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WSJ article: The White Shirt: A Roving Quest For Perfection

NorCal_1

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The White Shirt: A Roving Quest For Perfection

By CHRISTINA BINKLEY
To get the new year off to a good start, let's start with a blank slate: the white shirt.

In recent years, men turned to shirt colors as vibrant as the booming economy. But we are now in an era of restraint, and a simple white dress shirt sends a savvy message. It says a man is ready for work and isn't vamping for attention. "When times are tough, men want to be more serious about their look," says Eric Jennings, men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The Men's Classic White Shirt Test
View Slideshow
But not all white shirts are equal. Pier Luigi Loro Piana, co-chairman and CEO of the Italian luxury clothes maker Loro Piana, says he sizes men up by their shirts, taking in the thickness of the buttons and the firmness of the collar. "The quality of clothing tells you so much of what you need to know about a person," Mr. Loro Piana says.

The question is: How much must one spend to attain this level of quality? It's possible to buy a fitted cotton shirt -- with the higher-end feature of removable collar stays -- from Target for less than $30. Yet a man can easily spend $400 for a white shirt that isn't even custom-made. Buying a plain shirt from a famous designer can add a hefty surcharge to the price. So, just as the financial crisis was spreading around the globe last fall, I embarked on a mission to discover the ingredients of a distinguished dress shirt.

For an expert's view, I consulted several knowledgeable men about their own shirt choices. Narrow-cut shirts are particularly popular today, says Mr. Jennings, who is filling Saks all over the country with fitted dress shirts. Think the TV series "Mad Men" and the urban office environment of 1965. But there's more to a great dress shirt than style.

Mr. Loro Piana, who sells some of the most expensive clothes on the planet, says he grew up in Brooks Brothers button-downs, though he wears Loro Piana today. In choosing shirts, he says he looks first at fabric quality and button thickness, and then at the cut of the shirt, and he insists on removable collar stays, as the sewn-in ones crumple over time.

Francesco Trapani, the chatty chief executive of Bulgari, favors bespoke shirts from Italy's Micocci -- the same maker his father wore, he said. He cherishes each shirt; indeed, the one he was wearing when I chatted with him last fall had a rather frayed collar, and he conceded he needed to order some new shirts.

Meanwhile, Steve Sadove, chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue, told me he prefers Charvet shirts.

A man can't go wrong with any of those choices. But most of these shirts, with the exception of Brooks Brothers', will set you back several hundred dollars apiece. Can quality be had for less?

I headed to Paris and Milan -- centers for high-end menswear -- and consulted Colin Woodhead, an affable British gent who knows his buttons from his "bones" (collar stays, to us Yanks) after decades of working as a fashion marketer. At the La VallÃ
e luxury outlet mall outside Paris, we raced through the stores of more than a dozen shirtmakers (most of which are available in the U.S.) as Mr. Woodhead sought bargains. "I'm from Yorkshire, and the definition of a Yorkshireman is a Scotsman with all the generosity squeezed out," he announced.


Lori Hawkins/Elaine Korn Ltd. for The Wall Street JournalMr. Woodhead liked the stitched placket and stiff collar of a Façonnable shirt he found, which cost about $86 at current exchange rates, but he found the logo stitched to the front left pocket to be tacky. An S.T. Dupont shirt looked "good," but a $103 Givenchy shirt had an "unlovely" flimsy fabric. Dunhill's $73 shirts, made in Romania, were deemed "good medium level" because of the single stitching at the shoulder where the seam had been doubled and rolled -- a sign of quality workmanship.

Charles Tyrwhitt offered a solid "workman's shirt," with three levels of quality at prices ranging from $87 to $176. A $60 Cacharel had a "rim-stitched" collar with the stitches close to the edge: This signals a cheaper make, according to Mr. Woodhead, though others I consulted said they don't make note of collar stitching.

A Paul Smith shirt priced at $130 had loose threads in the buttonhole -- possibly the reason it was discounted at an outlet. Mr. Woodhead shook his head at Emporio Armani's shirts, priced at $113 -- too costly, in his estimation, for the workmanship. Alain Figaret won the afternoon, offering fine fabric for $74.

My outing with Mr. Woodhead was enlightening, but to really test the shirts' capacity to impress those with discerning taste -- say, a boss or a future father-in-law -- I needed some laymen's opinions. I bought four shirts and made my husband, back in L.A., wear them for a month.

The candidates included: a wrinkle-resistant shirt with removable collar stays from Target in Los Angeles, priced at $24.99; a simple, $105 Alain Figaret from a Paris boutique (Figaret is mostly sold online in the U.S.); an Ermenegildo Zegna shirt purchased on the Avenue Georges V in Paris for $252; and a hand-sewn Borrelli shirt from Boule de Neige, a shop in Milan, for $329.

My husband, James, isn't normally a white-shirt man. He leans toward blue and sage, and he often wears a casual, colored T-shirt under a dress shirt. So it may have skewed the results of our entirely unscientific experiment to have him suddenly look so Atomic Age. Rather than blending in, with his new white-shirt uniform, he drew compliments and felt that people gave him a new measure of respect.

On the first day, James said, looking pleased, that when he retrieved our children from school, he had received a notable increase in attention from the other mothers. In fact, he drew a compliment from one mom who doesn't usually greet either of us. Enough said.

"You're looking put-together today," said a longtime friend one day when he wore the Target shirt. Indeed, Target won the value-for-price contest. It's hard to argue with $25 -- and the quality stood up to many of the shirts that Mr. Woodhead inspected. Still, the coarser fabric wouldn't fool a discriminating judge.

The Figaret's shortcoming was its sewn-in collar stays, which might not hold up to long use. Yet, over our monthlong test, it offered terrific value: The fabric and stitching held up well against the pricier competition. Any Zegna shirt offers bragging rights among many businessmen and financiers. But the Zegna didn't draw more notice than the Figaret, which cost one-third as much.

The Borrelli, even when still folded, drew the attention of a well-bred British friend, who touched the collar lovingly and said, "Nice shirt. Look at those buttons." In fact, of the four shirts, the Borrelli's soft-yet-substantial fabric, smooth collar and mother-of-pearl buttons made it James's favorite. He has been hinting wistfully about more.
 

Mr. Moo

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"The quality of clothing tells you so much of what you need to know about a person," Mr. Loro Piana says.

Come on. Seriously? Look, men should be well dressed but it is certainly not "much" of what makes up a man. I know many men who don't give a shit about their dress who are far greater than those who do. Give me a break!
 

coachvu

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"A $60 Cacharel had a "rim-stitched" collar with the stitches close to the edge: This signals a cheaper make, according to Mr. Woodhead..."

I've never heard this line. I thought this was just a matter of preference.
 

Doc4

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Originally Posted by Mr. Moo
"The quality of clothing tells you so much of what you need to know about a person," Mr. Loro Piana says.

Come on. Seriously? Look, men should be well dressed but it is certainly not "much" of what makes up a man. I know many men who don't give a shit about their dress who are far greater than those who do. Give me a break!


He sells $400 shirts ... what's he supposed to say?

"You'd be better off buying a shirt for one-fifth the price of mine, if it's the right shirt and fits you properly."

We can but dream ...
 

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