A troupe of brothers move from Maryland to Texas in the late 1800s. The reason why is lost to time, some speculate they disembarked their train at Houston by chance. Others think they were planning on farming livestock. All we do know is that they wound up founding a clothier called Hamilton Bros. in Houston in 1883, which quickly built up a roaring trade in hats, tailoring, workwear and indeed men’s shirts. David Hamilton’s great-grandfather was the youngest of those brothers.
“We don’t know that much about how we come to be here,” he says, “I wish we knew more”. David is a measured, pensive man, who takes a moment to think before he speaks. He strikes you instantly as a very safe pair of hands to entrust the shape of your wardrobe to. “Under my grandfather, we made a nice shirt, but it was when my father took the helm that we moved into custom-made shirts and the quality really improved.”
Today, David and his sister, Kelly, preside over the oldest bespoke shirtmaker in the United States, and the oldest family business in Houston – they bought Hamilton from their father, Jim, in 2006. The sense of familial pride in the brand is tangible, as is the fact that David is a true stickler for quality. “Everything we do is bespoke; every client has a paper pattern and everything is still cut by hand,” he explains, as I get a VIP ‘Zoom Tour’ of the store and workshop care of David’s camera phone. Both the shop and factory floor are connected and clients can see their shirts take shape through a partition if they so choose. Hamilton has four permanent cutting stations in pride of place, plus several rows of seamstresses lining the workshop.
“I’m very impressed with my father and my grandfather, especially my father because it was his generation that really moved the business on. The idea of the last standing quality American shirtmaker being in Houston, Texas, is a very unlikely story. You’d expect a company like us to be in London, or Paris, or New York. We have to deliver to a higher standard to get the same level of respect. I don’t mean that to sound like a chip on the shoulder thing – it’s just a reality.”
— David Hamilton
With this in mind, the secret to the brand’s longstanding success, according to David, is its unrelenting focus on quality and its straight-forward service. “One of the challenges in being a custom shirtmaker is that we want to give the client exactly what they want, but we also want to give them guidance and find the right balance,” he tells me. “We’ll always give clients a couple of options, but not too many. I sometimes make the comparison with a restaurant, a good restaurant doesn’t have a big menu.” Of course, getting this right all the time is easier said than done, but the pursuit of quality keeps the Hamilton family on its toes: “We have a saying here in Texas – there’s a difference between simple and easy. They say, if you ever try to ride a bull and stay on its back for eight seconds you’ll understand what that means.”
Alongside conventional dress shirts and sport shirts, Hamilton’s signature is of course the authentic western shirt with its pointed collar, yoked shoulders and three-button cuffs, which David creates in collaboration with Country & Western singer, Lyle Lovett. These are handsomely cut in colourful fabrics, and to me at least conjure romantic vignettes from the Spaghetti Western movies I watched as a teenager. Although, David tells me this is something of a Hollywood misconception. “In Texas, we distinguish between ranchwear and western wear,” he explains. “The ranch shirt is a tough piece of workwear, whereas the western shirt is a little more dressy.”
At this point, the conversation turns to Thomas Mason. “My father started working with Thomas Mason in the early ‘90s, says David. “We always say that we try to spend our money on good materials and good people. Naturally, that means we were always going to end up working with Thomas Mason. They’re constantly pushing forward development in fabric and their lightweight fabrics are excellent, which is helpful given Houston’s tropical climate for most of the year.
“Ironically, linen isn’t that popular here in the US, but we love Thomas Mason’s poplins, and also Portland. It’s got just the right combination of characteristics; a soft hand-feel, silky finish, but also substance and durability. I love their new corduroy too – we’re going to use it this winter.”
David is so easy to talk to, our interview unexpectedly moves on to other things including The West Wing (I’m a recent convert), Texan author Larry McMurtry and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. An hour passes in the blink of an eye, but I leave the conversation hoping for two things; the chance to visit Houston and a reason to wear a Hamilton western shirt.