The French may have Charvet, but we have Turnbull & Asser. In matters of sartorial excellence, a bespoke shirt has to be one of life’s great not-so-little luxuries. So in the name of research, I took up the offer of trying out the service.
Shirts factor big in my book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman and they’re also enjoying a major fashion spotlight moment, especially those of gargantuan, deconstructed proportions. And yet here’s a fascinating fact: only about 1% of Turnbull & Asser bespoke shirts are made for women. But that 1% includes some of the most celebrated style innovators of our time – Katharine Hepburn, Bianca Jagger and Lauren Bacall among them. Example: that’s a silk Turnbull & Asser creation that Bianca is sporting in this famous Ron Galella photo.
Princess Diana was another fan. She chose to order some T&As after taking a fancy to Prince Charles’ shirts (Turnbull & Asser still has the royal warrant to make them) and also bought dupes for the young princes. And Debo, the 11th Duchess of Devonshire was also a customer – her pristine pink and blue T&A shirts can currently be seen on display at the Chatsworth House ‘House Style’ exhibition.
I guess compared to men, women have so much more choice when it comes to shopping for shirts and blouses that to have one specially made, you’d need to have very specific tastes or a difficult body shape to justify the cost. Plus, you could argue that the male business dress code calls for a shirt and tie five days a week. The shirt is even more visible in these less formal times when a jacket is left on the back of a chair for most of the day.
That said, like anything bespoke, once you’ve tried having a shirt made to your exact specs, it’s easy to see why you’d get hooked. At Turnbull & Asser, you can choose from 2000 Italian-made fabrics, 12 collar shapes and 11 cuff options (including variations of) or simply replicate the style of an existing favourite shirt. My process involved several fittings, plus an extra special visit to the Gloucester factory to watch the final shirts being made.
THE FIRST VISIT
To start the process of making your shirts, simply rock up to the Bury Street store – no appointment required. Turnbull & Asser prides itself on a meticulous but relaxed service in its store, a thimble’s throw from the mayhem of nearby Piccadilly Circus. It has had premises on this corner of Jermyn Street since 1903, even surviving the shelling of the second world war, when St James’s was almost reduced to rubble. Here, wood-panelled walls are clustered with paper patterns and signed photos from the most revered of Hollywood heavyweights, sports champs, royalty and politicians. But all customers get the same treatment regardless of who they are. Marc Jacobs is known to pop in off the street – no entourage, no fanfare – while Alexander McQueen was another low key regular (he had a penchant for bespoke shirts with complex embroideries).
Your first appointment can take anything up to an hour as you discuss the minutiae of silhouette, fabrics, collar shapes and cuff preferences. Momentarily I considered going for something fashionably deconstructed and Vetements-esque, but common sense prevailed. No! I need something I’ll wear for years to come and even though we’re experiencing an ‘oversized’ moment, it’s unlikely to last. Instead I went for a classic cut with a boyish fit (not too fitted, no darts) in three different fabrics. You have to order a minimum of six* shirts for your first order, with prices starting at £255 for a poplin shirt.
To help me choose the style, I took along a couple of my own shirts that I like and asked for a slightly modified version. Then we chose fabrics from the library of swatch books available. Turnbull & Asser’s come from an Italian supplier and include plain poplins, fresh stripes and subtle twills, but you can also go wild with patterns. I’ll admit I had no idea that T&A is renowned for boldly patterned shirts. “Oh yes,” said Stephen Quin, the retail director. “We’re the peacocks of Jermyn Street!” (Fact: dandyish 60s tailoring legend Michael Fish cut his teeth at Turnbull & Asser.) But I kept my focus and opted for a trio of blue twill, cream Sea Island cotton, and a pale blue stripe.
Measurements are next. There are around 20 measurements taken by the same person who will cut the pattern. This includes your arm measurements with arms straight and bent, and wrist measurements where they also take into account the thickness of your watch to allow a couple of extra millimetres. Here you can advise on your personal foibles. For example I prefer my sleeves a little undersized, so they sit above the wrist bone and I like the depth of collar narrower than average to account for my, ahem, less-than-swanlike neck.
You’re also asked for your other preferences, such as cuff choice and weather you’ll be wearing your shirt tucked in or out to determine the length of tails. I didn’t choose anything super fancy here but did opt for a monogram on my blue shirt. Should you be struck with decision paralysis (which font? Which thread colour?), they will happily advise.
