "denier." The denier of good shirting is 100 or better; the higher the count, the finer the fabric. If the poplin you're looking at is a 140s 2X2, for example, you've got some very nice shirting there. The finer the cotton, the silkier the feel and luster.

Next, consider the pattern. Custom craftsmanship means that an individual paper pattern is created for the exclusive use of the individual customer. This pattern is kept on file against future orders, which means that customers can order new shirts without revisiting the shop, and many do in fact simply phone or fax orders.

The next concern is general construction. Shirt seams have always been done on a sewing machine, and handwork is reserved for setting collars and buttonholes. (Today, in fact, there are machines that arguably sew a buttonhole as well as by hand, so it's not a question of machinery being used--but of how it's used.) Careful seam sewing is single-needle sewing--meaning up one side of the seam and down the other with the same needle--to prevent puckering. Stitches should be small and uniform; better shirtmakers use 20 stitches to the inch or better.

Buttons should be pearl; mother-of-pearl, shell pearl or whatever else they're called, pearl is what is wanted. Not only for the rich look of pearl, but for its toughness. The world here is divided between those who like single (regular) thickness in their buttons and those who prefer double thickness. It is more a matter of taste than anything, although some argue that it is harder for laundries to break the thicker button. The solution is not to change buttons, but laundries.

When it comes to measurements, every shirtmaker will have his own method, but there are a number of crucial numbers. Collars have fronts and backs--since the nape and throat of the neck present different problems--and each must be considered in terms of height, for the sake of comfort and appearance, as well as simple preference. Then the circumference: it's not that this is a difficult measurement per se, but rather again of what looks and feels best.

Then the body of the shirt, working from the top down: width from shoulder point to shoulder point, chest circumference under the arms, chest over the arms at widest point (around the triceps), waist, hips and finally the length preferred (measured from the collar seam to bottom hem).

Sleeves are measured separately, from mid-back to wrist bone; wrists are also measured separately, and account should be made for a thick wristwatch. The interesting thing about sleeves is that they should ideally be an inch or so longer than the actual measurement: the reason is that, if the wrist measurement is done properly, the cuff will sit snug to the wrist and not fall over the hand, while the sleeve itself will have a slight blouse to it that will allow the sleeve to lengthen when the arm moves. In other words, there should be some built-in "give" to the sleeve.

Styling should be preference based on propriety. The simple rule about collars is: the larger the head and neck, the larger the collar. That being a given, we are thrown back on taste and propriety. Half-a-dozen collar styles traditionally have been deemed appropriate to business shirts. From the most casual to the most formal they are: button-down, club, tab (and its variation, the pin), standard or long point, curved, spread and cutaway. Other styles are personal variations. What a custom shirtmaker will be interested in is, if a spread collar is desired, how spread should it be, and how long should the points of the collar be? This is where the give-and-take of discussion with an expert pays off seriously.

Body and sleeve styling are usually a matter of a few simple details. Bottom hems can be curved or straight (usually with side notches); front plackets can be simply turned under or seamed; cuffs can be of the single (barrel) variety or double (French), with several options for each. Good shirtmakers put a button (with a horizontal buttonhole) on the sleeve placket.

Finally, to monogram or not to monogram. Not a pressing issue of the age, but a civilized touch. When they are desired, monograms should be discreetly hand-embroidered on the center top of the pocket if there is a pocket, or slightly below mid-point on the left side of the chest if there is not. A monogram on the left forearm of the sleeve is a more rarefied site.

Where to go? There is, of course, London's Turnbull & Asser, Paris' Charvet and Hong Kong's Takly. But it's not necessary to travel outside the United States to find the loftier levels of the art. Our recommendations follow.


Ascot Chang
7 West 57th Street, New York 10020 (212)759-3333

"We don't prescribe any collar style here," says manager Thomas Yu. "It's not a matter of fashion with us, but what's right for the customer. We build the collar to the customer's individual needs." The firm will even copy the collar of a favorite shirt.

What is fashionable here at the moment are the colors: deep, intense French blues predominate, with "shockingly strong earth tones" (such as terra cotta, grass, lemon, slate, etc.) in an abundant variety of fabrics from end-on-ends and chambrays to silky Egyptian broadcloths and sea islands. More than 2,500 fabric selections are available.

