It was a short journey, even for a traveler as reluctant as a second shirt button. After all, that button has remained at its traditional station below the collar button for most of the years since men’s shirts gained collars, which is eons in tailoring years. But now, on a luxe Ledbury shirt, that second button has migrated south. It has landed just a few centimeters farther from the collar, a tiny distance, maybe the width of four teeth on a drugstore comb. And that difference has made all the difference in the fortunes of Ledbury, a fledgling Richmond shirtmaking firm.
Ledbury is the creative baby of Paul Trible and Paul Watson – known as Paul and Paul in their company’s literature – refugees from the recession-besieged world of international banking who took a sharp turn into shirt design. In a renovated 1860s era brick hardware store in Richmond’s way-cool Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, Trible and Watson and their minimal staff (five to seven employees, depending on the task at hand) work surrounded by stacks of crisp shirts.
The storefront functions as retail shop (though most business comes through the website, ledbury.com), and also holds the business end in a light-filled loft space. A brick niche displays fabric swatches and drawings, and huge work tables are shared by people designing, compiling computer and phone orders, and folding crisp shirts into sharp white boxes for shipping around the globe. The shirts are made in a small factory in Poland, from fabrics made at a mill in Italy. Of course, moving a button doesn’t create a business, and it doesn’t command a $135-per-shirt price tag. There are charming luxury details, including natural shell buttons and a choice of English-inspired collars. There’s spot-on tailoring, a gently tapered cut from sternum to stomach that flatters fellas and eliminates excess folds. And there are the fabrics: Cotton soft as silk. Summer chambrays, light as lemonade. Moleskin so fine it could be made from actual…well, it is made from cotton, but with the feel of an unearthly fur. Drapable flannels that can’t possibly be from the same fabric family as the hearty Father’s Day shirts from A&N.
“Sure, you can get a blue gingham shirt somewhere else, for less,” Trible says, lifting just that item off a retail rack. “But it’s not going to be a cotton/linen blend. It’s not going to fit like this one will. “When we get men in our shirts, they immediately feel the difference. The quality of the fabric, the cut, the collar, the way it looks. Sometimes, they can’t immediately pinpoint why it’s different, but they love it. And when they put on their other shirts, they don’t like them as much.”
The fashion press agrees. In its two-year lifespan, Ledbury has been featured in media ranging from Southern Living to The Wall Street Journal. “Savile Row style with collars that stand tall,” chirped a reviewer in the October 2010 GQ. Paul and Paul also have a great story, one the media can’t resist. Paul Watson, 32, is a New Orleans native with a knack for numbers. As chief financial officer, he handles the money. Paul Trible, 30, is the son of that Paul Trible, the former U.S. senator and member of the House of Representatives, and current president of Christopher Newport University. The younger Trible grew up in Newport News and Washington, and has the politician’s way with a story. Thus, he’s the guy who does most of the talking for Ledbury (along with duties as designer and chief executive officer).
In the Virginia tradition, he earned a history degree from Washington and Lee, and was poised to enter law school when he decided on a detour. He joined Operation Smile, the Norfolk-based charity he’d volunteered with as a teen. “Three days out of college, age 22, coordinating a hospital mission in Vietnam,” Trible says. “Doctors, nurses, everybody looking at me. Mind-blowing.” He led missions in Africa and Latin America, then spent three years in London heading Operation Smile U.K. Since he’d been handling the charity’s finances, he decided to study business at Oxford. There he encountered a childhood friend from D.C., a young woman named Meredith. She introduced Trible to her husband, who of course was Paul Watson.
The young men became fast friends. International finance circa 2005-’06 was a wide-open field. The two discovered English pubs and Savile Row tailoring. They flitted in and out of London, to internships with New York City hedge funds and venture capitalists in Shanghai. All signs pointed to big, big paychecks ahead. Trible and Watson graduated on a Saturday. On Sunday, the giant financial services company Lehman Brothers collapsed. “By Monday,” Trible says, “everyone was packing their boxes, in every company. There were suddenly 20,000 people unemployed in London.” The job offers vanished. The party was over. Watson and Trible adjourned – many times – to a pub to reconsider their lives. “We realized it was an opportunity to do anything with our lives,” Trible says. “We decided to figure out what we were passionate about and go for it.” Their mutual love of English tailoring kept arising in the conversations. They also wanted to return to America, the Southeast. They combined the two in a plan to bring British tailoring to America, with a quality superior to Brooks Brothers but a price lower than the $360-plus fare from designer Roberto Cavalli, found in upscale department stores.
