June 10, 2013 by Ville Raivio
‘Not being a math major, I figure it’s always safer to say I was born in 1946. My Mercer&Sons designs and manufactures shirts and boxer shorts. I was fortunate to enjoy a classical secondary education and studied the liberal arts and law in Boston in the heyday of the Ivy League look in the late 50’s and 60’s. Growing up in New England and Boston and Cambridge, the Ivy League look was a natural. And New England, contrary to the fashion centers of the world, and especially in the ‘50s and 60’s, stressed value and traditional good looks over flash and indulgence. The more classic the look, the better the make, the older the item, the more prized it was.
My wife Serena is my partner in our small business. She has a very good sense of style and impeccable taste, myself excluded. My son and daughter love our small business, wear lots of Mercer shirts (a Mercer shirt looks fabulous on women, much more stylish than the tight-fitting women’s blouse which the industry pushes), and each is building his and her own just out of college experiences in Bozeman, Montana. My family was always very supportive of my ventures, however impractical and harebrained. My father was an MIT-educated engineer whom few people suspected to be an engineer. He grew up in a rural town of 250 people in Vermont, Illinois. When Bostonians asked Dad where he was from, he told them “Vermont”. They would nod and say “I thought so”, assuming he was an old New Englander. He was creative and innovative, yet very practical and immensely more mechanically talented than I. But he was fully supportive of my less than traditional path. He enjoyed those who thought outside the box.
My father traveled the world selling rolling mill equipment to the steel industry. Although he spent much time in what is now termed The Rust Belt of America, he also spent a lot of time in London, New York, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Germany. He also had a close friend who ran a small haberdashery in the financial district of Boston. The gentleman had style and was a terrific salesman with a superb sense of humor. He and my father would assemble a number of ties for Christmas Day. We’d draw lots and one tie was always horrendous-looking. Winning the booby prize was the most fun of all.
Over the course of a lifetime, one sees a lot of clothes, a lot of different faces and bodies, and one develops a sense of what works for oneself and others. By good fortune, I have been introduced to expert patternmakers and cutters and seamstresses, people who understand the intricacies and art of shirtmaking. The first person I became intimately involved with in the rag trade was a man by the name of Arthur Feldman. A true gentleman. He made the best ties in the business. Before I met Arthur, I had spoken to a number of the lesser lights in the tie business, all of whom were reluctant to take a chance on me and my crazy designs. Arthur took a look, had the designs struck at his mills in Switzerland and Italy. My first order was for thousands of dollars, as the mills had minimum requirements in order to strike new patterns. Years later I asked Arthur why he never bothered to get any credit information. Arthur said, “I knew looking at you that you were honest.”
Whenever Arthur wanted to raise prices on ties he made for us, he would call and ask me if he could charge a quarter more per tie in order to give his seamstresses a raise. Before I could say anything, he’d say “Think it over, and let me know in a week.” It’s a little like the fellow who will fix your computer for little or nothing because he loves fixing things while some slick company will charge a fortune and gum up the machine. Arthur loved the business, his ties, those who worked for him, and those fortunate enough to be his customers. Later on, I complained to a friend that so and so certainly didn’t run his business like Arthur Feldman. My friend said that Arthur was an unfortunate introduction to the garment trade. Arthur was one of a kind. They broke the mold with him. I was also fortunate to meet the best patternmaker in the business, who helped me improve upon the basic model of Brooks Brothers shirts of the 50’s and 60’s. A different shirt, ours, but one that incorporates the best of the old and numerous improvements in sizing and construction, and whose actual cutting and sewing and fabric makes for a much better shirt.
Our goal from day one, in 1982, was to make the best shirt and offer it directly to customers at a fair price. I’ve always loved the mail order business since buying Whammo sling shots from Field and Stream and square inches of land in Alaska from the back of cereal boxes. Over thirty years ago, I understood that the quality of the benchmark button-down was declining and the sizing being skimped upon. Most people did not recognize the changes. And while the quality was slowly declining, the price was going up. If I thought shirtmakers were skimping on cloth then to save a buck, I hate to tell you what I think now.
