Back when Buffalo Bill Cody first organized his Wild West show, in 1883, two would-be sheep ranchers traveling west from Virginia, Edward J. and J. Brooke Hamilton, decided they would rather sell menswear than chase woollies across the Rockies. Shortly thereafter, Bernard J. Hamilton joined his brothers in Houston, and the family began specializing in a single garment: custom dress shirts.
Some things have changed since then. The storefront and adjoining factory where Hamilton shirts are tailored moved from its original site in downtown’s historic Rice Hotel to a new location, on the west side of town, in a fairly nondescript mall. But in an era when most American clothing makers have transferred production overseas, and laser trimming rather than hand cutting is the new rule, Hamilton continues to do things the old-fashioned way. The closest thing to automation on the workshop floor is the buzz of sewing machines. From cuffs to collars, each swath of fabric is cut, stitched, and pressed by hand.
“We’re very lucky to be the last man standing,” says David Hamilton, a thirty-three-year-old great-grandson of Bernard Hamilton’s who currently runs operations with his sister, Kelly, who is thirty-six. The siblings took over for their father, Jim, in 2006. In a nod to the times, they introduced Hamilton 1883, a line of ready-to-wear sport shirts, and you can now order Hamilton’s designs online. But the heart of the Hamilton line remains the bespoke dress shirts, which rely on paper patterns drawn from individual customer measurements. After a fitting with Kelly—typically in the Houston showroom—the real fun begins. Customers choose from hundreds of fabric options, mostly imported from Italy and Switzerland with an eye to keeping Southern gents cool in summer. Styles range from high-collar tuxedo to classic oxford to surfer-inspired short sleeves. From there, personalization extends to collar size, pocket location, monograms, and even shoulder padding or oversize pleats for the perfect shooting shirt.
“There are times when I wish we could take our label off,” Kelly says, ruing the occasional misguided customization approach or color combo. “But that’s not our job. Unless it’s overcomplicated for production, we don’t ever say no.”
Throughout its history, Hamilton has clad movie stars, rockers, and professional athletes. When the newly minted oil barons of the 1950s wanted to dress up, they turned to David and Kelly’s grandfather Joseph. The late East Texas congressman Charlie Wilson liked his shirts with French cuffs and epaulets. And when the company provided Memphis native and pop superstar Justin Timberlake with shirts for a fashion spread, he was so smitten, he took them home. “We were happy to let him keep them,” says Kelly, who like her forebears knows that the customer is (almost) always right. With shirt preferences on file for some ten thousand loyal clients, she doesn’t have much time to argue.
For more information, go to hamiltonshirts.com