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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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In Marketplace Commentary

You don't know how a shirt is supposed to fit until it's been custom-tailored to your exact measurements. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Marketplace Commentary

Close ups of the fabrics used in the author's dress shirts. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Marketplace Commentary

J. Hilburn's style advisors will come to your home or your office. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

A tale of online tailors


Over the years, I've heard stories about friends who traveled to Hong Kong for business and came back with gorgeous custom-tailored shirts and suits for pennies on the dollar. I always vowed that if I ever found myself in the Far East, I, too, would avail myself of this service.

In recent years, a number of entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to provide this custom-fit service online, using self-serve Web sites and tailors in China and the Philippines. If you think about it, most of the shirts you buy are made there, anyway, but this way, the fit will be be perfect.

For this article, I was sent five shirts from four different vendors. Each brought something different to the table, and except for J. Hilburn, each process was completely online. J. Hilburn was the exception, because they use an in-person "style consultant" to replace ordering on their Web site.

For J. Hilburn, Mequon's Therese Nelson came to my office to take my measurements and deliver my shirt. For the other vendors, I uploaded my measurements, clicked submit, then received my shirt a few weeks later.

To my eye, each shirt fits very, very well, which isn't surprising, because you're providing about a dozen precise measurements, compared to an "off the rack shirt," which typically includes just neck and sleeve measurements. Of course, when you're measuring yourself (or having your wife and/or coworkers do it for you), your shirts will only be as good as your accuracy. Thankfully, most of the companies offer a tailoring credit or easy return policy if they (or you) get it wrong. The shirts weren't completely perfect, of course; on each, I found the sleeves a touch long, but it's possible that all these years, I've been buying my shirts with the sleeves a little short.

Now, I'm not a dress shirt expert, though I know what I like. Fortunately, Nelson is an expert, so when all five shirts arrived, I asked her to evaluate each of them, understanding she'd naturally be biased toward her own product.

Here's my review – and Nelson's review – of each of the shirts, including the ordering process, in alphabetical order:

Blank Label ($82): I opted for a a light gray sold twill shirt from Blank Label with a fabric called "Barker Road." The fabric is 95 GSM (grams per square meter), if that means anything to you. To me, it's a light, summery weight, and it fits quite well, better than anything I've bought in a store. I really like it.

"This one has billowy sleeves," says Nelson, who I asked to be critical. "If it were me, I'd make it an inch longer. It has a little bit of a sheen. The fabric is nothing special."

Blank Label's shirt arrived very quickly, too, only 11 days after ordering; it was the fastest of the bunch by two weeks. Notably, Blank Label offers a no-questions-asked return policy: whatever you don't like, they will remake it from scratch. Its Web site doesn't include models, so you don't get to imagine what the shirt looks like in person.

Indochino ($99): For a few reasons, the two Indochino shirts, two ties and tie pin I ordered were my favorite in this experiment. First of all, their Web site is by far the most refined. Founded in 2007 by a pair of college students, this Vancouver company has this business figured out. While Indochino offers fewer selections than its competition, the UI is sleek and polished, both on the well-photographed product pages and during the ordering process (videos of the measuring process help). It's clear that the company targets a younger demographic, and its patterns, styles and models reflect that, too.

I found the offerings a bit funkier than the rest, and the end result was a more tailored, fitted, slimming shirt than I'm used to. I went with the Vintage Red Mini-check shirt (my favorite) and orange woven plaid tie, the Strategist Blue Checked Shirt and solid navy blue tie, and Good Groove Tie Clip. Indochino told me it uses Italian fabrics, but it doesn't really elaborate on that part on its site. The textures of the two shirts are nice and soft, though not of a noticeably higher quality than I shirt I'd buy at Banana Republic, for example.

"In terms of the fit, it's very nice," says Nelson. "One sleeve looks a little longer, but when you start getting into quarter-inches, it gets very personal. The fabric doesn't have a luxurious feel to me."

The presentation of the package was very nice, crisply folded shirts in an Indochino box, though delivery was the slowest, at just about two months. Indochino offers a $75 credit toward tailoring should your shirt need altering.

J. Hilburn ($154): This vendor is perhaps the hardest to review, since it's unlike its competition. First, having a style advisor, like Nelson, is very nice. She'll come to your office or your house, swatches and measuring tape in hand. There's something to be said for actually seeing and touching the fabric you'll buy in person.

Compared to the other vendors, this Italian fabric (I chose the white/purple/navy bold check with purple contrasting fabric; that added $15 to the cost) is noticeably thicker and more luxurious; it feels unlike any other shirt I own. However, it's also the most expensive, made in the Philippines, and the styles skew a little more older and conservative than my personal tastes. The shirt also felt a touch baggy, but Nelson explained that J. Hilburn will handle the alterations, no questions asked.

"I could see shortening the sleeve length maybe a quarter of an inch and taking in the elbow, but I would make everything right, make it perfection. Hands-down, this is the best fabric, not just to look at it but to touch," says Nelson.

The shirt arrived in about three weeks, which is fairly quick. Certainly the most upscale of the group, unfortunately, J. Hilburn's Web site is also the worst; it's rather clunky, actually. Though with a style advisor at your disposal, you don't really need to visit it at all. With J. Hilburn, it comes down to personal preference: if you want your hand held, you'll love this company; if you want one-click ordering, you may not.

ShirtsMyWay ($85): This site has a playful feel to it, offering fun designs like the "Troy McClure" and the "Big Spender." I opted for the "Atlantis White" fabric, which is distinctively soft and smooth 100 percent long staple cotton.

"I'd decrease the arm from the shoulder down, and it's a little baggy in the body," says Nelson. "I think the fabric is nice, I really do. I think this is the second nicest fabric. The length is good; when you wear your shirts too short they almost look feminine."

While plain white shirts aren't flashy, this one oozes quality, and it fits very well, though again, the biceps feel a little billowy (could be user error, of course; I'm not a professional measurer). It arrived just under a month after I placed my order.

Going into this experiment, I didn't know what to expect, but coming out, I'd order from any of these companies again, with very few tweaks. It's true that I'm not usually buying dress shirts that range from $82 to $154, but given the fabric and fit difference, I might make future purchases based more on quality than on quantity.

While J. Hilburn obviously skews older and Indochino skews younger, ShirtsMyWay and Blank Label aim for middle of the road. In other words, there's something to be said for each.

Honestly, I liked them all. But again, taking into account Nelson's bias for her own product, she says, "All but Indochino had billowy sleeves, but I'm pretty confident that the J. Hilburn had the nicest fabric. All of the shirts, you could do something about the length of the sleeves. None of these shirts are a ghastly fit, you could wear them and be just fine. Even with J. Hilburn, I would send this shirt back to Texas and tweak it."

To me, they all look pretty close to perfect. "That 'perfect' word, there are so many components that enter into the equation. So much of it in personal," says Hilburn.

And either way, these shirts represent a tremendous value over a domestically tailored product – half the price, really. Unless you're in Hong Kong, anyway, and it's much less hassle, too.

Now, I'm tempted to try a suit ...

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