From day one, people recognized what we were trying to preserve and improve upon. We’ve run a small ad in the New Yorker for years (Serena used to sell advertising for The New Yorker, you just never know what the next sales call will lead to?), and tiny as the shirt drawing is, it catches the eye. The well-made button-down collar is immediately recognizable. From day one, dealing directly with our customers has been one of the most satisfying aspects of our business. Interesting, diverse lives and stories from all over the world. And any time there’s a question, they speak directly with the Boss(es). Shirtmaking is an art, not a science. A good shirt looks more like a crafted piece of artwork than something produced by a robot. The most automated factories produce a commodity product. While many shirts these days are overpriced, and, upon inspection, are not well-made, ironically enough, some of the most outrageously-priced shirts look like they were made by assembly line robots rather than the hands of a warm-blooded person. Absolute perfection is not as pleasing to the eye as many engineers or product supply people might think. Each and every shirt has character, believe it or not. Many hands, many steps, before the final ironing and pinning.
I have been a country mouse for years now, and dress casually. One of the many wonderful attributes of Mercer shirts is that each shirt really offers two shirts for the price of one in the sense that our shirts are the perfect dress shirts, and yet double as most comfortable and stylish shirts for casual wear as well. Our fit and our soft collar styles are unique and distinguish themselves from all other dress and casual shirts. The fact that the tailoring is impeccable makes them no less useful for sporty wear. They look crisp, and, of course, they last forever. I would not consider myself a fashion maven. I believe strongly that clothes you buy should last forever. I wear old Peal&Co. shoes I bought in the 60’s and 70’s, a Norman Hilton sport coat from the 70’s, the blue blazer from my wedding day almost 30 years ago, khakis, a belt from the 60’s, and a grey wool and nailhead suit from Brooks in the early 80’s. Good, well made classic clothing should last forever. Always easy to dandy up things up a bit with a new shirt, a colorful tie and some interesting socks.
I used to be crazy about good shoes and ties, but long ago bought what I needed and they’ll last a lot longer than I will. I love to read, fish (small brook trout are about the cutest cratures anywhere), I enjoy birds, I take too may photos of the stupidest things, I’m a little obsessive about getting my daily exercise, biking, hiking, rowing machine, I love spectator sports of all kinds, enjoy British comedy and mysteries, do the daily word jumble and love to cook and grill. I enjoy sports of all kinds. My mind is clogged up with so much sports trivia that it probably works at 20% capacity. And it’s getting worse all the time.
Try not to be swept up by the current fashion. Just like investing. Buy for the long haul. As Mr. Buffett says, price is what you pay, value is what you buy. Good clothes are not inexpensive, and are an investment, really. That said, with a little imagination, you can mix and match less expensive items with better ones. You may decide that a particular item is especially important to you. Shoes, for example. Especially for dress, shoes are one thing you must buy carefully. They must fit properly, and never opt for inexpensive shoes. They won’t last, they’ll kill your feet and they’ll ruin your entire get up. And polish regularly. At least buff them every day with an old rag or, better yet, a good brush which has all that old polish in the bristles. Preserves the leather and the patina improves over time. Old shoes look better than new shoes, so take good care of your favorites.
You will have to work to find items that fit your budget and your individual sense of style. Never compromise too much on quality as it will show. It’s penny-wise and pound foolish. Don’t be a slave to fashion or names. Clothes can make the man, or part of him, anyway. But you need to make your own smart decisions, rather than bowing to the latest trend. For years women in particular have fallen prey to the fashionistas. Yet the best-dressed women buy only the classics — shoes, suits and blouses which they can wear for years. Partly because they can afford to, but also because they’re sensible. A few select classics are a much better buy than many mediocre ones. More and more, it seems that men are falling prey to so-called designers trends. Just like investing, buy value not the headlines. Stick to the tried and true. The classics.
Finally, never equate price with quality. Well-made clothing costs more; clothing that costs more is not necessarily well-made or worth the price.’
Pictures: © Ivy-Style and Mercer&Sons