Literature's most famous shirt fetishist, Jay Gatsby, had to send to England for his fix, but today he wouldn't even have to leave Long Island. He could simply drive to Alexander Kabbaz's Amagansett shop, choose from a collection of some 3,200 fabrics, and be fitted by the man many believe is the world's best custom-shirt maker.
In 1999, after almost 25 years of serving clients such as Tom Wolfe and Leonard Bernstein on New York's Madison Avenue, Kabbaz moved his studio to Amagansett. The tiny clapboard building and the 16 acres surrounding it are all that remain of the artists' retreat his grandmother founded. (Lucia Kabbaz, a Montparnasse painter, came to America under the patronage of Sara and Gerald Murphy, F. Scott Fitzgerald's models for the characters Nicole and Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night.) The shelves on the walls of Kabbaz's makeshift atelier are crammed with folders holding the shirt patterns of his 300 or so clients. Each file includes notes that detail the customer's stats and preferences, a chronicle of relationships lasting for, in many cases, years. Kabbaz is not interested in just selling someone six shirts (the minimum initial order)—he wants a client for life.
Until a few years ago it appeared that the affinity between the artisans who crafted bespoke clothing and their clients was in danger of being swept away by global labels. But there is a renewed enthusiasm for custom tailoring. "It transcends clothing," Kabbaz says. "It has to do with the idea that quality is more valuable than a designer's name."
Of course, it is about the shirts, too. And, it's about getting that one critical thing you can never buy off the rack: the absolutely perfect fit.
Inside his workshop, Kabbaz launches into a discussion to find out your exact needs; he takes measurements afterward. Then he draws a pattern and, with a fabric knife, cuts a shirt by hand. Trying it on is a step that involves doing more or less everything you would do while wearing a shirt. "Checking fit in a three-way mirror is fine if you spend most of your time standing in front of a three-way mirror," Kabbaz says.
Instead, he asks you to sit at a desk and answer the phone to examine how the shirt creases. He watches you walk and dance with a partner to see if the shirttails ride up or the armholes bind. He checks the cuff size, making sure it accommodates your watch. Following all this, Kabbaz adjusts the pattern and designs another shirt. Then he repeats the process. He'll go through the drill as many times as necessary to achieve a fit that satisfies him. At which point he has you take the shirt to your regular laundry. If the fit changes, there's another round of alterations. Finally, he'll cut the complete order.
For those who lack the three days required for a Kabbaz fitting on Long Island, the tailor does make house (or hotel or office) calls. "If they send the jet for me," he says, "I'm happy to go anywhere."
Are the results worth it? I notice a shirt in the corner, a beautiful blue-and-red graph check. It's been brought in for washing and refurbishing—other services that Kabbaz provides his clients. To my eye the shirt looks flawless. But there's a note attached, saying it can't be perfectly repaired. The shirt, the memo reads, is 21 years old. "That's what I'm aiming for every time," Kabbaz explains. "I want every shirt to come back for laundering twenty years later." The owner of the shirt was already having a new batch made up.
From $600. Alexander Kabbaz, 403 Abrahams Path, Amagansett, NY; 631-267-7909.