“The shirt is still a key part of the male wardrobe because it is one of the most adaptable elements. With the same suit you can have many different looks via different shirts.
“Certainly dress policies are changing the feel of the shirt – it’s softer, for example – but that has also given men more freedom to choose the kind of shirt they wear and the more interesting patterns they want to display.
They don’t have to go for the standard plain blue or white, which no man really wants to spend much money on because it’s just not that exciting.” Laurent Negrin, sales director and head of the Italian shirt-making operation bought by the French luxury menswear brand Zilli two years ago and now back at capacity, sits back and surveys the clinical production line below – part old-fashioned hand-craft, part hi-tech, laser-guided machinery of the firm’s own invention.
That Negrin should mention the readiness to spend is apposite; but that he should speak of his customer as though they perhaps have only a couple of suits is rather misleading. After all, the price of a bespoke Zilli shirt starts at around £600. Even one of its ready-to-wear shirts is upwards of £350. That’s right – just for a shirt. It is, admittedly, some shirt.
Indeed, Zilli likes to think that it now makes one of the best shirts in the world, beloved of presidents, oil tycoons and Russian oligarchs; men who might well buy a Zilli shirt just because it is so expensive. A regard for the details might not come into it.
And details there are. Once you have selected from dozens of collar and cuff styles, and from over 450 fabrics, decided whether to have the buttons monogrammed, apply the quality benchmark of shirts and note, for example, how the striped or patterned cloth of each part of the shirt is meticulously matched.
Or how each cuff is finished so that the edge ends on the lighter stripe of the fabric. Why? Any wear through abrasion is less likely to show that way. “And, as for losing a button,” says Negrin, “that is just not acceptable on a shirt of this price. I’ve experienced that after a couple of wears of shirts from others who claim to be among the best makers around. It doesn’t happen here.” Once a button is stitched on, the holding thread is wrapped with a coil of more thread that not only makes the button doubly secure, but raises it slightly from the shirt to make fastening less fiddly.
The mother-of-pearl buttons, naturally, are what the Italians call “nuno volato” (without any cloud). Pure, flawless white, in other words. Still, a £350 shirt, let alone a £600 one, remains a tough call for all but the Forbes Top 100 – even one that, following the planned launch of a unique service, will see Zilli offering all of its bespoke customers a lifetime MoT for your purchase – send it back and they will replace worn collars or cuffs. Negrin argues that this is a consequence of the gradual devaluation of the shirtmaker’s skill.
This has come as a result of shirts of average quality being overpriced (“when you see a white poplin designer shirt on sale for £250 and know that the fabric cost three euros a metre, well...” he says with a sigh). But it is also a consequence of de-valuation of the perceived worth of a shirt following even Jermyn Street’s pursuit of volume over quality.
“‘Three shirts for £100’ type deals have ruined the image of the shirt,” Negrin says, “though at least that has allowed the real shirtmakers, with traditional quality, to shine. Lots of brands have, of course, been bothered about margins. But by definition such deals mean you can’t be getting a great product.
“Fortunately there is still a customer concerned with getting fewer, better products. They’re a minority. But then gentlemen have always been a minority. Do the changes to the industry make it harder to sell? Not really. It’s a different world. It’s comparing a Fiat with a Ferrari.” Negrin is confident in his boast. And the somewhat anal obsessiveness employed in producing a Zilli shirt is extensive – one unique, labour-intensive operation, for example, the thread attaches the cuff to sleeve and is fed back into the cuff’s hem, hidden but left loose – the lack of tension in the thread means your cuffs won’t pucker when washed.
Of course, you will no doubt want to avoid shrinkage of your bank-breaking shirt, should you dare to wash it at all. Zilli has considered that too – the fabric is laundered to remove shrinkage and, as though exhausted by the experience, is allowed to “rest” before it is hand cut. Even some thread is washed for the same effect.
Not that you can really see the thread – your shirt is crafted using minuscule stitches, between nine and 12 per centimetre, against an industry standard of just six.
“It’s a process of education for a man to understand what makes a truly good shirt these days,” says Negrin. “You need someone to draw your attention to the details, because details are what luxury is all about.
That takes both the media to get that message across – because what any brand says is just a point of view – and personal experience. It really pays to spend some time with a couple of shirts and compare them. Really look at how they are put together. It’s amazing how even some shirtmakers with great reputations are making shirts that on close inspection are not always great.” Still unconvinced that several hundred pounds on a single shirt can ever be justified? Put it this way. One could argue that, if one had unlimited funds, one would have the pick of the world’s shirts.
One would probably have tried all the shirts that promised to be the best. So consider the unnamed Russian businessman who contacted Zilli this spring requesting 50 of their bespoke shirts “as a trial”. Coolly, Negrin offered to make him one, to try that out first. This done, a few weeks later he called them back. He would take the full 50. And another 350 please.