June 21 2010
If men’s style were cinema, the supporting roles would always go to shirts. Suits would play the leads, with shoes, ties and watches nabbing the close-ups. For while shirts are ever present, they’re often overlooked, yet fundamental to the plot – especially in summertime productions, when jackets come off. Shirts are crucial, encapsulating the values of good dressing: fine detail, subtle nuance and a personally honed stance that’s largely unaffected by fads. And as this season embraces a fresh mood of finery in men’s style, shirtmaking is in the spotlight.
Collar style is key, and it can radically change the accent on a look. With the current renaissance in British tailoring comes a return of cutaway collars. This traditional, formal style sits well with the return to three-piece suiting. Hackett’s bestselling shirts have cutaway collars coming in degrees from modestly shaped to very deep (from £80). Although mass-produced and with fused collars, its range gives a less expensive option with which to experiment. Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label also offers a restyled cutaway (from £270) reminiscent of 1930s formality.
With cutaway collars, the knot in a tie becomes a focus, so a tie “dimple” is a good look, as is a knot that “kicks out”. To achieve this, once the tie is fastened take the whole knot and blades, and flip them under and back out, effectively rotating the knot back on itself. It then kicks out impudently, in the manner of The Great Gatsby. The fictional Gatsby favoured Turnbull & Asser as, in real life, did Chaplin and Churchill, but its old-money ethos needs a tweak to avoid stuffiness: try its unusual collar variations such as curved points, and its extensive selection of exclusive cottons, particularly the bold-striped Oxford weaves (bespoke shirts from £180; minimum order of six).
Some find overt cutaway collars less palatable. Patrick Grant, director of E Tautz on Savile Row, says, “You don’t want to see the workings of the tie, just the neat hourglass shape of the knot.” He advocates bespoke shirts, but has adopted many bespoke values into his off-the-peg clothes. Tautz’s cutaway collar is only moderately spread (shirt, £198), while its classic West End collar (shirt, £198) is a full affair, standing vigorously without a tie. Tautz is perfect for those who fancy a dapper, trad British look. Grant says: “House style is a striped poplin shirt set off with a solid, textured tie.” E Tautz has made “correct” dressing sexy and, as a result, is stocked by Harrods and Matches in London, Barneys in NYC, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.
On the opposite side of “The Row” – in both location and ethos – is Spencer Hart. Its signature look is a sharp and immaculate slim-lapelled, single-breasted suit with narrow tie and white shirt (from £150), its style clean and refined. “When we set out eight years ago we wanted to make the best white shirt in the world,” explains founder Nick Hart. “It’s about how the collar sits with the lapel, the proportion of the notch; then the small and elegant tie knot, and the way these things play together.” Hart creates richness by working textures against each other. He pares down shirts in subtly unusual fabrics, such as a contrast “Marcella” bib against a piqué (from £150), and also makes interesting round-collar styles (from £150). Worn with a narrow tie (avoid overplayed black), Hart’s shirts look strikingly simple.
More flamboyant collars can be seen at Robert Emmett on London’s Jermyn Street where a bank of about 30 identically fabricated striped shirts, each with different-style white collars (there are over 60 such bespoke styles), is displayed. These include Capri, with a very high stand, two collar buttons and a swooping spread evocative of Italian brio, and Roverto, which nips a collar in around the tie in a clipped, Rat Pack style (bespoke shirts from £135). My favourite is Verona, which has under-tie tabs for a retro Cosa Nostra accent.
To make shirts even more personal, most tailors will add the wearer’s initials. A monogram at either the belt line or tail level is considered discerning, but beware: a monogram on the cuff is often deemed a tad “nouveau”, while on the breast it can appear brash.
Writing of brashness, the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps arrives in the UK in September, with Gordon Gekko – the definitive 1980s trader style icon – having seemingly abandoned his signature white collar and cuffs (the original shirts were designed by Alex Kabbaz for author Tom Wolfe). Now the banking sector’s endeavours to appear less bullish have seen them eschewed by many. But worn with finesse – a plain body colour styled with a harmonious tie, for example – they can still look strong (but forget the Gekko-style red braces).
