The Beginner's Guide To Bespoke: Shirts

It's more affordable than you think, and you'll never look back

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The difference in price between a pair of good Northampton-made, ready-to-wear shoes and a bespoke pair is a factor of 10 – roughly £300 vs £3,000. The difference in price between a decent Italian ready-to-wear suit and its bespoke Savile Row counterpart is a factor of four – roughly £1,000 vs £4,000. However, the difference in price between a ready-to-wear shirt from a top Italian fashion label and a lovingly-made bespoke shirt from one of London’s most famous shirt-makers is that the bespoke shirt might be a little cheaper, and is invariably much better.

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And it’s a surprise that will have more impact on your style than it will for your wallet. It matters because the shirt is the foundation of the male wardrobe. Michael Alden, who runs the London Lounge tailoring forum, calls it “the first serious step in bespoke.” No wonder, as lots of men, regardless of their taste in clothes, wear a shirt seven days a week. Work colleagues and contacts see a man in his shirt, as do his friends, and his “smart shirt” is probably what a guy will be wearing when he’s out meeting girls.

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The promise of professional, social and romantic advantage is a solid motivation for wanting to wear something that’s flattering on the body, comfortable to wear and which says the right things about you as a person. The fact that it’s achievable for the same – and sometimes even significantly less – money as a lot of guys are already spending on “designer” shirts makes going bespoke a compelling proposition for anyone.

Of course, the shirt is not a discreet element in a man’s outfit – it’s the item that will perhaps make the biggest contribution to his look. Therefore, the sartorial lesson to take from Christ’s parable about the wise man who built his house upon a rock is that there’s little point engaging the services of a bespoke tailor until you’ve established a successful relationship with a shirt-maker. When, and only when, you have a solid foundation to your look can you think about layering it with a well-crafted suit.

Savile Row tailor Terry Haste explains: “A decent shirt makes my job much easier, without doubt. That way I don’t have to play about too much with sleeves. Baggy shirts will poke through lightweight suit fabric, they’ll bunch up beneath jackets, and screw up the sleeve lengths.”

The reason for this is that a jacket will never look right, no matter the skill of the tailor, if the shirt beneath it doesn’t fit properly. The most obvious problem arises with the sleeve length. A well-dressed man has about 1cm of shirt cuff protruding beyond the end of his jacket’s sleeves, but if your shirtsleeves are too short, or they vary in length because you’ve bought shirts from a variety of different brands who work to different measurements, then no tailor will be able to achieve this for you.

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To appreciate just how much better a bespoke shirt should look and feel it’s important to understand how ready-to-wear shirts are fitted. The vast majority of them rely on a single measurement – the circumference of a man’s neck – for the sizing. This means that all the other dimensions – which include the breadth of the chest, the length of the arms, the width of the shoulders, the size of arms at the biceps and at the wrist, the roundness of the stomach and the length of the torso – have to be averaged out. And yet few of us will be able to call to mind many men whose size and shape we’d describe as average, and even fewer of us would choose to describe ourselves as such. The traditional method of measuring a shirt to fit our bodies is, at very best, a rough estimate, and at worst completely inaccurate.

For Stephen Lachter, the shirt-making third of Kent, Haste & Lachter (John Kent and Terry Haste are tailors), fit is frequently the reason men come to him. “We’ve done a lot recently for younger guys who’ve been training, so their neck muscles grow,” he explains. “But they’ve got nothing on the waist because they’re slim, so ready-made shirts don’t really fit.”

Discussing the differences between men, Lachter also mentions another variable – deportment. “When I see a customer I look at their deportment and posture, and take photographs,” he adds. “Then when the first shirt is made I fit that and see how the balance looks. The balance is the way that it hangs from the shoulder, whether it sits on the neck, rather than standing away. That’s why you pay for a bespoke shirt.”

In many cases, ready-to-wear shirts are far too big because they have to accommodate such a wide range of bodies. A shirt with a 15in collar could be the “correct” size for a trim man of 6ft 1in, or a corpulent man of 5ft 5in. It’s hard to see any single shirt fitting them both because the neck measurement will be the only one that the two men have in common.

