This is something that’s been exercising me for a little while. I have a hodge-podge of shirts from the likes of Hawkes & Curtis (stupid poor delivery fulfilment), Ede & Ravenscroft, Marks & Spencer, T.M. Lewin and so on. I also have a custom made one from A Suit That Fits. I’ll come on to that in a moment.
One of the problems I have with shirts is that if you’re wearing them often (I am), then the corners (or points) of the collar tend to get frayed pretty quickly. It’s not ideal as it can make an otherwise decent shirt look rather old.
I have been searching for the best quality shirt for work for some time. I don’t think I have a solution as yet, so I would very much welcome your suggestions.
Normally, my shirts are worn with ties – so it’s perfection in a ‘work shirt’ that I’m seeking at the moment. Although, when I’m dressed down, I like a normal shirt. I don’t like those massive big open collar styles. The oversized collar shirts remind me of 1980s pop stars making an almost-come-back in the 1990s.
Recently I had a just-in-time failure with shirts whilst traveling. I had some hotel-laundered shirts stored at the office in Edinburgh (I’m based in London) on account of the hotel failing to deliver the shirts to me same day as promised. They ended up (kindly, their fault!) sticking them in a taxi to the office reception. So I had planned to use those two shirts.
A top tip, by the way, if you’re staying in a hotel (or traveling regularly) is to get your shirts folded. Sometimes it’s the same cost, sometimes slightly more, however it makes life utterly simple and means the shirt is immediately usable and not scrunched up after travel.
My colleague had locked her pedestal and I couldn’t access the shirts. So I did what every right thinking businessman does in these situations: Went to the nearest Marks & Spencer.
The specialist shirt shops – of which there are a few in Edinburgh, I’m sure – will probably have been closed by 5pm. Or maybe 6. It was 615pm before my mind finally arrived at the shirt issue.
Fifteen minutes later I was strolling through one of Edinburgh’s biggest Marks & Spencers. They had a massive shirt section – which is always useful. I’m sure there’s some logic to how they have arrayed the various products on their shelves, but I couldn’t fathom it.
I really am not very good at shopping. I just don’t have the patience. I stood there imagining myself on the Star Trek Enterprise Holodeck.
The first issue would be to remove everything that didn’t have a yellow (16.5” collar) label. That’s the base demand given the standard at these types of stores is what-you-see-is-what’s-in-stock, typically.
“Computer, remove all shirts that are not double cuff,” was what I was saying to myself as I walked about hunting.
Then I was saying to myself, “Computer, show me all plain colour shirts, e.g. White, Blue, Pink.”
And then I wanted to examine the quality.
“Computer, display the results according to publicly accepted quality standards, highest to the right and indicate price demands on a RAG status.”
That would have been convenient.
Instead I had to riffle through the yellow label shirts. Everything from formal dress frilly shirts through to short-sleeve-with-a-pocket (arrgh) styles. It took about 10 minutes of arsing around before I found one.
I then decided to wander into the M&S ‘tailored’ section. I can’t remember what they called it. I think it was “Saville Row”.
I immediately located a £49.50 white shirt from that range that looked good. The cotton quality – to my untrained know-nothing eye – looked nice. I liked the firm collar. The buttons were nice. The double-cuff had a slight pattern. And it was 16.5 inch!
But, the shirt was covered in dust. It had obviously been left out for ages. These obviously nicer shirts didn’t come with a cover at all. So almost every shirt was covered in a small layer of dust. This is not what I wanted a) from a £49.50 purchase and b) from an immediate-wear point of view.
I hunted about again and found a wooden cupboard area containing some more shirts and selected two white ones.
I liked them. I felt good wearing the shirts.
So these M&S ones are currently my new favourite.
However. Let’s get back to the custom-made shirt from A Suit That Fits. It is rather good. I am pretty pleased with it. I was thinking of getting a job lot of them. It’s just a plain white one as I wanted to test the experience. It’s nice white material and I feel it does rival the quality of the M&S ones. It’s also got my monogram initials as that was an option and I thought it would be fun. I did my best at a Lord Vetinari (Discworld reference, for any fans reading) by asking for the monogram to be in white against the white cotton of the shirt. So it’s not that easy to make out.