Yet in the original Wall Street, we also saw Gekko in a shirt with a rounded club collar and tie bar. This sort of adornment is set to make a comeback. Tailor Edward Sexton is a veteran of upping the suavity stakes: “A shirt and a tie romance a suit. You need to know the weight of tie, and whether it’s a five- or seven-fold, as that will determine the knot. The collar is designed around your tie. I prefer the closer, pointed collar [£280], and I favour pins and tabs so the tie space is just right.” Sexton’s elongated collar is very distinctive, his operation ultra-luxe. As is Tom Ford’s business-shirt range for autumn, which also features tie bars (shirts with tie bars, from £290).
Meanwhile, Richard James promotes the detachable collar, “starched very crisp and old-fashioned, it’s a good look – especially for evening and for utterly luxe businesswear”. He reports a trend for men buying fewer shirts but, crucially, of a higher quality.
The first lady of men’s shirts, Emma Willis (her bespoke shirts cost from £245), is extremely particular about her fabrics: “We hold nothing below luxury two-fold Swiss cottons.” “Fold” refers to two yarns twisted together yielding body and strength, but not necessarily thickness. “In organic white alone we have cotton piqué, twill and plain poplin, and then there’s our voile compatto.” The latter is a new development on traditional voile. Popular for its lightness and suitability for travel, voile is, however, slightly see-through so requires a double front, which can look odd. The denser compatto dispenses with this, yet is still a performance fabric, resisting creasing. And at Thomas Pink, a new Imperial Collection operates on an upgraded fabric level with lightweight, two-fold Egyptian cotton of 170-200 yarn count (200 or above is deemed high; from £125 for 170s, £175 for 200s). Ivory is particularly good looking – and feels ultra-smooth too.
Continental European shirts differ from British in fabrication and structure. The placket (button-hole stand) down the middle of a shirt is a case in point: without it, a relaxed approach to business attire is achieved, a plain front yielding a slicker look. Collar shapes and fabrics differ too, with the French and Italians preferring a more tactile version. Brioni’s banker-style collar (shirt from £310) crosses over fractionally above the button then sweeps gracefully for a refined, smart look. Although it’s part of the larger-collar trend, it has cosmopolitan chic with a moderately narrow solid or woven tie. (Think Italian business titans Diego Della Valle or the late Gianni Agnelli, both accomplished exponents of style nonchalance, or sprezzatura, who would, for example, fasten a watch on the outside of a cuff, or not fasten the cuffs, or even knot a tie with misaligned blades.)
More Italian flair can be found at Ermenegildo Zegna where fabrics include finely self-striped cottons, or fleck-linen mixes (from £130) in deep azure (beloved of the best-dressed Serie A football managers). Lighter-coloured suiting with softer shoulders teamed with warm-coloured ties complete this look admirably.
The French also excel at shirt panache. Hermès’ creations have a modest pointed collar and effortlessly luxurious air. Discreet repeated patterns are its speciality, lending a delicate verve to ensembles. The company opened a new emporium in NYC in January, where, naturellement, its renowned bespoke service is available (price on request). Indulging every aspect of choice, Hermès holds each client’s choice of fabric for 10 years should collar and cuffs need replacing.
French luxury company Zilli is also opening a bespoke salon within its London Bond Street shop this month (bespoke shirts from £680). Conservative yet extravagant and luxurious, its splendid fabrics such as buttery textured super 300s are accompanied by a service that painstakingly matches seam patterns and offers initialled mother-of-pearl buttons. In white fabric alone, Zilli presents myriad options.
Charvet became the first chemisier, in Paris, in 1838. Jean-Claude Colban, the company’s director, has been prescribing trimmer cuts recently, with more pointed, closed collars. Favoured house colours are clean and bright, such as lilac, with accents of apple green and red, often with satin stripes. Colban says, “We care about minute details in angle and length, matching pattern and distributing it on the collar. We design fabrics ourselves and play with the balance between the jacket and tie, what the Japanese call the ‘V zone’.” All of which means Charvet shirts possess an élan that elevates the wearer’s appearance. It seems that, at long last, the shirt is ready for its close-up.