Clothes are a square peg/round hole kind of problem. Off-the-rack clothes are pre-made, hung in stores, filtered through by the consumer, value-evaluated with the pocketbook, and then, finally, at the end of the process, tried on. If it fits, the consumer wins. If it doesn’t, he loses. As it turns out, most of the time the clothes don’t fit. With my 6-foot-5 frame, long arms and narrow torso, rack clothes tend to be short in the sleeve, wide in the waist. The peg won’t go.
So, men try custom — they carve their own holes and pegs. It’s expensive, it’s a slower process, but it’s hard to ever go back, because the cuts fit right, and the right fit looks good, and looking good feels good. My forays into custom fit just right, but in my tax bracket, cost (or a compromise in quality) has kept the tailor mostly out of reach.
So when a new wave of online custom shirt manufacturers entered the scene claiming they could make shirts just as good or better — and cheaper — than my neighborhood tailor, my interest was piqued.
The online shirting concept is simple: send in measurements, get a custom shirt. Websites can cut cost by foregoing brick-and-mortar stores and by sourcing from factories in Southeast Asia (Malaysia and China, mostly, who, by sheer volume, are able to invest in newer and more automated machinery, which speeds up processes and improves quality control). A consumer orders, and, in three weeks, said consumer gets a shirt.
It’s a straightforward process, but the practices of online tailors still vary. So, to get a lay of the digital clothing land, I tried three, signing up to each site, ordering a shirt, and wearing the shirt for two months. The skinny is that the internet is a vast and variable place, but it does happen to know how to make a shirt.
Proper Cloth was started in 2008 by Seph Skerritt, whose background is in engineering. That pedigree comes through in the workings of the site, which goes with a comprehensive approach to fabric and shirting education. They offer over 350 fabrics, each with details about weave, thread count, thickness and more (not to mention thousands of user reviews), and they can make nearly anything you want. Skerritt believes in pushing shirt/fit/fabric data back to the consumer so they can make an informed decision when creating their custom shirt, and the support section of the site references plenty of shirt geekery. More recently, they’ve moved to creating more curated lookbooks (“Collections”), whittling down their massive database into more digestible bits. For that, you can just point, click and get a custom shirt (once they have your measurements). In this way, they cover both bases: the shirting aficionado or the layman coming to make a quick purchase.
The Process: There are a handful of avenues to custom here. Most simply, their Smart Sizes tool asks a few questions, then matches the data based on previous customers similar to you; it’s uncannily accurate. Or, you can send in a shirt that fits well, which they’ll measure and record in their database. You can also measure a shirt or your body yourself, or, if you’re in NYC, you can go to their SoHo shop and get measured in house. Once your measurements are in, you can go full custom by picking your fabric and the shirt’s style — collar, cuff, pocket, yoke, placket. You can also go with one of the pre-designed shirts, apply your sizing and be on with it.
The Production: Shirts are made to order by a factory in Malaysia, and Proper Cloth keeps you updated on the progress, even down to the hours and minutes until cutting and sewing will begin. The whole process takes 3 to 4 weeks to get a shirt, and shipping costs a flat rate of $15. If the fit’s not right, you can modify and re-order, but you’ll have to wait for the redesigned shirt.
The Product: I went with a casual shirt, styled from one of the Collections. The fabric is true to the description and photographs, and the fit for the length, body and sleeves was spot on. The shirt shrunk a minimal amount after washing, which locked in the measurements perfectly (they account for this when measuring). The collar is a bit too tight, but being a casual shirt, I haven’t buttoned it; if ordering again, I’d revise that measurement. The best part of the shirt is the break on the shoulders, which lands perfectly. The shirt’s cost ($150) and quality of fabric and stitching is on par with what I’d expect from Theory or Vince — but those don’t provide a custom fit.
The Verdict: There are options for the shirt newbie, but really this is a snob’s custom tailoring playground. And it’s definitely for the fabric aficionado; while they do offer more than enough fabrics below $100 (137, to be exact), the general vibe is for the guy who is looking for the $300 fabric, custom made for $200.