(Discworld fans: You recall Lord Vetinari travels in a black coach which bears his coat of arms. A black sable shield. Love it.)
I haven’t ordered a load of the custom ones because, from memory, they were £60-70 each which, although I do like the bespoke fit, I don’t think I like it enough to pay such a premium.
I did a Google the other day for ‘Bespoke shirt’ and came across a site called itailor.com. It caught my eye what appears to be a reasonably priced custom-made shirt for about £49. I’m thinking about trying this service out.
Back in 1999, I was co-founder of a dotcom company. We’d raised a lot of money. We were busy executing on our strategy. We had a brilliant team of people working in our Mayfair office. It was a stressful period, but it was thoroughly exciting too. Through a rather convoluted set of circumstances, at age 23 or 24 (I can’t remember now) I assumed the role of CEO. Up until that point I was the Chief Tech Officer, charged with keeping the site’s technical operations stable and evolving. This required me to turn up to client and investor meetings wearing (and I kid ye not) trainers, jeans and a jumper.
At this point in time, folk liked to see the geek dressed down. It seriously gave those rather new to the ‘internet’ a rather strange amount of assurance. So for a good few years, that was my wardrobe. Indeed I came straight out of University and into this rather relaxed corporate environment. My other co-founder (a lady) was dressed to the nines every morning. Again, that was required. It’s what folk expected. We must have looked rather odd, but it worked.
However when I took over as CEO, I had an immediate problem in the form of a board meeting in New York. If memory serves it Thursday when I got the nod. I had to be in New York on Monday.
I didn’t have an issue with what I was going to do or say. My pressing problem was what to wear.
T-Shirt and trainers wouldn’t cut it now.
I talked to my dad.
“Saville Row,” he advised, “Go there, get yourself a decent suit. You’ll thank me.”
I’d bought a suit once or twice from Marks & Spencers. They never looked good on me. Never. I’d worn a dinner suit a few times. But I’d no cause to own a proper ‘work’ suit up until this point.
My dad had shopped quite often at Ede & Ravenscroft, the city’s oldest tailor. I’d been in a few times but — again — I’d no cause to bother with any of their products.
I arrived into the shop and explained my challenge to the Ede & Ravenscroft team. I mumbled “Board meeting” and “need to look the part” and “some kind of dark suit” before hoping one of the chaps would help me out. They did. They fixed it all for me.
“You’ll be after a pinstripe then, sir?” the chap asked. Or told me.
“Er, no!” I exclaimed, “I don’t want to look … well… like a clown!”
Evidently the chap had heard this all before. He just looked at me for a few moments before saying, “If it’s business, all the real players wear a pinstripe sir.”
“How about just some kind of dark navy suit?” I asked.
The chap politely enquired as to whether I was running the company or applying for a position as an intern.
That settled it. Pinstripe.
I took in the surroundings. I remembered the other business folk I knew who’d also recommended Ede & Ravenscroft (and a few other Saville Row outlets). Every single one of them was a successful executive. It then swiftly dawned on me that every single one of them wore a pinstripe — whether chalk white bold or fine.
I explained I needed something for Monday. Or Sunday, actually, because I was flying out on Monday. We worked out departure times and the chap reckoned that he could give me an off-the-peg suit that they’d adjust to my frame as much as they could — and get the changes done for Monday morning.
The chap picked out a nice bold chalk stripe. To begin with I really wasn’t feeling it. I did feel like a bit of a fake. Like I didn’t have the confidence to wear it. It also looked rather silly allied with my T-Shirt and trainers so the chap gave me a shirt, tie and some shoes to wear as he worked. The transformation was astonishing.
As the chap tacked pins in the trousers to get the length perfect I began to inhabit the suit, looking at myself in the mirror. I began to believe that I deserved it, that I had the confidence, the aura, the balls — frankly — to wear it.
I noticed an almost imperceptible change in the way that the other Ede & Ravenscroft shoppers reacted to me. Previously I looked like an arse sitting there with my top-of-the-range £150 Nikes, some funky jeans and a bollocks GAP jumper. But hey, I had a million quid in the company account. That, I felt, excused it. Or … well, you know, I was living the successful dream, able to rise above the prejudices of fashion. Or, perhaps, rebelling against them.
