The Classic Robert Talbott Suit

Michael Turek

Robert Talbott’s homegrown classics combine the ease of the company’s California roots with a touch of East Coast cool.

Classic American men’s style is best when it’s simple and well-worn. Ideally it should look like it was found in a grandfather’s closet stocked full of oxford cloth button-downs, easy-fitting suits, and cordovan shoes. If he’s a bit of a dandy, there may be a few bow ties—the ones that actually have to be tied—in there, too.

The kind of closet, in other words, kept by the late Robert Talbott, founder of the 60-year-old eponymous firm that has long enjoyed a cultish following for its beautiful handmade ties and shirts. Now called Robert Talbott Carmel (no relation to the mass-market women’s label spelled with a single “t” at the end), the California-based company recently opened a New York design studio whose weathered barn-wood walls are covered with photographs of Talbott, looking a perfect mix of rumpled and elegant, whether boarding a plane for a silk-buying trip to Afghanistan or standing beside a vintage Jag XKE at a concours d’elegance. His khakis are always cut just this side of baggy, the collars on his button-downs always perfectly rolled, and the shoulders on his jackets always soft and natural. Talbott came by the American sprezzatura naturally—he was a Connecticut Yankee with a Harvard MBA and a job on Wall Street. The thing that separated him from the other guys in gray flannel suits (besides that his were immaculately cut) were his bow ties, which were made by his wife, Audrey.

The couple turned their impeccable sense of style into a business in 1950, when Talbott loaded Audrey and their son, Robb, then two, into their Ford Woody station wagon and headed for Carmel, California. They hired local fishermen’s wives to help with the sewing and started selling bow ties out of the back of their car. As the business grew, they expanded into neckties and gained a reputation as one of the few companies still making the ultraluxurious seven-fold tie, a single piece of unlined silk that is folded, pressed, and stitched entirely by hand. While continuing to sell to fine clothing shops and department stores across the country, the couple opened the first Robert Talbott shop in Carmel in 1958. (Three others would follow: Pebble Beach, in 1968; New York, in 1992; and Dallas, in 2001.)

Talbott, who had long ago traded in the Ford, began collecting classic cars, his other great passion and a signature of his style. When he died, in 1986, Audrey took over the company and soon added shirts—also handmade here in America, with the kind of detail that made them the equal of any from Europe. Robb inherited the business in 2004, but with his attention focused on Talbott Vineyards, the winery he founded in the early eighties, he hired Richard Cohen, formerly of Ermenegildo Zegna, to run the clothing operation. But Robb makes sure the company stays true to the family’s roots. “My father believed in sticking to things he knew were absolutely authentic,” he says. “That’s still important to us.”

When the company, which had been doing custom shirts for years, launched a program for made-to-measure suits and jackets last year, it relied on relationships it had spent decades cultivating. On the same wall with the family photos in the New York design studio, there’s a board covered with dozens of labels from small haberdasheries. Some no longer exist, but many remain—places like Franco’s Fine Clothier, in Richmond, Virginia, Carroll & Co., in Beverly Hills, and Oak Hall, in Memphis—and Robert Talbott still works with a lot of them. “Men can go into these stores and talk to people who know our clothes and who know them,” says Jarret Kerman, also formerly with Zegna and now Robert Talbott’s clothing director. Of course, if they happen to live near one of the company’s four shops, they can also be fitted there.

The starting point for a made-to-measure suit is lean and fitted, with high armholes and a surprisingly soft chest—more like a cardigan than a suit. From there customers can opt for two or three buttons or double-breasted, a ticket pocket, and standard-notch or peak lapels. Yet a surprising number of men, Kerman says, choose the dartless sack suit with softly rolled lapels and a relaxed chest: another classic American style that’s making a comeback. Along with the flannels and worsteds essential for business, Robert Talbott has a variety of fabrics in exclusive patterns, from rich English tweeds to fine Italian supers. In the spirit of the day, prices for the suits are relatively gentle, ranging from about $1,300 to $2,000.

The true delight of made-to-measure is in the details. Once a client has selected the wool for his suit, he can then browse through swatches of colorful silks—the same that Talbott used for his original seven-fold ties—to choose the edging for his pockets and the lining for the underside of his collar. It’s a nod to the house’s roots as a tiemaker, but it’s also the kind of thing the company’s founder would have loved: a discreet flash of color no one but the wearer knows about. Years from now, when the next generation raids the closet looking for something classic, they’ll be thrilled to find it.

Allow about three to four weeks for made-to-measure work. For locations, go to roberttalbott.com.

Style

“We’ve taken a classic English dress shirt and transformed it into a modern American design with a trimmer fit,” says Mark Calder, Robert Talbott’s director of design for shirts and sportswear. $175

Collar

Multiple collar styles are available, including the under-button medium spread collar, which can be left open without collapsing. The collars are sized to the quarter inch to assure a perfect fit.

Trim

The label, front placket, and sleeves of this shirt are accented with a classic cricket-striped tie pattern from the spring 2010 collection. “It’s still sportswear, but it’s much more particular and elegant,” says Calder.

Fabric

The 100 percent Egyptian cotton fabrics are designed at home in Carmel, then produced at Italian mills in limited quantities. “We want to create a sense of exclusivity,” Calder says, “so once we run out of a pattern, we don’t repeat.”

Cuffs

Robert Talbott’s cuffs are built for comfort, so they are slightly looser around the arm. Classic French and barrel styles are offered, but there are also mitered cuffs, which are “a bit more dandy,” Calder notes, with corners cut at 45-degree angles.