A blend of Proper Cloth and Trumaker, David Kind offers online tailoring for glasses. It’s a more refined version of Warby Parker, and Dave Barton, the founder — who comes from Oliver People’s and Paul Smith — cares quite a bit about getting the right frame on the right face. To get your frames, you upload a photo of yourself and then choose three pairs to show your style. Then, a David Kind stylist (an actual person) helps select three additional frames as a recommendation. All six arrive in the mail, you pick the one you want, submit your prescription info, and a week or so later, your frames arrive. All frames are priced at $295, and the quality is impressive — most similar in comparison to Barton’s former employer, Oliver People’s.
If Proper Cloth is “everything under the sun” shirting, Trumaker is the curated experience. Each customer is paired with a “personal shopper” — what Trumaker calls an Outfitter — who meets the customer at his office or home (or coffee shop), measures him, introduces fabrics and offers shirting options. While there’s plenty of variety in fabrics, the Trumaker emphasis is on limiting variables to things that work, rather than opening the floodgates.
The Process: The site directs you to an appointment with an Outfitter. If you’re in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, Sacramento, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Nashville or New York, an outfitter will meet with you in person. If you’re not in one of those cities, you get a virtual appointment. After you’re measured by the outfitter, you walk with them through fabrics, colors and materials before moving on to the multiple “packages” to choose from; you can go for a full wardrobe re-hauling or just order a single shirt. By the end of the appointment, the Outfitter makes the order for you, you get an email confirmation, and the shirt is underway.
The Production: Once the order is placed, an automated system keeps you up to date. Manufacturing time is 3 to 4 weeks, and, as with Proper Cloth, they’re made in Malaysia. There’s a $10 flat-rate shipping charge. Once the shirt arrives, small tweaks can be made locally, which greatly reduces the re-manufacturing time. If there’s a serious fit problem, a new shirt will be ordered. You can also meet with your Outfitter to see his or her thoughts on the fit, and get help with any adjustments.
The Product: Trumaker includes small details that hint at shirting acumen. There’s a small emblem stitched into the bottom of the placket and the metal collar stays are hefty. My shirt fit very well, and even better after a wash. The neck is too big, though, and needs to be reassessed on a second order. Small things like the stiffness of the cuffs make the shirt feel like Trumaker takes extra pride in their shirting, and the cost, $148 (for the fabric I chose), feels like a fair value.
The Verdict: It’s like having a more knowledgable friend in the corner with you. While I found the Outfitter meeting a touch laborious compared to simply inserting measurements and shopping online, the effect of having a stylist help curate my shirt resulted in a great product. Of the three shirts I tried, I’ve reached for my Trumaker shirt the most over the past month. I also found that I trust the Trumaker aesthetic to help me dress better. Through their package deals, you can save quite a bit of cash. If I was going for a whole wardrobe overhaul, this is where I’d turn.
MTailor is an app rather than a site, and the new kid on the online tailoring block. And the new guy comes with some tricks. The app takes a video of your body, then scans it and sends the measurements to the manufacturing plant. It’s all done in a couple minutes, at home; afterward, ordering shirts is simple. Between the extremely reasonable prices (from $64 upward) and the convenience of ordering, it’s a new angle on online shirting that’s worth considering.
The Process: Download the app, follow the directions (essentially). An instructional video guides you through the body scan, and the process is simple and intuitive. Afterward, you pick a fabric type and the app guides you through collar, cuff, length and cut (slim or classic) choices. The recommended choice is shown at the top, but you can modify however you’d like. There isn’t a preponderance of choices, but that’s the point — keep things simple and straightforward.
The Production: Confirmation and updates are sent by email, and you can track the progress of the shirt (which is made in China). The shirt comes promptly (it was the first of the three, all ordered on the same day, to arrive), and then the team follows up to make sure the shirt fits properly.
The Product: I feared this shirt’s fit the most, but those fears were unfounded. It hit all the right marks — shoulder width, sleeve length, slimness around the chest and waist — and fit my neck the best out of the three. The fabric itself (in my case, a simple white, 100 percent cotton Oxford) isn’t wow-worthy, but for $89, it feels true to the price. The pocket sits low for my taste, and the shirt doesn’t show the depth of stylistic concern of a Trumaker shirt. But, then again, it came in at about half the cost.
The Verdict: For a quick-hitting custom shirt, this is the simplest, most affordable option. The quality doesn’t match the other two above, but it also offers a viable choice under $100. And, for someone who’s short on time and doesn’t need a ton of options, the app keeps things simple and straightforward without a significant time investment or an overwhelming amount of choices.