The shirt is often the poor man of the male wardrobe – worn and washed over and over, subject to the searing heat of the iron, only to be hidden away beneath a jacket, tie, sweater or perhaps all three. Maybe it is a throwback to the shirt’s history – a century ago a shirt was still considered underwear, and gentlemen only showed their shirt sleeves on the most informal of occasions. But matters might be different with a Zilli shirt. After all, bespoke made, it costs €450 (Aed 1900) – and upwards…
That may an unusually high sum for just a shirt, but when the French menswear company bought a shirt factory just outside of Milan, having previously brought it back to capacity, it was also determined to make what it regards as the world’s best. At least, for those with an appreciation of the finer points. Once you have selected from dozens of collar and cuff styles, from over 450 fabrics and decided whether to have not only the shirt but its buttons monogrammed, look to its construction.
Care is taken that, for example, patterns in all parts of the shirt are perfectly matched, while the cuff of a striped shirt will always end on the lighter stripe because that better hides any abrasion through wear. Fabrics are washed several times before being cut into a pattern to minimise any shrinkage – and on some designs even the thread is. Indeed, the thread in each cuff is stitched with a specific technique that leaves slack, preventing the cuff from puckering when washed. The shirt itself is stitched together using around 12 stitches per centimetre, twice the industry standard. And the mother-of-peal buttons are selected to be, as the Italians say, ‘nuno volato’ – “without a cloud” or free of any flaw. These are stitched on in a way that raises it slightly from the shirt’s surface, making them easier to button but also ensuring less tension through the thread. They won’t fall off.
“It’s a process of education for a man to understand what makes a truly good shirt these days,” says Laurent Negrin, who headed the company before launching his own international fashion brand development consultancy, but who remains a fan. He blames those commonplace three-shirts-for-the-price-of-one type deals for ruining the shirt’s image as a quality, even artisan item. “Don’t take Zilli’s word for its quality. It really pays to spend some time with a couple of shirts and compare them. Really look at how they are put together. But I’m glad the shirt is still a key part of the male wardrobe – it’s one of its most adaptable element. And more relaxed dress policies are giving men more freedom to choose the kind of shirt they wear and the more interesting patterns they want to display.”
And some want to display rather a lot. Zilli once took an order for 50 shirts from an unnamed Russian businessman who wanted to trial the product. Zilli offered to make him one shirt to see how he found it. A few weeks later his PA called back – he would take the other 49. And another 300 please.