Insights: Indulgences—A Cut Above

The Mecca for custom-made shirts is a small firm in New York City

It's every buyer's fantasy: going to the source. If you're buying a bottle of wine, it's ideal to get it from the person who not only makes the wine but also grows the grapes. It's why Burgundy buyers spend so much time hunting down obscure estates. You want the definitive hands-on experience, the rare privilege of dealing direct.  

So, when I decided to pursue the ultimate custom-made shirt, I met with Mike Athanasatos. I've been buying custom-made shirts for decades. If you name a high-end company, I've probably bought from it. Were any of them bad? No. They all had lovely "shirtings" (that's the fabric in shirt-making parlance).  

But Mike is unique. He doesn't care about appearances, except yours. I went to him because he's the source, the end of the line, the go-to guy for some very fancy stores that'll sell you a custom-made shirt for twice his price. And all they do is send Mike your measurements. He does the rest, including sewing in the shop's label into a shirt he has made.  

Shirts are more sensuous than any other custom-made attire. After all, a shirt is draped over your entire upper body. You can feel it all day long against your skin. How it fits can make an amazing difference to how you feel. The ideal custom-made shirt fits so well that you'll forget you're even wearing it.  

You can walk into any big-name store and the salespeople will sell you a custom-made shirt for $350 to $450. Or you can meet Mike and get the same shirt for $175 to $250, depending on the fabric. And--this is no small point--the person fitting you will be Mike himself.  

To secure the ultimate in custom-made shirts, you need to make your way to Geneva Custom Shirts Ltd. A visit to Geneva Custom Shirts Ltd. may not be quite what you'd expect from a top-flight shirtmaker. Put out of your mind any visions of mahogany-paneled "gentleman's rooms" with distinguished-looking salesmen murmuring "Very good choice, sir." West 32nd is a gray and gritty Midtown street lined with Korean restaurants and small manufacturing outfits on the upper floors. On one of these upper floors lies Geneva Custom Shirts.  

Once you squeeze into a dingy elevator and go to the third floor, a sign tells you to turn right. There's a locked door with a buzzer to press. It feels like a "drop" in a spy movie. This is the source of some of the world's finest custom-made shirts for some of shirt making's most famous names?  

The door opens and you can see all of the shop. On the left, 17 employees, mostly women, work the pedals at a variety of sewing machines. Straight ahead is Mike's office, which gives new meaning to the word "utilitarian." Fancy this ain't. But splendid it is, in its fashion.  

Mike comes out to greet you. He's a robust-looking 50-year-old; affable, utterly unpretentious and downright solicitous. If you have a bit of a belly for your shirt to cover, not to worry. Mike has one, too. You feel as though you're meeting a family friend.  

On the wall are pictures of quite a few famous "friends," 8x10 glossies of notable people such as Gen. Colin Powell and Tom Brokaw, all inscribing their famous visages "To Mike." Mike flies once a year to Beverly Hills to attend to a sizable slice of the upper-end entertainment industry, actors and executives alike.  

How did they know about him? "Oh, it's word of mouth," Mike says modestly. "They tell their friends. You know how it is," he adds with a shrug.  

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "All right, so Mike's the source. And a deal, too. But $175 for a shirt is still costly. Besides, I've seen custom-made shirts for less than that--those Hong Kong outfits, for example."  

Here's where it gets good. Whenever something--wine, cars, cigars, whatever--approaches the absolute pinnacle of quality, what makes it so outstanding can be surprisingly difficult to trace. Invariably it's a "sum greater than the parts" concept. Individually, each painstaking step may not, in itself, explain why the product is so fine. But taken together, they achieve something incredible.  

I'll give you an example. I ask Mike to show me around his shop floor, which he's happy to do. In the back is the "cutter," the fellow who cuts shirtings from your personal paper pattern designed from Mike's measurements (more about that in a moment).  

The cutter cuts through eight or ten layers of shirtings, tracing the outline of the paper pattern. He uses a small, stubby, surgically sharp knife. It seems overly simple. Why not use scissors?  

"We never use scissors," Mike says in a tone that brooks no argument. "With a knife you can get the fabric exactly right. With scissors, you can be an eighth of an inch off. Then, when you put the shirt's pieces together...Ha! You get an eighth of an inch on one side that's 'off' and then another on the other side. What do you have? A quarter of an inch!"  

According to Mike, almost no one uses a hand knife to cut shirtings. "They might use an electric knife, but believe me, it's no good. They don't care about a quarter of an inch. I do."  

Then there's the not-so-small detail of washing the fabrics. "Before we cut the fabric for your shirt, we wash the fabric. Ninety-nine percent of shirtmakers don't wash the fabric," Mike says. "[By doing that], we don't have to pretend to try to account for shrinkage later. We can be exact. And then, after we cut the fabric, we wash the cut pieces again before we sew the shirt together. Then we wash the finished shirt." As if that's not exacting enough, they also wash the stiffening lining in the collar before cutting it.  

Speaking of the collar, when Mike takes your measurements, you don't just choose your collar style. The collar itself is custom-made, which means that its height and length will be custom-made also. Most so-called custom-made shirts use pre-measured collars. You choose the style, but that's it. If you want a higher-than-usual collar for your long neck, well, too bad.  

This fitting business is critical. It's another reason to go to the source. Shirt measuring, like carpentry, looks simple on paper. The fitter takes a variety of measurements, such as your sleeve length, collar circumference, shoulder width, chest size and cuff width.  

Having been measured half a dozen times for custom-made shirts, I can tell you that the shirts rarely fit as well as all those measurements would lead you to expect.  

I asked Mike about this. "Yeah, well, it's hard to explain. Fitting a shirt for somebody involves more than just taking measurements. You have to look at how they stand. Whether they throw one shoulder up or down more than another. Most fitters just look at the numbers," he says.  

"You know, I train all of the fitters at the shops I make shirts for. I tell them everything I know. But very few of them really have a feel for fitting a shirt. They don't change the numbers based on the posture and peculiarities of the man himself. And then the shirt's never quite right."  

Of course, you should discuss style, such as what sort of collar and cuffs you want, about whether (and where) you want a monogram. "Our monograms are hand-sewn," says Mike. "There's an old guy here in New York who still does it. We're not the only shirtmaker who uses him. But we're training someone else for the day, when, you know, he won't be with us anymore."

Monograms cost an additional $10 to $15. It's a popular touch: 75 percent of the shirts he makes are monogrammed.   Like all top shirtmakers, he uses mother-of-pearl buttons. They cost $36 a gross, according to Mike. What if these buttons break in the laundry? "That's why we launder our clients' shirts ourselves, if they want," he says. "Commercial laundries kill shirts. We wash them in 160-degree water. Then we let them drip-dry. Never put shirts in the dryer. The heat kills the fibers.  

"We iron them by hand, except for the collars and cuffs, which we do on a machine." Such ministrations cost $6 a shirt. "Shirts come in from all over: the West Coast, Paris--you'd be amazed," he says.  

Finally, your first "fitting" shirt is available to try on. If time is short or if, say, you're on a visit to New York, Mike can make the shirt in little more than a day or two. Usually it takes a couple of weeks. (Most of Mike's clients never even see the shop, as he willingly visits anyone in his home or office in the tri-state area for fittings.) You try it on. It fits like no other shirt you've owned. You don't even know it's there.  

Mike displays no false modesty when I compliment him on his fitting prowess. "I'm right about 99 percent of the time," he says. "After all, I've been doing this for 26 years. I should be getting it right by now."    

Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.    

GENEVA CUSTOM SHIRTS LTD. is located at 38 West 32nd Street, New York, New York. Telephone 212-967-7460.