Off Your Back

Made-to-Measure Shirts Cater to Men Who Want a Streak of Perfection in their Wardrobes
By Ralph DiGennaro | From Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94
Off Your Back

Beware those who would surrender the shirt off their backs for friends...chances are the shirt isn't worth all that much to begin with. The sad truth is that there are good dress shirts and less-than-good dress shirts, at least as far as ready-made, or off-rack, department-store garments are concerned.

But for those with little tolerance for anything less than perfection on sartorial matters, there is the luxury of custom shirtmaking--an art, oddly enough, far from lost or dying in the modern world. Custom shirtmaking is alive and well in cities across the country, as style-conscious men insist upon having their fashion needs satisfied right down to the last detail.

If there isn't an individual shirtmaker in your city, one who adheres to the highest standards of workmanship and style, today you can get satisfaction in most major men's department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Saks and others. And, most major names in the shirtmaking business, such as London's Turnbull and Asser or Charvet from Paris, set up shop several days a year for their clients in top stores or hotels. The road-show shirtmaker is especially popular with some Hong Kong operations like C. Takly from the Hong Kong Hilton, who visits more than 20 cities around the country every year. Shirts take anywhere from six weeks to three months to make, depending on where your appointment falls in a shirtmaker's itinerary.

The reality is that shirtmakers seek out the discriminating man with a sense of fashion and give him the opportunity to have a piece of fabric draped around his torso that takes into account the one-inch elevation in his right shoulder, a 31-inch arm (try finding that size in a men's shirt department) or the bane of every middle-aged male, the expanding midriff.

Given its history, it is not all that surprising that more men are having their dress shirts custom-made, rather than suffering through the discomfort, approximate fit and generally poor quality of ready-made. What is surprising is that while shirts have been around for more than 1,500 years, manufacturers still haven't ironed out all the kinks.

The shirt as we know it actually began as underwear--a tunic really--as long ago as 400 A.D., when it was worn as a protective layer between a man's skin and his outer clothing. Extending above the neck and past the wrists, it was a safeguard against irritation from coarse woolens. It was not until the Middle Ages that the exposed, upper portion of the shirt began to be viewed as both decorative and fashionable.

Ultimately, the shirt came to be regarded as a garment that sartorially established one's wealth and social class, eventually leading to such flawed modern-day distinctions as white-collar versus blue-collar worker. Actually, the shirt has changed very little since medieval times. But while the shape and construction are basically the same, collars aside, the modern shirt is light-years beyond its ancestors in fit, style and price. As any man who has shopped lately for a high-quality, ready-made dress shirt will attest, dress-shirt prices have risen to considerable heights. And putting out as much as $150 for an item without exact sizing or nary a chance for a try-on seems to be a less-than-equitable proposition.

Today, there's a smaller price differential between ready-made and custom, or made-to-measure, dress shirts. This new development is also fueling the custom market. By the way, the essential difference between custom-made and ready-made shirts is that the former are made from an individually cut pattern while the latter are cut from commercial patterns in various chest sizes.

Certainly there are distinct advantages to the made-to-measure option: complete assurance of proper and comfortable fit before buying; wider choice of collar and cuff styles; broader selection of fabrics, patterns and colors; elegant, hand-sewn monograms (optional). Beyond the obvious other features such as hand-tailoring and quality detailing that the majority of ready-made-shirt manufacturers overlook--split-yoke back, button-through sleeve plackets, to name just a few--there is an intense pleasure that comes from fulfilling one's personal standards of style.

Most custom shirtmakers require a four-shirt minimum before taking an order, a prerequisite of little concern to such chief executives as Henry Kravitz, who, according to Thomas Yu, general manager of Ascot Chang in New York, orders his custom-made shirts 150 at a time.

"Many people might think that's outrageous, but it isn't," says Yu, whose customers include a lion's share of various industry moguls. "When you have five residences like many of our customers, that's only 30 shirts per house."

Ascot Chang, which has been in the custom-shirtmaking business since 1948, hand sews its shirts in Hong Kong almost exclusively, except for orders from special clients such as George Bush, Richard Nixon and various politicians. All Ascot Chang shirts that are custom-made for American presidents, senators and congressmen, even a few Democrats, says Yu, are made in the United States. Naturally.

Eight years ago, Ascot Chang established its New York headquarters in an attractive brownstone on 57th Street, where Yu says he can better serve customers. (There is also a shop in Beverly Hills, California, and two in Hong Kong.) An Ascot Chang custom shirt can cost from from $80 to $390, with a four-shirt minimum. With two fittings, the process takes about five weeks from initial fitting to final product. And apart from offering the widest range of collars a man could want, Ascot Chang will duplicate any style of shirt a man may already own.

Another popular custom shirtmaker is Mark Christopher, whose Wall Street location is well suited to the brisk trade this shop does with high-powered movers and shakers of finance. Mark Christopher's shirts range from $145 to $275, with a six-shirt minimum order required.

