Thursday, July 28, 2011

Getting Shirty

I'm hard to get along with.

Especially if you're a dress shirt.

I have a pair of orangutan arms, narrow hips and other strangely shaped bits, all of which ensure that off-the-rack shirts rarely fit me in a flattering way. Most men's shirts are made for someone with shorter arms, or a thicker middle, and end up blousy and plain on my odd-sized frame.

Last century, I decided that I would not settle for crappy shirts any more, and struck out to find brands that would fit well, last long and look good. Having discovered few at any price that worked, I promised myself that I would have some shirts made for me by the world's best shirt makers. Someday. I searched through guides and learned a lot about what it took to make shirts that would fit you.

I also had some very specific needs: My forearms are freakishly long in comparison with my upper arms. My body is long and pants sit low on my hips. I need a shirt with a long bore and long tails to stay tucked in when I sit. I'm no waifish stringbean, but I have a narrow body, and despite having a little pot belly, anything other than a tapered bore ends up gathering like a fallen sail at my waist. I don't like placket buttons ... too fiddly and annoying in the bleary morning ... and so the placket opening has to be short, so that it doesn't gape at the wrist. But the French cuff that I prefer must be ironed flat, and therefore the placket has to be just the right length for the opened cuff to lie flat under the iron. I like a taller collar, and due to an adulthood of excess, collars need to fit loosely around my burgeoning neckline. I don't like pockets. l don't like gathered and bunched sleeves. On and on and on and on.

In short, I figured out what I liked and, although it felt vain at times, I knew what I wanted, and I searched hard for it.

Eventually, in 2001 I found myself at the doorstep of Ascot Chang in New York city, a remote outpost of Chang's Hong Kong mecca for lovers of fine shirts and suits. Having saved up for some time, I had the requisite cash needed to order the mandatory minimum of four shirts. It was a hefty bundle of US bills, in four figures, and considering that the exchange rate at the time was something like $0.85 US to each Canadian buck, I was prepared to hand it over with more than a little anxiety.

They took more than thirty five measurements from me, and sat for over an hour listening quietly as I delivered my sad litany of complaints regarding traditional shirts. They treated me like a King. Then they quietly and politely took my money and sent me on my way.

A few weeks later, my shirts arrived from Hong Kong. They were perfect in every way ... two white and two blue. They fit me like a glove. They looked great jacket-on or jacket-off. They were lovely. I loved them. They loved me. People mentioned them.

And all was good.

But as they are wont to do, these shirts eventually wore out and became irreparably damaged over many years of laundering and ironing, and, well. ... from life.

Sadly, this year, I finally had to throw out the last of those shirts. In the mean time, I had sought a slightly more cost-effective and local vendor. Having found one, I had more shirts made, but still, the costs were high. A few hundred dollars for a custom-made shirt sounds like a bargain on some days, and an extravagance on others.

Over the past couple of years I've found a few pret-a-porter shirts, now and again, that fit well. Surprisingly Mexx produces a slim-fit line that comes close, and Ted Baker periodically turns out a shirt that fits me, but none are exactly what I want, and Baker's line leans toward the $300-mark. For a shirt that isn't bang on, I rationalized for myself, what's the point? And these shirts aren't made with the kind of quality that can withstand years of wear, laundering, and life. Seams fray, fabric shrinks inconsistently, button holes are poorly made, buttons are cheap. And the fit is never, well, good enough.

Well, recently, I stumbled across a local gem of a men's bespoke tailor and shirtmaker, here in Vancouver. Today I picked up two shirts that Steve had made for me, precisely to my dimensions. And to my shock and disbelief, both shirts together cost over $100 less than a single Ascot Chang creation. To my critical eye, the construction and needle work are consistent with shirts made for me in the past that have cost three times the price. If you've had the pleasure before, then you'll know what it's like to pick the sleeve bore, to specify the length of the placket in millimetres, to pick the specific location of your French cuff button holes (always have two put in, so that you can adjust the length of your sleeve to match different jackets), to pick the height of the collar and length and angle of the point, to add 2 1/2 inches in length over all, so that it stays tucked in neatly, to choose the perfect fabric... Heck, it's nice to spoil yourself now and again, guys. But to get all that for just over $100 per shirt, is a staggering deal. You can barely walk out of Banana Republic or any other middle-America-milquetoast-McClothing shop with a shirt for less.

I'm gobsmacked.

And, as you've guessed it, quite picky too.

But being picky in life means that, more often than not, you get what you want. And, surprisingly enough, being picky helps you discover that you're not the only one who wants to make things better.

If you're ever in Vancouver, gents, go meet Steve at Samson's, who is a quiet and understated guy with a keen eye and a busy shop. He's hidden away in the main floor of a gray condo tower on Seymour just across from Shopper's, in the 1200 block.

Suits are his bread and butter, so shirts are always a lower priority for him. Give yourself a few weeks to wait for the product.

I'm going to live with these for a few months and make sure they hold up, and then I'm going back with a vengeance. We're going to work some dress shirts up with some custom collar- and cuff- treatments, adding some patterns and embroidery, as well as put some casual shirts together for me.

Trust me, it will be worth your time.


Sparx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sparx said...

You wear shirts?