“In these days of falling production values, plain, piece-dyed cloth is the most sophisticated thing a man can wear because there is no room for error – it shows up all defects,” says Jean-Claude Colban, a director at French luxury men’s outfitters Charvet. “On top of that, a white shirt has a certain honesty, an integrity. That reflects a lot of what we do.”
We are sitting at a boardroom table on the top floor of Charvet’s building, on the corner of Place Vendôme in Paris (Colban’s office is being painted). Outside it is a cold, clear day, the low winter sun casting long shadows across the square. But up here we are surrounded by bolts of cotton, three female shirtmakers and several thousand ties. There is little to focus on other than cloth. Which is a good thing as I’m here to talk about a very particular kind – the perfect white shirting.
Charvet’s reputation as a maker of shirts, ties and related accessories is almost unparalleled. Like many high-end producers, however, it has found it harder in recent years to source quality fabrics, as the best suppliers have cut costs or simply died out. “Until around 200 years ago, all dying was done with natural dyes,” says Colban. “In countries such as India and Syria, it still was until about 20 years ago. There was a famous silk dyer in Aleppo, a blind man, who knew the perfect shades just by their smell. That’s true, it’s a documented story,” he adds, in gently mocking tones.
Charvet doesn’t use blind dyers from Aleppo. But it does use some of the best houses in Europe – most of which are in Italy – to dye the silk for its ties. “Many of these have been closing,” says Colban. “Dyers were usually on the outside of the old towns – because they stank. As the towns grew, the outskirts became the middle – and thus valuable real estate. Then these were sold, and a lot of the old equipment or processes have been lost.”
It’s been a familiar refrain in the luxury industry for some 20 years, ever since Chinese competition began affecting not just fast fashion, but high-end manufacturers. But Colban believes it has accelerated in the past five years. It is also a particular problem for Charvet, because one of the company’s competitive advantages has always been its deep involvement with raw materials. It designs all its own shirt cloths, including specifying the dying and weaving. When you buy a Charvet bespoke shirt, it belongs to that single brand in a way almost no other shirtmaker can match.
Two years ago, Colban launched a programme to try and reassert these priorities in cloth. “We decided to produce the perfect white shirt,” he says (ready-to-wear shirts from €290 and bespoke from €495). Of course, many brands trumpet the “perfect white shirt”. But they aren’t Charvet. Colban started by finding the best long-staple cotton and securing a dedicated supply. Then he developed a bespoke finishing process that involved none of the silicone used for finishing most fine cottons.
“The most fun bit was next – selecting the colour,” he says. “Bluish whites have been in fashion for a long time, while yellowish whites have a limited Middle Eastern market. Pink whites, on the other hand, have been trending strongly for the past five years.” In the end, he went with a slightly purplish white.
Not that it’s noticeable, of course. If so, there would be something wrong. But like the natural finishing process, it’s a subtle difference that sets Charvet apart. “We are in an age of half-knowledge, where men might know cashmere and vicuña, or super 180s for suits, but no more than that,” says Colban. They would certainly never pick out the differences in dyes, whether pinkish or purplish.
“In the end, customers have to put their faith in us,” Colban asserts. “That’s what it means to be a brand. It is worth nothing more than the trust you can put in it.”