"We put great emphasis," informs Yu, "not only on getting the collar right, but on what we like to call 'body reading': getting the proper shape to the body of the shirt. Our trained fitters consider this something of an art as well as a science. The tape measure can give correct measurements, but only the trained eye can access the perfect silhouette and line of a garment."

Most of Ascot Chang's regulars--about 75 percent of them--prefer button cuffs, which gives them the opportunity to show off the elegant double-thick shell pearl buttons (single thickness if you prefer, of course).

The firm would like a month or so to complete an order (four-shirt minimum). Prices for cotton shirts start at $90 and end at around $500, silk at $130 to $450, tuxedo shirts from $210 to $800.

Geneva Custom Shirts Ltd.
38 West 32nd Street, New York 10001 (212)967-7460

Mike Athanasatos is the amiable and understanding proprietor of Geneva. Nothing is too much trouble for him to make you look as you feel you ought. It is a family business--son Eugene, now at Pace University, will become the business manager upon graduation--that treats you like family.

"Mr. Mike" not only meticulously handcrafts every shirt right there in the shop--you can watch your shirt moving from artisan to artisan as it is finished--but also provides complete laundry and repair service. Even this aspect deserves notice. The shirts are gently washed, hung to drip dry (a dryer would be unthinkable!), then hand-ironed. Customers from all over the country, even his European ones, regularly send their Geneva shirts back to this atelier to be laundered.

The complete custom operation begins with precise fitting and fabric selection from the finest that Italy, England, France and Switzerland have to offer. Particularly prized here is the rare Zendaline cotton, considered the best available: a luxurious 2X2 180s (priced at $225). Fabrics are laundered before they are sewn for a more precise fitting. The first shirt is ready for a fitting in one week to 10 days. Corrections noted, the order (minimum of six first time around) is completed in three weeks.

All the signs of the true art are here: superior Swiss linings, Italian pearl buttons, 22 stitches per inch of single-needle sewing, monograms hand-embroidered. It's no secret that Geneva makes shirts for not a few of the most prestigious retailers and private tailors in the country, as well as a number of high-wattage gentlemen from Paul Newman and Colin Powell to former President Ronald Reagan, Tom Brokaw and basketball superstar Patrick Ewing (who has a 44-inch sleeve measurement). We refrain from revealing the name of the chap who stopped by a while ago and ordered 350 shirts.

Business shirts start at $170, evening shirts at $195.

Alexander Kabbaz
903 Madison Avenue, New York 10021 (212)861-7700

"We try to keep to the Old World traditions here and look for lifelong relationships," says the erudite Alex Kabbaz. Which means that fathers still bring their sons around to introduce them to the craftsmanship of a handmade shirt.

In that tradition, Kabbaz endeavors to please the customer, from the conservative requests of the Rockefellers to the slightly more Edwardian flights of Tom Wolfe. Styling is limited only by the customer's imagination.

"We made dozens of formal shirts for Leonard Bernstein, who went through four or five every time he conducted. He wanted something as lightweight as possible, so I suggested making them with an open back. He was delighted."

As it happens, evening shirts are something of a specialty here--accounting for one out of 15 shirts made--and Kabbaz has the most outstanding collection of bib fronts, more than 150 models.

If necessary, he has been known to meet a customer at 8 a.m., have a sample shirt ready for try-on by 4 p.m. the same day, produce the finished shirt by noon the following day for a final try-on, and make any final adjustments so the shirt can be picked up or mailed the following morning--from start to finish in 48 hours.

Normally, he would prefer three try-ons over a four-week period. It would seem that customers might conceivably take that long to pick their fabrics, since Kabbaz has more than 3,100 fabrics in stock at any one time--broadcloths, voiles, poplins, oxfords, piques and twills predominating.

The price of these fine cottons (and some silks, although one gets the impression Alex Kabbaz considers cottons to be the true m├ętier of a shirtmaker), are based on thread count: the general range is from $325 to the Swiss 200 denier broadcloth at $475, but one can go higher with silks.

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