x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

At the house of Zilli, shirt perfection is yours for a price

Would you pay Dh4,000 for a men's shirt? Here's why some people do.

Laurent Negrin sits back and surveys the production line below - part old-fashioned hand-craft, part hi-tech, laser-guided machinery of his firm's own invention. This is the Italian shirt-making operation bought by the French luxury menswear brand Zilli two years ago and now back to full capacity. And that only goes to prove how some shoppers have been immune to the recession. Only 100 ready-to-wear shirts are made here each day, around 10 of which are bespoke. A Zilli ready-to-wear shirt, by the way, costs some Dh2,000. Bespoke will set you back more than Dh4,000. That's right - four thousand dirhams just for a shirt.

"Dress policies are changing the feel of the shirt - it's softer, for example - but that has also given men more freedom to choose the kind of shirt they wear and the more interesting patterns they want to display," says Negrin, who runs the shirt-making operation. "And that means they don't have to go for the standard plain blue or white, which no man really wants to spend much money on because it's just not that exciting."

Exciting, it seems, is expensive. But then Zilli's claims of making one of the best shirts in the world, beloved of presidents and tycoons, are reflected in the obsessive attention to detail. Once you have selected from dozens of collar and cuff styles and more than 450 fabrics, and decided whether to have the buttons monogrammed, one might apply the quality benchmark of shirts and note, for example, how the striped or patterned cloth of each part of the shirt is meticulously matched. Or how each cuff is finished so that the edge ends on the lighter stripe of the fabric. Why? Any wear through abrasion is less likely to show that way.

"And as for losing a button," says Negrin, "that is just not acceptable on a shirt of this price. I've experienced that after a couple of wears of shirts from others who claim to be among the best makers around. It doesn't happen here." The mother-of-pearl buttons, naturally, are what the Italians call "nuno volato" - "without any cloud". Pure, flawless white, in other words.

Still, a Dh2,000 shirt, let alone a Dh4,000 one, remains a stretch for all but the seriously wealthy. But Negrin argues that this is a consequence of the gradual devaluation of the shirt-maker's skill. This has come as a result of designer brand shirts of average quality being overpriced, but also of the reduction of the perceived worth of a shirt following the pursuit of volume over quality even on Jermyn Street, London's shirt-making heartland.

"But do such changes to the industry make it harder for us to sell? Not really. It's a process of education for a man to understand what makes a truly good shirt these days. But this is really a different world. It's comparing a Fiat with a Ferrari," says Negrin. "And it's the details that luxury is all about."

Take, for example, one unique, labour-intensive operation at Zilli that sees the thread that attaches cuff to sleeve fed back into the cuff's hem, hidden but left loose - the lack of tension in the thread means cuffs won't pucker when washed. Of course, you will no doubt want to avoid shrinkage of your bank-breaking shirt, should you dare to wash it at all. Zilli has allowed for that too: the fabric is laundered to remove shrinkage before it is hand-cut. Even some thread is washed for the same reason. Not that you can really see the thread: your shirt is crafted using minuscule stitches, between nine and 12 per centimetre, compared with an industry norm of six.

Still not convinced that several thousand dirhams on a single shirt can ever be justified? What if you had unlimited funds? You would have the pick of the world's shirts and you would probably have tried many that promised to be the best. So consider the unnamed Russian businessman who contacted Zilli this spring requesting 50 bespoke shirts "as a trial". Coolly, Negrin offered to make him one, so he could try that out first. This done, a few weeks later he called them back. He would take the full 50. And another 350, please. If you haven't done the maths yet, it amounts to Dh1.6million.

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