Custom shirts an answer for the hard-to-fit

July 08, 1992|By T.J. Howard | T.J. Howard,Chicago Tribune

Want the shirt off his back? It may be harder to snag if it's custom-made.

For the man who's hard to fit, a custom-made shirt is a necessity. It's the difference between looking like a million bucks or looking like you're decked out in hand-me-downs.

"About 60 percent of our custom-made shirt customers buy them because of sizing problems," says Blaine Lucas, merchandiser of men's dress shirts at Brooks Brothers in New York.

"Most people that can wear ready-made (shirts) will," says Sid Shapiro, owner of Syd Jerome men's store in Chicago. Like Mr. Lucas, Mr. Shapiro estimates about 60 percent of his custom-made shirt business stems from fit problems.

Standard sizing for ready-made shirts ranges from 14 1/2 to 17 1/2 inches around the neck and about 32 to 36 inches for sleeve

length. Which means if you have an 18-inch neck or larger, you could choke to death.

Or, if you're smaller, you could look like the Incredible Shrinking Man. (The oversized look has a place in the fashion world, but this isn't it.)

And even if you fall within the parameters of standard sizing, that doesn't guarantee good fit. Neck and sleeve sizes for ready-made shirts fall in increments of 1/2 inch. Custom-made shirt services offer more precise fit: 1/4 inch or better.

Yet, the custom shirt market is as driven by idiosyncrasies as by non-standard physiques.

"I haven't bought a shirt off the rack in 20 years," says Nick Celozzi, president of Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet Inc., an automobile dealership in Elmhurst, Ill. His reason for going the custom-made route? An urge for individuality: "In a custom-made shirt, you don't see yourself coming and going," he says.

Like Mr. Celozzi, many men want control of fabric, collar style, pocket treatments, etc. "I just got my first custom-made shirt recently because I fell in love with a certain French blue cotton fabric and couldn't find it in the body style I wanted," says Paul Buckter, merchandise coordinator of men's tailored clothing at Bloomingdale's in New York.

Indeed, in an era of mass production, a custom-made shirt offers a chance to break with conformity.

"I want a button-down collar with more of a roll" or "I want a pocket with pleats" are just a couple of the requests that Beatrice DeBartolo, co-owner of D. DeBartolo & Co., a custom shirt shop in Chicago hears each day. "We've had men walk in with pictures from magazines, sketches or even ideas they have seen in a movie," says Ms. DeBartolo. Once she rented a video of "Dr. HD because a customer wanted a formal shirt with ruffles down the front.

Getting a distinct, unusual and/or offbeat collar is the reason many men convert to custom.

"The collar is the most important element of a shirt because it frames your face," says Mortimer Levitt, founder and owner of The Custom Shop, a New York-based shirtmaker with 76 stores across the country.

The Custom Shop offers nine collar styles, including the "Giorgio Armani," which features a low back and short collar points.

But credit Pat Riley, head coach of the New York Knicks, for inspiring the latest craze in collars -- an unusual cutaway collar that is curved at the edge but still has a point at the end.

At Brooks Brothers, the infamous button-down collar still ranks No. 1 in popularity, followed by a regular straight collar, then a tab collar (which has loops that fasten behind a tie) in third place. "Tabs are picking up," says Lucas. "They used to be in fourth place (behind a spread collar, which has a wider angle between collar points)."

If you're in a hurry, a custom-made shirt may not be the answer. Most custom-made shirts are made out of town or even out of the country and delivery takes anywhere from five to eight weeks.

When Mr. Levitt founded The Custom Shop in 1936, his custom-made shirts sold for $2.15 each. Times have changed, ** and so have prices. Today, a shirt from The Custom Shop starts at $52.50.

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