An introduction to the exclusive world of sartorial elegance – bespoke shirtmaking, Houston style
While fashionable gentlemen trot the globe in search of custom clothing, it is a well-kept secret that one of the world’s finest haberdasheries is located in the Bayou City. Hamilton Custom Shirtmakers, one of the oldest and most well-respected tailors in the world, has served four generations of Houston’s oil barons, financiers and CEOs with bespoke shirts since 1883. Their rigorous standards rival even the most storied shirtmakers such as Charvet, headquartered at Paris’s exclusive Place Vendôme, and Turnbull &Asser, the official outfitters of James Bond, located on London’s Jermyn Street. Many fashion tastemakers are devotees of the brand, such as Simon Doonan, Barneys New York’s Creative Director, who says, “The only time I’m not wearing a Hamilton shirt is when I’m in bed sleeping in a Gap T-shirt.”
The people behind the product
Hamilton’s history began with a tale of two brothers in the late 1800s. They opened a men’s furnishings store on the current site of the Rice Hotel to meet the burgeoning demand for high-quality clothing by oil-rich Texans. Throughout the years, this longstanding family-owned business has aged with grace, building flourishing partnerships with luxury retailers, most notably with Barneys New York. Most recently, the business has been revitalized with new blood. Siblings Kelly and David, ages 31 and 28 respectively, are the fourth generation of Hamiltons to take the helm of this celebrated Houston institution. Despite their youth, the dynamic brother and sister team brings decades of experience to the table, having spent countless vacations and holidays learning the trade. “I would just come up here and play in the factory, picking up fabric scraps … and eventually had summer jobs here,” says David, recalling his childhood days.
The duo’s path to claiming their birthright was somewhat circuitous. Both Hamiltons began their paths in different industries; Kelly worked as an oil and gas recruiter after earning a human development degree from Texas Tech University while David began his career as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. However, David soon recognized the potential for growth in the family business and joined Kelly in assuming ownership of the company in May of 2006. David says, “I realized that there was opportunity here. I felt like we have always had a great product and good customers and there was a chance to grow on that.”
Bespoke shirtmaking 101
Bespoke, derived from the English word bespeak, is a term used as early as 1583 to describe an individually- or custom-made product — in this case, shirts. Despite the quality shirts found prêt-a-porter at your local Saks Fifth Avenue, the unfortunate truth is they are mass-produced in factories for stock sizes. Unless your height, weight, and proportions are the same as the model used to make the initial pattern, the stock shirts may not fit quite right. In particular, bespoke garments are becoming increasingly popular with younger audiences who seek flattering fits that complement the gym body that they have spent so many hours to obtain. In many ways, custom shirts are the male equivalent of haute couture; due to the craftsmanship, price and quality of materials, they are the ultimate in luxury.
While you can order Hamilton shirts from outposts such as Barneys New York in Dallas or Johnstone in Austin, the Houston flagship store and factory, located on Richmond Ave., is the heart and soul of the company. Upon entering the store, you are immediately transported to the romantic world of London’s Savile Row. The rich mahogany-paneled walls and aged leather chairs evoke a classic gentleman’s club, without the cigar smoke. Antique sewing machines are displayed next to colorful Ferragamo ties as a portrait of co-founder, J. Brooke Hamilton, vigilantly watches over the cash register.
If lucky, first-time customers may have the pleasure of being greeted by the charming owners. The client is presented with leather books containing more than 600 fabric swatches carefully hand-selected from the best textile mills in Italy and Switzerland. With every color and pattern imaginable — from neutral herringbones to pastel ginghams — there is enough eye candy to make any fashion lover’s heart beat faster. To suit Houston’s humidity and tastes, Hamilton carries beautiful linens for the perfect summer shirt and stocks up on the brighter colors preferred by the city’s dashing gentlemen.
After selecting the fabric, measurements are taken by an expert seamstress. Then comes the fun part where you can make the shirt one-of-a-kind. If you are overwhelmed by the more than 10 collars, six button fronts, four back styles, five cuff options, five pocket designs and eight monograms, don’t despair. Pick the most flattering style for your body type. Have narrow shoulders? Choose a wide collar that will even out your proportions. Additionally, Hamilton is a Houston-based retailer that stays true to its roots. They offer Texan touches, such as a Western back, that can be put on a business shirt to subtly declare one’s allegiance to the Lone Star State. Some men go beyond the usual options to truly customize a shirt to fit their lifestyle. “We have a guy who would request in some of his shirts that he would have hidden pockets, on the inside,” says David, chuckling. “It was for cigars and flasks so his wife didn’t know they were on him.”
To experience the artisan tradition of shirtmaking, peek through the window that looks into the Hamilton factory, where every shirt is handmade by expert craftsmen. Although the business has modernized by introducing technological advances and a sleek website, David explains that Hamilton has remained the same. “The way that we make the shirt has been consistent over the years,” he says. Behind the scenes, the client’s measurements are used to create a custom paper pattern, which is what makes the shirt truly bespoke. Then the fabric is cut around the pattern using a blade to ensure accuracy. Lastly, the shirt’s pieces are given to the seamstresses who piece together the final product with fine attention to every detail. Their turnaround is surprisingly quick compared to many European retailers that command upwards of several months for a shirt. With a four-shirt minimum per order, you can expect to receive your first Hamilton item after approximately three weeks. The result? A luxurious shirt with perfectly-fitting panache.