“You have to wear a suit to work? Why?” I used to ask folk.
The other shoppers suddenly seemed to treat me as an equal. If anything, I felt they were looking at me as a successful young business chap, getting yet another suit made before flying off to New York for a board meeting. Yup, my imagination began to run away with itself.
I had a serious stumbling block over belts, though.
“Where does the belt go?” I asked the chap.
“Oh no belts, sir,” came the response.
Only the plebs wear belts, apparently. If you’re wearing a belt on a business suit, you’re a wannabe.
For a moment I thought they intended making the trousers tight enough to just sit around my waist. Then the braces arrived.
I’d never ever worn braces before.
Now I really felt like a clown, putting those on.
Quickly, though, I began to feel like Gordon Gekko as the Ede & Ravenscroft team milled around, explaining how things worked in the real world. They obviously know what they’re doing, given the fact they dress some of the most distinguished and successful gents on the planet.
“It’s an image, sir,” one of the chaps explained, “You’re crafting a specific image that other successful business people will acknowledge and respect.”
And stuff the rest then, I thought.
When the adjusting had finished there was just one more finishing touch. I really did begin to feel a bit Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman when the chap brought over a pocket square. Or a hankie, as you and I might call them.
No came the response. The chap patiently showed me how to place the pocket square correctly. Either entirely flat or bunched up — and you achieve the bunched up look by doing a bit of Paul Daniels style jiggerypokery with the pocket square then stuff it into your breast pocket. I loved it.
Once we were all done I stood there in the little shop and — I’m not ashamed to admit it — admired the new me. I looked fantastic.
I carefully took the jacket off, minding all the pins and bits of paper showing the tailor where to make his incisions. As I did, I remember thinking that, “Yes, this is the way.”
I wondered how the board would react in New York.
Indeed I was concerned that they’d see right through me. That they’d see I’d only worn the suit because, well, I wanted to look good. I worried that this would somehow make me look worse. Or be some kind of problem. Like I was covering something up. Like I had something to hide. On the morning of the meeting I gave some serious consideration to heading out to GAP to buy some more familiar clothes. I stayed the course.
The last time these chaps had seen me, I was dicking around in a T-Shirt, jeans and the Nikes. How would they react?
I was first to arrive. I took off the jacket, revealing the suspenders (I quickly discovered that’s what the Americans call braces). The first chap came in, dressed similarly. Of course he did. Since I’d done so many conference calls I’d forgotten he tended to wear grey pinstripes. He smiled and said hello.
I was almost expecting him to say, “But where are the Nikes?”
He said nothing. I felt like an equal. For the first time, actually, I felt like I deserved to be there. I also felt that it was stupid to react in such a way to a simple bit of cloth.
The others arrived soon after and I received the same treatment. Nobody said anything. They all took my appearance as normal. If anything, I suppose it demonstrated on some level that I was serious about the new role I’d been appointed to.
After this rather levelling experience (in a positive sense — i.e. I felt on their level, finally) I took to bringing out the suit regularly with client meetings. Before long I bought a few more. I bought some from Ede & Ravenscroft and also from independent tailors I’d met. I began to deck out my wardrobe with all manner of pinstripes — some bold, some calm, some rather over the top. I experimented with three-piece suits — they are phenomenal. They add that extra oomph.
I started to notice a curious thing though. When I walked through Liverpool Street Station (the station of the Square Mile, London’s financial district), crowds would involuntarily part for me. Seriously. People would walk out of my way. Instead of me having to do as normal and negotiate, folk automatically gave me the right of way. I joked with myself that it was because I was looking like such a lemon but I also recognised the reality — I looked sharp, successful, like a Master of the Universe. In the UK particularly, the pinstripe — along with a super-smart suit that hangs on you properly, fitting your frame perfectly — is involuntarily revered. Most of us don’t know that we’re deferring to it, appreciating it and lending control and authority to the wearer.
I really started to enjoy this extra second wind. When I arrived into huge company receptions, I was astonished when the secretaries or security guards ignored other lesser mortals to help me out first. Every secretary worth his or her salt has a third eye for those dressed properly — the underlying concept being that if you ignore me, delay me or otherwise screw up, I could have just bought the company you work for! Because it does happen. Important super-high-powered businessmen do arrive into receptions and ask to see folk during the normal course of the business day. I began to enjoy looking like once of those.
