Jermyn Street, a short one-way stretch parallel to Piccadilly, has been London’s premier stop for fashionable gentleman since at least the 1750s. And since 1899, the prestigious shirt-maker Hilditch & Key has served as one of Jermyn Street’s most cherished symbols of quality. Recently, the wares of fellow Jermyn Street mainstay, hatter Edward Bates Ltd, were welcomed into the store. Now, in addition to their peerless shirting, Hilditch & Key offers an array of beautifully styled caps and hats to discerning gentlemen.
280 miles away, one of the world’s lesser-known sartorial marvels sits concealed on the corner of Rue de Rivoli in Paris, across from La Place de la Concorde, by the Louvre gardens. This quaint little establishment is the French extension of Hilditch & Key.
As an artless, wide-eyed intern, I would stop at this little shop, and glue my nose to the window like a boy in a Dickensian tale. On one autumn afternoon, I mustered the courage to step over the threshold of its nineteenth-century doorway and pay a visit.
I found myself surrounded by an immense variety of the finest two-fold cotton shirts my eyes had ever seen. Layers upon layers of perfectly-folded, exquisitely-colored shirts, stacked in cubbies from floor to ceiling. A soft-spoken gentleman greeted me, introducing himself as Bruce Phillips, the manager. With both British and Italian origins, the humble, self-effacing Mr. Phillips personified the multicultural nature of the sartorial world. He beckoned me to take a seat and, as I did, he began his story.
Established in 1907, the Parisian branch serves as an extension of the Hilditch & Key name, offering the same quality craftsmanship in both ready-to-wear and made-to-measure collections. Like its Jermyn Street counterpart, the Paris shop has its own section devoted to Bates and their fine headgear. Bates’ hats are sourced from the particular regions in which they originated: berets from the Basque region, Tyrolean hats from Bavaria, and the immortal Panama. I myself am a proud owner of their Grosvenor model, a beautiful wide-brimmed fedora manufactured in England.
Hilditch & Key’s shirts are manufactured in Scotland, without the aid of mechanized production techniques. Rather, they are woven, using centuries-old methods and the finest raw materials. The cottons, sourced from both Italy and England, are of a two-fold weave, a technique that yields strong, yet refined, fabric. The buttons are made solely of real mother of pearl.
A Hilditch & Key shirt is crafted with the highest attention to detail. Well-stitched gauntlets on the forearm and split yoke construction on the shoulders provide a superior fit. The collar, the fundamental element of a dress shirt, consists of two pieces that are stitched together, rather than fused, a traditional technique that alludes both to craftsmanship and durability. Moreover, the collar’s diameter is reinforced by a removable bone that prevents curling.
Hilditch & Key has won the regular patronage of many distinguished people in the past; Nicholas Sarkozy, the former President of France, was a habitual customer. Notably, Karl Lagerfeld, the eminent designer, is a loyal and publicly supportive client. A self-confessed “shirt-freak,” he esteems Hilditch & Key the very “perfection” of shirt-making, having ordered an innumerable amount of dress shirts, nightshirts, and kimonos, as well as his legendary collars. Certainly such a recommendation should not be unheeded.
However, Mr Phillips candidly shared his anxiety over the changing attitudes towards the industry today, suggesting that the average consumer may be fueled more by brand recognition than a desire for superior craftsmanship.
In London, the patrimony of Jermyn Street is relatively common knowledge. The foreign public, however, may not be so aware of its hard-earned prestige and savoir-faire. The symbol of Jermyn Street in Paris, Hilditch & Key, undoubtedly deserves far greater acclaim than it has thus far received. The company’s French outpost has occasionally been unintentionally overlooked in the midst of Parisian couture. Hopefully, with a touch of mouth and a dash of marketing, it will be heralded as a must-see, rather than fading into the backdrop of tourist attractions in the city of lights.