According to Mark Lingley, president and founder of the 12-year-old company, service as well as quality have been the keys to his success. Mark Christopher is unique in that the shirtmaker sends its fitters directly to the inner sanctums of these corporate executives, who need not even get out from behind their desks for a fitting.

"Our customers are very busy, with no time on their hands for shopping, but who insist on the very best in life," says Lingley. "They know well that the intrinsic value in a custom-made shirt is that it's an investment in their appearance and executive style. They would never settle for second best."

Traditionally, the best custom shirtmakers have been British, hailing from such London style epicenters as Savile Row and Jermyn Street. Fine-haberdasher aficionados know the names well: Turnbull and Asser, Hilditch and Key, Edward Sexton, Bowring and Arundel, New and Lingwood, and H. Huntsman and Sons, all of whom make two annual trips stateside to service their customers, usually out of hotel rooms in major cities. In some cases, these shirtmakers offer their shirts made-to-measure in better American men's stores as Bergdorf Goodman Men (which also handles Paris-based Charvet), Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus.

Updated traditionalist men's clothiers such as Paul Stuart, Brooks Brothers, J. Press and Tripler also offer their own custom, made-to-measure shirts. And Robert Talbott, arguably the finest shirt manufacturer in the United States, offers shirts made-to-measure from its new Madison Avenue boutique in New York.

While store-bought dress shirts come with only two basic measurements--neck size and averaged sleeve length, a custom shirtmaker will usually take at least 10 basic measurements and in some cases as many as 30. Any man in search of a made-to-measure shirt should expect these measurements to be taken, and if they aren't, should question the quality of the shirt he's getting.

Measurements include:

Weight: Most custom shirtmakers record a man's weight for their files, so that when the client reorders, the shirtmaker will know whether new measurements need to be taken.

Shoulder Line: Shoulder shapes vary from square to rounded to sloping, which must be accounted for if the shirt is to fit comfortably and allow for easy movement without putting undue stress on the top shoulder seams.

Chest: The client is measured completely around the chest, just under the pectorals. But before the chest size is ultimately determined, another measurement is taken with the man's arms at his sides. This is because the outside chest size may be larger than the inside measurement.

Waist: The waist size is taken so that the shirtmaker will know how much fabric to cut around the waist for a comfortable fit. Depending on a man's fit preference, the fabric around the waist is cut six to seven inches above the waist size for a full fit and about four to five inches for a trimmer fit.

Hips: This measurement is taken to ensure that there is enough fabric to cover the man's hips to prevent the shirt from riding up or lifting out of the back trouser band, a measurement particularly important with a more-fitted shirt style.

Arms: The client's arms are measured from the center yoke in the back of the shirt to where the sleeve will break at the wrist. Both arms must always be measured, since many men can have as much as a one-half-inch variance in the length of each arm.

Wrists: These measurements determine the fit and room left at the cuffs. Generally, the cuff fabric will be cut one-and a-half-inches to one-and-three-quarter inches above the circumference of a man's wrist. If a man wears a thick tank-style watch, extra fabric will be added to accommodate it.

Neck: Often referred to as a skin measurement, most custom shirtmakers size to the quarter-inch, with about three-eighths of an inch added to allow for shrinkage. During this measurement, the fitter will also determine the type and shape of the collar band (high, medium-high, low) that is best suited for a particular neck shape.

Front Height: This fitting applies to the actual collar that is to be fitted to the shirt body and is usually measured visually by an experienced fitter. It relates directly to how high or low the front of the collar should stand for comfort and appearance. A heavier man will need a lower front to make him appear thinner, while an older man, who may have loose skin or wrinkles at the neck, will need a higher front to conceal them.

Back Height: A measurement that corresponds to neck length, which can be adjusted to camouflage a neck that is too long or make a shorter neck appear higher. This is a crucial measurement because it determines the proper height of the shirt collar that should peek out above the jacket collar in back.

Apart from these many and varied measurements, and if a man is so inclined, he may have his shirts custom-made of Egyptian, long staple cotton, which is silky to the touch and more than a little painful to the wallet, because it is often imported from Italy, Switzerland, France or Japan. Most shirtmakers, however, travel with a wide array of cottons and wash-and-wear blends that are popular with traveling executives. A man may choose the best mother-of-pearl buttons to be used (always cross-stitched for strength) for his shirts, although the fragile buttons may not always stand up to commercial laundering. Removable collar stays are almost always standard and are desirable because they allow for the best possible ironing of the collar.

Finally, single-needle tailoring, with as many as 25 stitches to the inch, is also standard with all custom shirtmaking. It is a tailoring technique that ensures a sturdy, well-made garment, which is properly sewn and will last a lifetime.

What you'll end up with is a shirt certainly worth taking off your back for a friend. But you won't want to. And, once you've tested the market, you won't ever want to go back to the rack.

Ralph DiGennaro is a free-lance writer who covers style and fashion.