It’s a little bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t want to overplay the power of a proper suit, however I’ve been in business situations where I’ve struggled to command the attention and authority of the room in part because I looked like a chump. Nevermind that I had a million quid from the venture capitalist to spend. Never mind that my Nikes were more expensive than most people’s suits (I really, really liked buying the best Nikes..). I looked like a chump so a lot of the time, senior folk treated me as such. It was worse when the middle management treated me that way too. I’d often have to start meetings rolling out a list of flipping credentials and mention the venture capitalist twice before I felt I had any respect. And that, of course, didn’t confer respect. If anything, it conferred a degree of bubbling hostility. I was on the back foot so often.
Things were totally different once I deployed the pinstripes. Totally different. I felt like I could often utter gibberish and folk would nod away at me. I remember performing pretty poorly during one meeting that I hadn’t prepared at all for (my own stupid fault) but found that the clients and suppliers seemed to overlook this and I got my way.
Even today you can make a boardroom full of executives feel totally small by taking off your jacket and revealing your sharp shirt, tie, cufflinks and braces. It’s the braces that really get folk. On the surface, you’ll see a few chaps think it’s a bit funny. One or two brave chaps will comment. However what most of them are doing is sitting thinking — knowing — they look shitter than me. Even just a small impact can be rather useful.
It’s oft said that putting on a good suit is like putting on your armour as you get ready to do battle. I agree. I really enjoy the ritual.
I also take a huge degree of pleasure from putting on a jacket that fits. My very first Ede & Ravenscroft jacket fitted nicely — but it was off the peg. They’d done their best. It was nice. The first bespoke jacket though… it fitted like a glove. I looked fantastic. My neckline looked great — usually, as my shoulders are quite broad, an off-the-peg jacket tends to ride up and look rubbish. Something I’d never appreciated until I started this journey.
I’m now bespoke all the way. There are, by the way, different classes of suit you can buy. Loosely speaking, you’ve got:
Off-the-peg — where the shop will adjust for you
Made to measure / “Personal tailoring” — the cloth is cut by machine and usually finished by hand
Bespoke — everything is handmade by a human for you
My preference is to avoid off-the-peg nowadays. I popped into Ede & Ravenscroft a few years back and picked up one of their pinstripes off-the-peg as I was in a rush. And one of my wedding suits was off-the-peg from there too, as, again, I was in a bit of a rush.
It’s all relative but generally speaking I expect to pay about 400-500 pounds for a made-to-measure suit and at least double that for bespoke, if not a lot more. It’s all about the cloth you choose though. You might select a really nice lightweight cloth and find it costs £900 made-to-measure. Most hyper-bespoke suits will usually run into 2 or 4 thousand pounds.
With made-to-measure, you get to choose from a list of options. For example, would you like your cuffs this way or that? Would you like a ticket pocket? Pockets slanted or straight? And so on. With bespoke though, you make the rules. You specify what you want precisely.
I normally carry at least one mobile phone so I’ve had my tailor make allowances for this in the build of the suit.
For me I don’t worry too much about bespoke vs made-to-measure. It very much depends on my mood, my requirements or whether the tailor I’m talking with offers the service. I’ve had stunning results from both.
Quite a few of my friends have been surprised by the fairly cheap cost of a made-to-measure suit, given that they often pay £300 or £450 for an off-the-peg number that sort-of-fits from one of the high street brands.
Which brings me to you, dear reader.
Either this territory is familiar to you and perhaps I might be able to suggest another tailor or service that you might like to look at. Or it’s entirely new to you, in which case, hopefully I can help point you in the right direction.
Over the coming months here on The Pursuit of Quality I’m going to outline a number of establishments that you might consider patronising. There’s quite a few that I’ve come across over the years but not yet tried. When I’ve got direct knowledge of the service level, I’ll definitely be able to deliver a firm recommendation (like Ede & Ravenscroft). If not, I’ll aim to highlight companies that you might consider.
Where possible I’ll try and sample the service of as many outlets as I can and then publish a review.
I’d very much welcome all suggestions for tailors (and accessories — I’ll get on to shoes, shirts, cufflinks, all that later on). Please do send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment below.