The size of the armhole is a key point of difference, because on ready-to-wear shirts they’re cut generously to ensure that most men will find them comfortable. The problem with this is that if your arm doesn’t largely fill the armhole you’re left with a lot of loose fabric under your arm. This looks untidy, bunches up under a jacket and restricts your movement – problems all easily avoided by going bespoke.

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Further complication arises from the fact that men don’t just differ from each other – they’re not even symmetrical in themselves. It’s quite common for one arm to be longer than the other, or one shoulder to sit higher or lower than the other. A bespoke shirt should reflect not just the wrist on which you wear your watch, but the size of that watch. Stephen Lachter estimates that 70 per cent of the shirts he makes have cuffs of different sizes for this reason.

A 34mm diameter vintage Patek Philippe dress watch will fit under a snug-fitting cuff, while generous allowance will be needed for Tudor’s new 42mm diameter Heritage Chrono Blue. The difference between a shirt that’s made to fit you, and a shirt that’s made to fit some hypothetical average that doesn’t really exist at all, is sufficiently palpable to ensure that most men who try bespoke are usually extremely reluctant to return to ready-to-wear ever again. It’s the difference between wearing your shirt and another man’s shirt.

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However, if the fit is what keeps a man in bespoke shirts, it’s actually rarely the reason that he first walks into the premises and decides to make the change. In fact, it’s usually more the opportunity to design a piece from scratch. “Freedom of choice is what people come in for, they want to choose the fabrics and the colours,” reveals Andrew Rowley, the shop manager of shirtmaker Budd.

Steven Quin, retail director of Turnbull & Asser, agrees that having an involvement in the design process is the biggest factor in bespoke’s success: “It’s an individual choice of fit, cuff style, collar shape, fabric and cut. A man gets exactly what he wants, so it’s something that reflects his character.”

Fabric is key among those choices. Being able to choose your own cloth means a man can select its weight, texture, colour and pattern, creating something completely personalised. Stephen Lachter says that his customers (perhaps influenced by Paul Smith shirts) currently have an appetite for “coordinated details, so people like a contrast fabric under the collar, or under the placket, or on the reverse side of the cuff.”

Budd has a historical take on the idea of hidden details in the form of its mess shirts, named after the officers’ messes where they were originally worn. “Mess shirts, or fancy-back dress shirts, were originally made for army officers,” explains Andrew Rowley. “They all had to dress exactly the same for dinner, but they were allowed to take their jacket off when the port came round. So in order to show that they were jolly fellows, and not just the same as everyone else, they had the back of their evening shirts made from patches of colourful cloth.”

Turnbull & Asser, whose esteemed clients include the Prince of Wales, has a unique aesthetic that’s expressed best in its range of exclusive fabrics, which come in a variety of bold but sophisticated checks. They subtly allude to the company’s little-known but exuberant past as a purveyor of beautifully-made Sixties fashions, under the influence of designer Michael Fish. Because of the classic image of Jermyn Street’s shirtmakers, it may come as a surprise to hear that they were once at the forefront of fashion.

“Shirt-making always goes in phases,” says David Gale, head cutter at Turnbull & Asser. “At the moment, we’re in a skinny, close-fitting phase. We did this back in the Sixties.”

“The fashion for close-fitting clothes is like sex: every generation thinks they invented it,” Stephen Lachter adds. He ought to know, because as shirt-maker for the famous Savile Row innovator Tommy Nutter, he can reasonably claim to have “seen fashion near to its inception.”

The point of this is not that men should be commissioning wild paisley shirts with vast collars (although with the current appetite for print, it’s only a matter of time), but that a shirtmaker is able to create the shirt his customer wants.

It’s a point reinforced by Andrew Rowley: “The beauty of bespoke is that the tailor will enquire what fit you like, so that when he cuts that paper pattern he adjusts the amount of fullness on the shirt to your specification. So if you want a 4in allowance in the chest, or even 3in, Mr Butcher [Budd’s cutter] will do that for you.”

The English shirt-making tradition prides itself on being simple and straightforward. The results are not hand-stitched masterpieces, in the more flamboyant Italian sense, but they are robustly made, hand-cut, everyday classics that should last “up to 20 years”, according to Steven Quin. Whatever they cost, they’ll have made that investment look very modest long before they reach the end of their second decade.

Photographs by Chris Leah.

Taken from Esquire's The Big Black Book: The Style Manual For Successful Men, out now.

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