Shirts are the chain-mail vest that sits beneath the breastplate of a man’s sartorial armour. Even though they are often covered by outer layers, they are a fundamental aspect of masculinity. There is nothing like a bespoke West Indian Sea Island cotton design from Dege & Skinner (£420) for absolute authority, nor anything as sophisticated as a grey silk/cotton soft-collar number by Brioni (£310). Shirt arsenals should be stocked with as much precision as suits and shoes.
Yet this style staple is often neglected. I’ve seen fellows debut their first scrupulously selected bespoke suit with a run-of-the-mill white shirt, and the look sadly flops. (Although effective at night, in my opinion white shirts are overrated.) Shirt and suit also need to be speaking the same language, and lapel and collar measurements are critical here. The full, sweeping peak lapels on, say, a Tom Ford suit or an Edward Sexton design demand a collar of at least 10cm, with a higher collar stand to sit proud above the jacket. Tom Ford’s own tab-collared numbers in Oxford cotton (£385), which fasten under the tie, are ideal – as is the Turnbuline style from Turnbull & Asser (£165). Otherwise, switch to narrow, modernist tailoring from Jil Sander (from £245), or a neat, minimally collared design like those by Saint Laurent (£305) or Spencer Hart (£160).
Collar shape also carries a surprising amount of style clout. Most men tend to settle into a certain design, but it’s worth experimenting. Even those with conservative tastes who prefer mid-spread varieties can play with colour, with designs such as New & Lingwood’s poplin super 200 in azure blue (from £295), or Brunello Cucinelli’s pink and white design with a button-down collar (£370). For a bigger statement, cut-away collars present a shoulders-back, ready-for-action image that can look dashing. Ralph Lauren Purple Label’s extreme cut-away in fine striped cotton (£310) even reveals the collar stand and workings of the tie. If this seems too much, consider Ignatious Joseph’s gently curved version, the George (€220), which is cheeky yet elegant.
I am a fan of more closed or pointed designs, which provide a natty accent. In cities such as Paris, Tokyo and New York, Hermès offers a bespoke service that includes beautifully proportioned spear-collar shirts (from €600). And fellow Parisian brand Charvet has been fine-tuning the French, or moderate, collar for years (€240). Jean-Claude Colban, the brand’s co-owner, explains: “We don’t advocate extreme collars. The French take on bespoke fashion has always been one of balance.” But Charvet does innovate through fabrication. “We are now able to create defined patterns and weaves by changing the number of yarns and the density of stripes on different panels. These create special effects with the light, and this is very new,” says Colban.
Not many designers are currently making the pointed or longer collar options that go well with fuller-lapelled suiting and can liven up the sometimes stuffy edge of certain overly traditional tailoring. Getting them made is one solution. The Deeper Day collar version from shirtmaker Sean O’Flynn (£241) is a good choice, and is one of many “softer” constructions he offers.
There’s little that is more sartorially beneficial than developing a relationship with a shirtmaker. Take him your favourite suits and order a brace of bespoke creations to complement them. I’ve been going to Nash Masood, creative director of Emmett London on Jermyn Street, for some years now. We egg each other on to push the style envelope via a pageant of collar options and a library of fabric books. We’ve concocted some compellingly fresh styles, such as 8.7cm Lord collars and 9cm closed spear-shaped Soprano collars (from £195). Masood showed me the potent effect of moving the top stitching closer to the collar edge, from 6mm to 1.5mm. It’s far slicker. Covered button plackets also make shirts more streamlined. We’re talking details here, but with menswear it really counts. For many seasons, Masood and I worked with tab-collar styles (from £195), until the recent Bond film made that look a bit too popular for my taste. The solution is Emmett’s new long but rounded Carlton collars (from £195).
Emma Willis, another bespoke shirtmaker on Jermyn Street, launches ready-to-wear designs on Mr Porter this month. Despite disagreeing with me on pure white shirts, Willis has some fine stylistic values. “I’m working with a renewed flutter of interest in ivory,” she says. Stylish examples include a ready-to-wear ivory Swiss cotton poplin shirt (£190), and bespoke designs in the same fabric (from £290) or West Indian Sea Island cotton (£410). “Ivory was the gentleman’s white-shirt option, as officers did not wear white. It should be bone colour, not cream or yellow, and looks very elegant with grey or black – and far less like a waiter.”