Monday, August 20, 2007

Something for the Boys: British Shirts

...from The Wall Street Journal:

Corporate News
U.K. shirt makers collar American buyers --- Deeper push in U.S. plugs higher quality with costlier features
By Ray A. Smith
20 August 2007
The Wall Street Journal

JASON RUSSELL of Provo, Utah, recently opened his mailbox and found something unfamiliar: a catalog from British clothier Charles Tyrwhitt.
Flipping through it, he was flummoxed by some of the descriptions, including "cutaway collars" and "170s." That didn't stop him from buying two shirts that cost $100 each. "They just feel classy," he says.
The march of British shirt makers into New York and Los Angeles is spreading deeper into the U.S. Thomas Pink is scouting locations in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Scottsdale, Arizona, and plans to open stores in Las Vegas and the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts, in the next year. Paul Smith is looking at sites in Chicago and San Francisco, and Turnbull & Asser plans to open outposts in cities such as Dallas.
While the British invasion means more choices, it also is forcing customers to learn a new shirt vocabulary, with phrases such as "double cuffs" (the British term for French cuffs) and "Sea Island quality" cotton (a fine grade usually grown in the Caribbean) in store displays and catalogs. Makers say they have found that these Britishisms can convey a sense of class to a U.S. audience. "To some American customers, it's intriguing," says Justin Metcalf, president of Charles Tyrwhitt U.S.
For men shopping for dress shirts, it can also mean squeezing into a tighter fit. British shirts are cut closer to the body: A "classic fit" Charles Tyrwhitt shirt fits the way an American brand's "slim fit" shirt would. British shirts tend to have spread collars, compared to the long, pointy versions on many American shirts. They also come in less conservative colors, with unusual shades like orange and pistachio, and bold patterns of checks and plaids that can seem loud by American office standards.
But the Brits are also reshaping the economics of dress shirts in the U.S. by charging more for features that they say add up to better construction and durability. Charles Tyrwhitt's shirts, for instance, are made with gussets -- extra layers of cloth inserted at the lower side seams, for reinforced strength -- they start at $99, while Brooks Brothers' entry-level dress shirts are $79.50.
Most British makers also use single-needle stitching for the seams, which is considered sturdier and cleaner-looking than the two-needle stitching found in some American-brand shirts. And Brits typically use a "split yoke" construction for the back of a shirt: They cut the fabric in half, and then sew it up the middle, to allow for more freedom of movement around the shoulder. The yokes of basic American shirts are often left in one piece. Thomas Pink shirts, which have gussets and split yokes, start at $150.
Some tailors say these features don't necessarily produce a longer-lasting shirt. New York custom tailor Alan Flusser says that while touches such as gussets and split yokes drive up the price of a shirt because of the time and handwork involved, they don't always make the shirt more durable.
He adds that double-needle stitching has improved so much over the years that these days it will serve a customer as well as a single-needle stitch. "The seams won't look as nice, but a good double needle will hold up just as well," he says.
A representative of Turnbull & Asser says the gusset strengthens the seam where the shirt's tail and front meet -- a natural spot for wear and tear for many men.
Brett Rogoff, 33 years old, of New York says he is a convert to British shirts because he likes their slimmer fit. In the past, he says, "I couldn't buy shirts off the rack without them having to be tailored. The waist area was always too big." Now he wears shirts from Charles Tyrwhitt (pronounced "tirrit," the company's Web site says) and Thomas Pink.
The British brands say they see an opportunity in the U.S. market in part because sales of luxury goods here are booming. Sales of men's dress shirts costing $100 and up at department stores rose 33% in the 12 months ended June 30 compared with a 2% decline for shirts priced below $100, according to market researcher NPD Group. Jeff Blee, merchandise manager of men's furnishings at Brooks Brothers, says 30% of the retailer's dress-shirt business is in the $100-and-up category compared with 10% five years ago.
The U.K. luxury market is also doing well, but the makers say the shirt market there is saturated. The U.S. gives these brands a market where they can grow with less British competition.
American labels have been making some changes to their shirts -- a move they say is partly in response to increased competition from the Brits. Brooks Brothers and Ike Behar are starting to offer Sea Island cotton shirts, priced at $275 and $295, respectively. The cotton is considered particularly fine, and it is known for its strength and luster. They are also expanding their made-to-measure programs to compete in the luxury market.
Ike Behar says it has started adding gussets to its entry-level shirts in the past few years as well. It has also raised the yarn count of its entry-level shirts, from 80s and 100s to 120s. (The figure refers to the number of times the yarn is spun -- the higher the number, the finer the yarn.) British makers such as Thomas Pink have drawn attention to the issue of yarn count in shirts in recent years, marketing their luxury shirts with labels such as "170s."
As American labels are upgrading, they are also pushing up their prices in some cases. At Brooks Brothers, for example, prices for all levels of shirts have risen this summer by $5 to $17.

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