Collar me beautiful

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am

The button-down shirt may have started off as a fixture in the boardroom but it has since become an essential for both sexes for work and play. However, finding the perfect shirt remains a holy grail of fashion (along with black trousers and the little black dress) because there are so many styles and colours available, from cheap and chic to super luxurious and expensive.

So, where should one start when searching for the ideal shirt?

'It should be comfortable to wear, suitable for the occasion and have coherence to the style and attitude of the wearer,' says Sherry Stone, retail manager of Alain Figaret Hong Kong.

Experts say that fabric is the first consideration. Buyers should pay attention to yarn count, which is an indicator of the softness of the fabric. The higher the yarn count, the smoother and softer the fabric. Most experts agree that anything around 100 is acceptable. For example, shirts from Alain Figaret are made from fabrics with an average yarn count of between 120 and 170, while British shirt maker Thomas Pink, which recently opened its first boutique in Hong Kong, offers shirts with yarn counts of 200.

'Since the yarns are so fine, the colour density is stronger and the design definition is sharper - think of it in the same way as an HD television,' says Simon Maloney, head of buying and production at Thomas Pink.

Fabric is also classified by weaving techniques, which result in different textures, thickness and appearance. For example, poplin and end on end are smooth and light fabrics suitable for summer and all-day wearing, while twill and herringbone have refined and subtle textures that give a more luxurious look.

Once fabric has been identified, buyers can decide on the details. These include the collar, stitching and finishing, buttons and number of pleats. But the most important thing is the fit.

'If a shirt doesn't fit well, even if it is made of the world's best fabric, it will still not look good,' says Tony Chang, managing director of Ascot Chang. He says a shirt shouldn't be so tight that it restricts movement. Equally, it shouldn't be so loose that it becomes shapeless.

If you're looking for the latest fashion trends, lots of complicated detail or unusual prints, ready-to-wear is the way to go. Factory made in finished condition and standard sizes, ready-to-wear shirts are what you'll find at most stores.

'If you are unsure of what will look good on you, then designer ready-to-wear [shirts] allow you to try on styles that are current and in fashion,' Chang says.

But in recent years made-to-measure and bespoke shirts have become more popular owing to an increased interest in craft, quality and pre-industrial modes of production. Most brands, from Ermenegildo Zegna to Dunhill, offer either if not both options.

If cost is a consideration, the made-to-measure option is a happy medium between ready-to-wear and bespoke shirts. Here, tailors take patterns and modify them to your physique, while details such as collars, cuffs styles and certain other elements allow the customer to create clothing to match their personal style.

A bespoke service, conversely, can accommodate any sort of body shape, posture or irregularity, and also allow the customer to have a say in the design.

'People who work with a bespoke tailor have a relationship similar to that which one has with a doctor or dentist - or even a spouse. If you want a shirt that marries your style with the highest level of expertise and service, there is no greater luxury than bespoke,' says Alex Daye, owner of tailors J.A. Daye.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about bespoke shirts is that they are inferior to ready-to-wear shirts in terms of style and trends. In reality, bespoke designs are as creative as you want them to be.

While ready-to-wear shirts are part of the evolving vision of a designer, bespoke shirts reflect those of the customer.

'Unless Karl Lagerfeld walks into our store to get his shirts made, I would say that the majority of our products cannot be classified as avant-garde fashion,' says Chang. 'However, the bespoke process gives customers a chance to create their own fashion. This way, they are not only comfortable wearing their clothes, but also confident in what they are wearing. And what is more stylish than that?'

While tailors do keep up with the goings-on of the fashion world, as a general rule they tend to be more concerned with style than fashion, says Daye. If you are going down the bespoke route, he suggests looking for a creative tailor that is also in tune with your style and needs.

'If you have a good idea of what you want there is no reason a good tailor cannot make it,' he says. 'A good tailor works like a fashion designer and will have a signature cut and signature style.'

In term of latest trends, colours and patterns play a stronger role for autumn. Checks are making a strong comeback, as are louder plaids and simple ginghams. Slim fit shirts continue to be very fashionable and collars are shrunk to accommodate narrower ties.

For women, the trend is romantic, says Daye, 'in the Victorian sense of the word: antique details such as bibs and ruffles, oversized proportions, rumpled and washed fabrics such as cotton voile.'

But wherever the trend goes, one style and colour remains popular throughout the year: the white classic Oxford. The trend applies to women as well: simply get an oversized version, roll up the sleeves and belt it over a pair of skinny trousers or pencil skirt.