North St. clothing store tries on a new trend: Custom-made dress shirts

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PITTSFIELD Steven Valenti has been involved in the men's clothing business for over 40 years, and during that time he's seen fashion trends come and go.

His customers used to rent suits for special occasions, but lately they've expressed more interest in having them custom-made.

"They're looking at clothing more as an investment than as an expenditure," he said.

Valenti has had so much success recently with custom-made clothing that he's decided to take it one step further. Based on the advice of one of his store clerks, Marcus Duncan, Valenti has started selling custom-made dress shirts at his clothing store on North Street.

"We've found the specialty clothing business has done so well that it's the next move from a custom-made suit," Valenti said.

Being able to get custom-made dress shirts in the Berkshires is a rarity, according to Valenti, who has run Steven Valenti Clothing for Men on North Street for 36 years. Before opening his own store, Valenti worked for the Besse-Clark Department store, a clothing store that was a Pittsfield institution before it closed in the early 1990s.

"I don't know if anyone has made them in the past," he said. "Besse-Clark did not make them. If [someone] made them years ago, it's a return to it."

So how does a customer get a custom-made shirt at Valenti's store? He picks out the color at a small counter set up on the floor where three bins contain small swatches of fabric in solids, plaids and checks. He can choose the style and type of collar from the 20 different types of collars that Valenti has in stock. Individualized Shirts, the New Jersey-based company that makes the shirts for him, has many more collars in stock.

Choosing the style of cuffs comes next, along with determining whether the garment will be made with or without pockets.

"The last thing is personalizing the shirt with a monogram," said David Dumont, vice president of Individualized Shirts. "It doesn't have to be ostentatious, but it's nice, maybe your initials on the shirt or cuff."

During the fitting process, 12 different measurements are taken.

"It gives a much more exacting fit for the client," Dumont said.

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All this information is then sent to New Jersey where the shirts are made. The entire process takes 28 days, Valenti said. Prices for custom-made shirts at Valenti's shop range from $139.50 to $375.

People have been wearing shirts since before the Middle Ages, but the dress shirt as we know it wasn't introduced until 1896 by Brooks Brothers, the country's oldest clothing store. Those shirts were patterned after the ones that polo players wore, according to the website gearpatrol.com.

Although the first buttoned shirt was registered in 1871, the modern shirt with buttons along the front didn't become popular until after World War I, according to tailorstore.com. Shirts were custom-made until around the 1920s when Brooks Brothers first introduced the ready-made shirt, according to Dumont. Brooks Brothers also introduced the first noniron shirt in 1953.

Although custom-made shirts have always been an option, Dumont said that during his 35 years in the business the process always becomes more popular following recessions when menswear stores are looking for ways to save money. Store owners often it find it less expensive to offer custom-made shirts than have large amounts of different size shirts sitting on racks waiting to be sold.

"Let me utilize a program like this that takes up no space," Dumont said store owners will often tell him. "There's no money invested in swatches, but now I can offer my client 500 shirts all in his size. Now, the store becomes a hero without having what would be a ridiculous amount of styles and colors on the shelf."

Dumont points to a shirt.

"If I were to have this shirt on the rack in a bunch of different styles it's taking up space," he said. "I can't imagine what someone wants until he comes in and asks for it. But if I can have 500 different fabrics and say, 'Let's go through this swatch collection and get you excited,' that's the real reason a store says, 'I can offer more to my client.'"

Custom-shirt making is also becoming popular in online clothing stores, but Valenti said he didn't adopt the practice to compete with them.

Besides being an extension of his custom-made clothing business, he's also been getting requests. "Second homeowners have asked us if we do it," Valenti said.

Duncan became aware of the custom-shirt making process while working for a store in Newton that provided the service. He suggested it to Valenti as a means of bringing additional customers into the store.

"We were looking for ways to expand the business," Valenti said. "We've been making custom suits and sport coats for years. I figured dress shirts were the next step in that direction."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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