Saturday, 1 February 2020

The secrets of the button down shirt and the 'collar roll'... MERCER & SONS or BROOKS BROTHERS ?


(…) “Mercer & Sons began in 1982 in an 18th-century warehouse in Boston with the goal of making a 1950s-style oxford shirt in two-ply pima cotton, with a full cut and classic collar roll. The clothier, which makes what G. Bruce Boyer calls an “old-fashioned button-down, the way they used to be,” promises a full collar roll of nearly 3.5 inches. “It must be the proper, soft, full roll,” explains David Mercer, who runs the firm. “The look is distinctive and obvious at first glance.” Each of the company’s shirt collars is unlined, unfused, and turned by hand. The rest of the shirt is generously cut — so generously, in fact, that it billows. The shirts are roomy the way boat sails are roomy. Perhaps coincidentally, Mercer & Sons shirts, which start at $95, are made in Yarmouth, an old Maine shipbuilding town near Portland.

According to Mercer, most of the big-name shirtmakers have wandered off-track when it comes to button-downs and their all-important collars. “Twenty five years ago, the good button-down shirt became compromised in quality and sizing,” Mercer says. Roomier fit gave way to less generous, laser-cut silhouettes. Mercer takes exception: “A tight European fit is not flattering to all. Many of us benefit from a little mystery. Form and style follow function, and our fit remains a timeless look that is always in good taste.”

And there’s the issue of collar roll. Most collars are made in ways that increase the ease and speed with which they can be manufactured, resulting in a collar that looks and feels hard and comes apart quickly when laundered. Fabric experts estimate the life of a commercially laundered shirt at between 30 and 50 washings. David Mercer guarantees at least 150 washings of his shirts. In addition to their fine construction, the generous cut puts less stress on fabric and seams”

What went wrong with the Brooks Brothers shirt?
Damian Thompson 30 NOVEMBER 2015

In the late 1980s, the City of London was crawling with wannabe ‘Masters of the Universe’ — the term Tom Wolfe uses in Bonfire of the Vanities for the swaggering young bond traders of Wall Street. Suddenly it was no longer cool to be a Sloane Ranger. Instead, young City types behaved as if they divided their time between Manhattan and the Hamptons.

One way of giving off this vibe was to produce ‘Bolivian marching powder’ at parties. A cheaper and safer alternative was to wear a shirt from Brooks Brothers.

They stuck out a mile, thanks to their button-down collars. Other shirtmakers made button-downs, of course — you could buy them in Marks & Spencer. But only Brooks Brothers knew how to balance the length of the collar with the positioning of the buttons so that the material rolled into a distinctive ‘S’ shape. Also — and this was crucial — Brooks Brothers didn’t have an outlet in London. You had to buy them in America, preferably at their flagship store on Madison Avenue. This was in the days when people still boasted about having been to the States.

I remember the first time I visited that Madison Avenue shop, in 1988. Although I didn’t work in the City, I loved everything preppy, and the range of pastel colours was dazzling. They were the sort of shirts that made Daisy cry when Jay Gatsby flung open his wardrobe ‘because they were so beautiful’. You could buy them with ordinary collars, but that defeated the point of the exercise: only Brooks Brothers button-downs gave you the S-shape, which looked equally dashing worn with a tie or open-necked. Gianni Agnelli, the supremely stylish head of Fiat, wore nothing else (though, bizarrely, he often left the lapels unbuttoned — a fashion that failed to catch on, like his even odder habit of wearing his watch over his shirt). So out came the credit card.

I remember reading an article by the novelist William Boyd in which he said that he didn’t see any point in wearing anything but Brooks Brothers button-downs. I think he said he owned 70 of them. That was my goal, too. It would mean lots of trips to America, and the shirts were unlikely to attract admiring glances on the Battle Farm Industrial Estate, Reading, where I worked at the time, but what the hell.

Then disaster struck. Brooks Brothers — which had more or less invented button-downs, borrowing the idea from English polo players — changed its recipe. For reasons I still can’t fathom, at some point in the 1990s it shortened its collar lapels so that they sloped straight down to the tiny buttons. This had the effect of flattening the elegant roll so that it virtually disappeared, making Brooks Brothers shirts look like the run-of-the-mill button-downs sold on the British high street. With one snip of the scissors, the Ivy League look was gone.

For aficionados, this was like the disastrous ‘New Coke’ experiment of 1985, when Coca-Cola changed its flavour. The public was horrified; within three months the company had backtracked, reintroducing the old recipe as Coca-Cola Classic and then quietly ditching the imposter.

Brooks Brothers stood its ground, however. Every time I visited America I would go into the nearest store, hoping that they’d seen sense, but no. I would moan to the shop assistants, some of whom shrugged and said that they couldn’t make sense of it either. Customers had complained, but to no effect.

Today, the Brooks Brothers button-down collar is still miserably shrunken. The company’s website bangs on about its ‘iconic’ shirts, but even the ‘traditional fit’ model is missing the collar roll. Brooks Brothers now has a big shop in Regent Street, but going there just makes me cross, because they’ve butchered the product that made them famous.

All is not lost, however. A couple of years ago I came across Mercer and Sons, a shirtmaker that used to be based in a Rhode Island fishing village, though it has now moved to Montana. Its website tells customers that it went into business ‘when the primary maker of traditional button-downs cheapened its product… skimping on materials’. Who can they mean?

Mercer advertises ‘genuinely full-roll soft collars, the benchmark of style on Madison Avenue for decades’. I’ve bought half a dozen of them online — they cost around $150 — and, yup, their collars do indeed roll gently into an authentic ‘S’. Patterns include Venetian golf leaf with jade and white stripes, Skye blue Bengal stripe, Sicilian orange with Italian blue windowpane, plus plain white and simple blue and pink pastels. They are the most handsome shirts I’ve ever seen — enough to reduce Daisy to floods of tears, and maybe a few former Brooks Brothers customers too.

1 comment:

Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke said...

Coincidentally, I placed an order with Mr. Mercer just this Friday.

Best Regards,

Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke