President Obama has started many stimulus programmes, but one of his most successful initiatives was inadvertent: the decision to abolish the Bush-era dress code of jacket at all times in favour of more casual shirts and ties. Before you could say “profit margin” the button-down industry experienced a growth spurt that is only set to continue as bespoke shirting becomes a gift of choice this holiday season.
“Shirts have become far more important for men in recent years,” says shirtmaker Emma Willis. “They rarely wear a jacket and often don’t wear a tie, so all the attention is on the shape and quality of the shirt.” No wonder made-to-measure is a strategic option.
Nathan Brown, the founder of Lodger Footwear on London’s Clifford Street, is a bespoke convert. “I’m 6ft 9in tall, so trying to find a shirt that fits off-the-shelf is like searching for something in the proverbial haystack,” he says. Brown now has all his shirts made in Italy by a shirtmaker he discovered while sourcing leathers for Lodger shoes.
Similarly, Oliver Watkins, a London business man, boasts a 46in chest and a 36in waist thanks to years playing rugby, and says: “I started with made-to-measure suits, then had shirts made when the waistcoats looked silly over oceans of billowing material underneath. Now I think the shirts are almost more special than the suits. They make more of a difference to how you look.”
“A ready-to-wear shirt might fit around the chest, but the shoulders would be too narrow; or the cuffs would be right but the sleeves too long,” agrees author Tom Young.
“Everyone has small differences that are evened out by having their shirts made for them,” says Russell Howarth, head cutter at London City tailors Graham Browne, “whether it’s a drop shoulder or a slight stoop.” Emma Willis points out that most off-the-rack shirts work against men with sloping shoulders: “They’re built for square shoulders, so if yours slope, even just a little, you will always have a fold running from the neck down to the armpit,” she says.
Perhaps as a result, she reports a 30 per cent rise in bespoke demand, while established Jermyn Street shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser has seen a 10 per cent increase in bespoke orders this year.
Even smaller, under-the-radar bespoke establishments, such as Budd in London’s Piccadilly Arcade, have seen a noticeable growth in orders, this despite the fact prices come in at between £140 and £200.
Department stores have also reacted to the trend. Harrods has always offered a selection of made-to-measure shirts, including Dunhill, Brioni and Eton, but this season it has added Prada to that list. The number of materials available to their shirt shoppers has increased, too, with the store now carrying Eton shirt maker’s two-fold, 300-thread-count cotton.
“A bespoke item will be of greater quality and is a financial as well as a feel-good investment,” says Jonathon Gallagher, programmes manager at The Prince’s Trust, who started having his shirts made for him recently at A Suit That Fits (a new outfitter that has made-to-measure shirts manufactured in Nepal, starting at £75).
“It is a classic example of a false economy to buy shirts off-the-peg, wear them five or six times and then realise they are sub-standard,” continues Gallagher.
Indeed, Turnbull & Asser’s master shirtmaker David Gale has seen shirts that are more than 60 years old come into the bespoke shop on Bury Street. “We regularly replace the collars and cuffs on shirts, and that can double their life,” he says. “Just make sure you don’t dry clean them too much.”