Here’s the thing about fittings. They take time. The idea is that when your shirt is ready, you take it home, wear and wash it a couple of times (no tumble drying), then return it for any tweaks. This allows for any shrinkage and softening of the fabric. My collar felt a bit too high and tight so the neckband was narrowed slightly and the neck loosened. We also shortened the sleeves. A couple of weeks later I returned to pick it up, took it home and washed it again. If you’re petite like me, it makes a huge difference to have a shirt that fits properly. It tucks in just so and sits nicely under a blazer when unbuttoned.
THE FACTORY VISIT
The Turnbull & Asser factory is in Quedgeley in Gloucester and like many of the factories I’ve been to, it’s situated in an industrial park in two nondescript buildings. From the outside, you would never guess that Prince Charles’ shirts are hand made here, but once inside you soon see the evidence of 130 years of great skill and craftsmanship.
Despite some digital technology used for storing customer orders and mapping the initial pattern, most of the bespoke shirt making is still done by hand. In the store, your measurements are logged by hand on a paper docket, which gets sent with the paper pattern to the factory and filed in a digital archive. In the CAD (computer aided design) and Cutting Room, the analogue pattern is digitised and measurements checked and double-checked. Meticulous checking at this early stage is crucial, although constant quality control along the way is normal.
A giant cutting table dominates the cutting room, surrounded by cutters who each have their own favourite shears, rotary cutters and other tools. For bespoke shirts it takes 2-3 years of training before being let loose on these expensive fabrics, hence the phrase, ‘check twice, cut once’ is a favourite. Cutting each shirt takes on average 28 minutes. All the cut out pieces are then bundled together (neatly tied with a T&A striped cotton bow) in a tray accompanied by their docket, which travels with the shirt along every step of the process. Ready-to-wear shirts are also cut here, on a separate table where up to fifty layers of fabric are cut by a machine.
Nearby is the alterations area, with boxes overflowing with fabrics of every ilk for customers who like to keep their shirts for a very long time. Rather than throwing old shirts away, they send them back here to be repaired. Worn collars are replaced and extra fabric added (if a customer has put on weight), or darts inserted if they have slimmed down.
Next door is the Sewing Floor; a hive of sewing bees toiling to the thrum of hand worked sewing machines. The bespoke area has its own section, as does the sampling area where extra specialised seamstresses work on any tricky techniques or new designs. The skill lies in completing extremely fiddly techniques at a steady pace.
On my visit, the seamstresses in the bespoke department have pressed pause on their usual work in order to accommodate my shirts. I watch as my collars are prepped, the shoulders are attached to the yoke and the collar, then the rest of the shirt is assembled. Buttons are made from ethically sourced mother of pearl and secured with crossed lock stitching by a special machine that’s so strong they don’t even supply a spare button any more. Another point of difference is the placket, which for Turnbull & Asser is constructed from the body of the shirt rather than a separate piece sewn on.
Once the entire shirt is assembled, it goes to be quality checked and pressed. As the shirts are checked at every step of the process there aren’t many mistakes to be found but loose threads are snipped here and any flaws attended to. In the pictures below, you can see my cuffs being measured and checked against the docket. If it’s not perfect, it’s not leaving the factory!
Finally, ladies’ shirts are pressed by hand, men’s are done on a machine press. My bespoke shirts are then folded and bagged with special personalised tags attached. The exception? My monogrammed blue shirt, which is 180 miles away in Hastings. This is where the hand embroidered monogramming takes place, a one-woman service that simply can’t be rushed.
So it’s quite a lengthy process, this bespoke shirt malarkey. And so it should be. Forty hands or more will have touched my shirts by the time they reach me and it’s the hand crafting element and precise attention to detail that make these the kind of shirts you want to keep forever. That’s the appeal for me anyway, along with the idea that something was made for me and only me. And as we all know, when you have had an input in creating something, you value it all the more. Fashion may be having an impatient ‘see now buy now’ moment in which being first with something is considered the ultimate luxury, but in my case, the wait is all part of the desire.
Thank you to Turnbull & Asser for hosting me at the factory and giving me the chance to test the bespoke shirt service
*This post has been corrected. An earlier version stated that a minimum of three shirts have to be ordered for the first purchase. In fact, it is six shirts.
For more How It’s Made posts, check out my other workshop and factory visits:
Visiting the Lesage embroidery atelier with Chanel
For more on heritage brands and artisanal luxury, buy my book, The New Garconne – How to be a Modern Gentlewoman
WORDS AND IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
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