It rather occurs to me, you know, that if simply I tell you that Hilditch & Key is the very best shirtmaker in the world, then it is perfectly possible that you may well not believe me. You might think: Oh yes, well – he would say that, wouldn’t he? He’s writing on the Hilditch & Key website, for heaven’s sake …! All right: fair enough. So what I have to do then is to explain to you why it is true: to paint so enticing and convincing a portrait of the peerless products on offer in London’s Jermyn Street – not forgetting the gorgeous Paris branch on the Rue de Rivoli – that you will be not just eager, but pretty much desperate to visit, revisit – and, as a result, never dream ever again of darkening the door of any other shirt shop on the planet. Tall order, really… Well right, then: here goes.
Jermyn Street in general has of course been famous for more than a century for housing England’s finest gentlemen’s outfitters: the old adage, the old rule of thumb, was always that should one be after the best, then it has to be Savile Row for tailoring, and Jermyn Street for everything else. Recently, though, various new elements and economies have stealthily crept into parts of both of these venerable thoroughfares, this resulting in a considerable dilution of the popularly perceived overall general ‘brand’ – which of course never did and cannot exist: each tailor and shirtmaker stands alone, and therefore no longer can solely the street names themselves serve as a catch-all soubriquet, nor by any means a guarantee of the finest. At Hilditch & Key, however, shirts continue to be made in the same way they have been since the firm’s founding in 1899: to the very highest standard, with no diminuition in the quality of the finest pure cotton, and absolutely no cut corners. Indeed – if there existed an element or method whereby a Hilditch & Key shirt could be in any way better, then either long ago would have been incorporated into the manufacture. This is where the company truly excels: the customer can always be sure that a brand new H&K shirt (and what a treat it always is, to slip into such a thing …!) with its signature and distinctive rounded cuff – single or double – will feel, sit and hang quite as perfectly as the last.
For shirts, you see, are much like the proverbial pudding – though the proof of them lies not so much in the eating (well obviously) as in the wearing. Because all shirts look much of a muchness when stacked up in their glossy cellophane bags (although even then on an inferior item you will notice that the pattern might not be symmetrical on the two blades of the collar, the pocket similarly misaligned: you will never see that on a Hilditch & Key shirt – the pattern is unbroken even from shoulder to sleeve). Though it is when you actually come to wear one that the differences between the best and the rest become quite plain: the cotton is characteristically silky, the buttons mother-of-pearl, the tails and girth more than generous and – most importantly – the collar, whether classic or cutaway, sits quite exactly: once the tie is knotted, you can forget any annoying movement during the course of the day – you will never again be tugging at the ends, and nor will the collar gape or curl under. Even after umpteen washings and ironings, each shirt – as I can positively testify – comes up repeatedly as if it were new.
So you see that nothing really has changed very much since 1899, when one Charles Hilditch and another Graham Key set up shop together … in Tottenham Court Road, of all places. Very soon afterwards, however, they must have seen the error of their ways and swiftly decamped to Jermyn Street – actually on the corner of Duke Street, the site currently occupied by Alfred Dunhill. This suffered a direct hit during the War and was completely destroyed (what a criminal act – all those beautiful shirts …!) and so Hilditch & Key moved a short way down the road. The company has been under the same sole and English ownership for more than forty years, and currently there are two London shops – by far the larger sitting on the corner of Bury and Jermyn Streets: a very handsome place – at once an ordered and calming atmosphere, while stacked with rather exciting merchandise. The range of gentlemen’s clothing has expanded considerably over the years: pretty much all that a chap simply cannot be without, here he will find – with the sole (and heel) exception of shoes. The shirts, but of course, are the star of the show – a constantly changing array of stripes and checks in all sizes and half-sizes (single button cuffed shirts with a breast pocket as standard, double cuffed variety without) in addition to the constancy of the classic white, cream, pinks and blues. There is also an ample selection of pure silk ties, pocket squares, cravats and cashmere scarves as well as the finest cotton pyjamas, nightshirts and gowns I have ever encountered (silk, wool and cashmere gowns too). A seasonally changing range of jackets, blazers, trousers and coats is also here, in addition to very tempting choices of belts, braces, socks, cufflinks … and … wait a minute … what’s that I hear one of you shouting from the back …? Did someone just call out ‘Oh yes that’s all very well – but what about hats, then …?’ Ah yes: hats. Well in 2010, Hilditch & Key acquired the great Bates – that very famous hatter which itself has been in Jermyn Street since 1898. This superb establishment is now incorporated into the larger Hilditch & Key shop in its own self-contained and dedicated space: for more information – which doubtless you will crave – do consult the separate Bates website.
The large square area now occupied by Bates used to be taken up with very elegant ladies’ shirts and sleepwear, and this rather wonderful and unusual range is now to be found on the upper floor of the smaller shop just a few doors down, this jointly managed by Stefan Chen and Colin Busby – and very friendly and helpful they are too. The larger corner shop is under Roger Talbot and Tony Heale, both of whom have been with the company for a very long time – and consequently, there is nothing they do not know, and both are more than happy to impart their knowledge and advice with as easy a manner as you can imagine. They also come into their own if a bespoke shirt is required: this is another rare and splendid service offered by H&K: enormous choice of fabric, expert measurement and tailoring for the absolutely perfect fit – the ultimate luxury, really. Hilditch & Key are far too gentlemanly to parade their list of clients, past and present, but I can assure you that in both cases it is beyond impressive: really quite amazing, actually – so you know that you are in excellent company.
All over the world, there exist concessions for Hilditch & Key within the best department stores such as Selfridges and Saks Fifth Avenue, though nothing quite compares to a visit to either one of the Jermyn Street shops, or else the one on the Rue de Rivoli: so I do hope by now that you are inspired to go. And be assured – a Hilditch & Key shirt will always bear the label: they make for no one else. In the exclusive factory just north of Edinburgh, each collar is still cut by hand with a rather villainous curved blade, not unlike a shrunken scimitar. Each shirt too is hand-pressed … and by the time you have finished reading this sentence, I estimate that at least half a dozen of them will have been hand folded, cardboard backed, pinned and cellophane bagged: I would say that it’s quite an extraordinary sight … but actually it happens almost faster than the eye even can register.
So buy one. Buy two. Wear them. Launder them: wear and enjoy them again and again. From this moment on, you are a devotee – you’ll buy loads, and nothing else whatever. Because by this time you don’t need to be told by me or anyone else: for now you absolutely know for yourself that Hilditch & Key is the very best shirtmaker in the world. You see …?