“We had a back-of-the-envelope business plan,” Trible says, “but we didn’t know anything about shirtmaking.” Trible walked into the shop of Robert Emmett, an old-guard Savile Row tailor, and talked the craftsman into taking him on as an apprentice. He spent seven months learning the craft and business. The meetings continued at a pub on Ledbury Road, in posh Notting Hill. Trible and Watson adopted the street name as the company identity. Ledbury launched as a luxury brand in 2009, into the teeth of a worldwide recession. “One man told us we should probably make them out of burlap, the way the economy was going,” Trible says. “But we felt like shirts were a very basic item. People were focusing on what they spent money on, wanting to know if it’s really worth it.”
The Ledbury gents responded with a solid list of reasons. First, there’s that button, located in exactly the right place. On a standard shirt, explains Trible, a man typically opens the top button when he wears it without a tie. “And the opening is always a little too small,” Trible says, pinching his own shirt collar just below the top button and leaving a scrunched-up, miserly opening. “But when you unbutton the second button, it’s too much chest. Too … well, Paul and I had a professor in an entrepreneurial finance class, and he came in at night with his two buttons open and it looked so, like going to the club, and we absolutely hated it.’’
When it came time to design their own shirts, they lowered the second button just a smidge, spacing the rest of the placket accordingly. “It gives a more flattering V,” Trible says, his finger tracing the admittedly perfect neckline of his own Ledbury shirt. “Men loved it. People buy them and wear it and then get used to it. And their other shirts don’t feel quite right after that.” Now, check out the collars. Most modern men’s shirt collars are not lined, which gives them a soft roll. “It sits well with a tie,” Trible explains, “but collapses under a jacket.” The alternative is to add a slightly stiffer lining, and sew it fully into the collar to keep it in place (“fused,” versus “floating,” in shirtmaking parlance).
“It gives it more structure,” Trible says, his hands guiding the way through a rack of shirts – dark solids, pastels, creamy eggshell, gleaming white, plaids, stripes and more plaids – all of them with collars standing at attention. The shirts are slightly high-necked, a touch Edwardian, a touch Tom Wolfe in his trademark white suit. Plus there is that cut, following a man’s body from shoulder to hip. The taper, Trible says, makes the shirt tuck neatly into pants and gives a trimmer silhouette. The effect, paired with the achingly touchable Italian fabrics, is a slam-dunk in the fitting room. Besides possessing “come hither” allure, the Ledbury shirts arrived just as a recession-born doldrums hit the hangers. “There was nothing new going on with menswear,” he says. “We were lucky with the exposure. GQ, that really put us on the map.” He and Watson keep the interest up by constantly introducing fabrics and colors – “I’m really liking these big plaids,” Trible says, sheafing through a stack of shirts with gorgeous saturated colors like deep green and navy blue shot through with white and black – and a touch of promotion.
For instance, the company has started a feature called Short Run Shirting, a limited edition shirt introduced every Tuesday, available through Sunday or until it sells out. On the website, the featured shirt has its own digital timekeeper, ticking down the days and hours. On this particular day, the company has sent out an email announcing a new print, a red and blue tattersall plaid. Ashley Drewes, Ledbury’s customer service manager, has a list of 20 orders for the shirt on the screen of her computer, which is set up at a table in the middle of the place.
“There’s the guy in Houston,” she says, gesturing toward the list. “He orders everything that comes out new.” Drewes has already taken care of another loyal customer, a man who has delivered a standing order to simply charge each new style or pattern off ered to his account, and send the shirt on, post haste. “Men are such creatures of habit,” Trible says. Drewes smiles. She’s 24, and this is her first job out of college. “These two guys,” she says, “working for them, it’s fun. It’s like a small business family. My friends are all jealous, working at their cubicles.” At the next work table is Ledbury’s other Paul, Paul Watson, trying to straighten out an errant power bill. “My original plan,” he says, “was to work in international finance, perhaps the Soviet Union. I’d make a career of it for 10, 20 years, then retire and do my own thing.”
“Here, I’ve just skipped the first part and gone on to the fun part.”
To see a video to learn more about Ledbury’s Shirts click here.