Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spectre & Co. - Reviewed

I was recently made aware of an up-and-coming shirting company by the name of Spectre & Co. I expressed some interest in their products, and they were kind enough to send me a shirt to review.

I'll begin with the standard disclaimer. This was a sponsored review, and the products reviewed were provided to me free of charge. The article, however, remains objective and unbiased and is published without prior editing or review by Spectre & Co. While I love to be given products to review, don't worry, I will never endorse a product I wouldn't wear myself. 

About the Brand:

I'll be perfectly honest, I'm going to skimp a bit on this section, not because I don't think it's worth looking into, but because Spectre & Co. was just featured in a fantastic article on Forbes.com that does a way better job exploring the company and what it does than I could ever do. Here are the basics, but definitely check that article out.

The company is run by founder Jeffrey Zhang, who quit a consulting job a little under a year ago to start Spectre & Co. He told me that the idea came about through his own troubles finding a "perfect white dress shirt" for a wedding. After he paid a whopping $135 to get the shirt he wanted, he decided to take a step in offering affordable but high quality dress shirts. In his words, "My family being in the garment industry, I knew how much things actually cost, and I came up with the idea to bring truly high-quality shirting to the market at the right, affordable price. Everything we have ranges from $45 - $65, and we offer free shipping in the United States and free returns for first-time customers."

Jeff was also kind enough to go into some detail explaining to me just how they are able to maintain a high level of quality and integrity while keeping the prices so low. 

"We're also completely vertically integrated, in that we own everything from production and distribution to retail. We cut out all of the middlemen to pass those savings to our customers. We also pride ourselves with responsible sourcing and fair labor practices. One of the driving forces when finding our production team was to not only prevent tragedies like the one in Bangladesh with the fast fashion retailers, but to well exceed the standards of fair labor. Instead of employing low-wage laborers, we hire local artisans and shirt-makers in Shanghai who have a passion for the craft. It's more expensive for us, but it's the right thing to do, and it also shows in our final product when it comes to quality, stitching, and pattern-matching. Our production team has over 100 years of combined experience in the garment industry, and have pedigrees from renowned shirt-makers such as Ascot Chang."

Long story short, his family has been in the biz long enough to know how to put together a quality product, but by paring the business down to an e-commerce-only shop and just skipping right past all the overhead associated with traditional retail, Jeff has found a way to bring that quality at an affordable price point.

What I Ordered:

For my first pick, I went with the Navy Gingham with a cutaway collar. I was debating trying one of the oxfords, as I'm enjoying OCBD's as my go-to shirt this fall, but I've been dying to have a strong gingham dress shirt in my rotation and thought this was a perfect chance.

Straight out of the box.
I originally ordered in my regular sizing (15" neck with standard sleeve length). The shirt I got was a pretty close fit, but was looser than I prefer around the waist and had some room to tighten up in the collar as well, so I decided to take advantage of the free first return and sized down to a 14.5" neck. I did ask them to keep the sleeve length at the size associated with a 15" neck, and they were happy to oblige. 

What You Get:

First off, overall this is a great shirt, especially for the money. We'll start with fit:

As you can see, the shirt fits almost as well as my MTM shirts. Just right across the shoulders, slim through the body, and almost no billowing at the waist. I was a bit worried about the neck when I sized down, but it still buttons comfortably. I'd say my only complaint (and it's a tiny one at that), is that the cuffs of the sleeves are tight. As in, there's no way I'd be able to come close to using the tighter button, and even the looser option doesn't really let the shirt hang on my wrist the way I like. It's not a huge deal, but it affects the way the sleeves look under a blazer, and just isn't perfect in my opinion. Maybe it's something they will adjust for over time.

The fabric itself is more than satisfactory as well. Spectre & Co advertises "100%, long-stem, two-ply cotton" in the shirt description itself, but you have to dig around a little more to find thread count information. Honestly, those numbers don't mean a whole lot to me, but what does is how smooth and comfortable this shirt felt on its first wear. As a non-technical observer, I'll turn to comparisons here to judge the quality: I'd say it well exceeds to feel of my shirts from Gap and Express, and definitely seems a bit more luxurious than my shirts from Frank and Oak (although most of those are more casual by nature to begin with). My MTM shirt from Modern Tailor was made from their low-tier fabric, and the shirt from Spectre is definitely softer and less wrinkle-prone. I'd put it on par with what I have from Charles Tyrwhitt and J. Crew, both of which retail for MUCH more than $45 a pop.

Spectre & Co really talk up their collars on the site, and don't disappoint here either. The result is a collar that isn't stiff or unforgiving, but still holds up with or without a tie, and lays very nicely under a blazer.
Great-looking cutaway collar.

Collar sans tie or blazer.

Collar seen under a blazer. 
Spectre & Co also points out their higher-than-standard armholes, and once again they deliver. You'll remember a post from a few weeks back featuring a shirt from Target.Loved the shirt, except the armholes were cut low which caused some very unpleasant bunching when I raised my arms. Not so with this shirt...the high and well-fitted armholes let me move my arms without moving the rest of the shirt.
Notice the lack of bunching at the shoulders.
 Other promises from Spectre & Co., such as stitch count and pattern matching are also solidly met.

Shoulder construction and pattern matching. Not perfect, but still solid. 
Side seam construction and pattern matching.
Of course, this shirt is still only $45.00, and no matter how many costs they can cut in their process, no one can offer an entirely luxury shirt for that glorious of a price. Things you might miss include split yoke in the back, gusseting along the seams for reinforcement, mother-of-pearl buttons, metal collar stays, but honestly, if any of those details will keep you from buying an otherwise fantastic shirt, you probably should be adjusting your budget to well over that $50.00 mark.

No gussets on side seams.

Additional Notes...

The Pros:
  • Free shipping! Always high up my list of appreciated perks. Plus, that first free return gives you a level of confidence you don't often have with e-commerce.
  • Customizable Sleeve Lengths: - Wouldn't think on my own to include this in a list of 'wants' from a brand, but it definitely came in handy. Jeff tells me that at some point they will offer a range of sleeve lengths with each neck size (a la more established shirting companies), but their small-scale production doesn't allow for it just yet. Meanwhile, this customization more than makes up for that.
  • Business Model: I'll say it over and over again, I think this idea of cutting out the middlemen, paring everything down to a simple-online experience, and therefore being able to offer top-of-the-line goods at affordable prices is THE FUTURE of the apparel industry.
  • Selection: Great selection of colors, collars and patterns. As it's not a custom shirting company, each shirt does come in only one collar option, but they have done a good job styling and all of the individual specs seem well thought-out and attractive. 
  • Great Website: Full disclaimer, I will totally overlook a shitty website if you are delivering strong products, but Spectre & Co. manage to deliver those goods while putting up a polished front, which is sometimes a bit of a struggle for these smaller, cost-cutting operations (ahem Modern Tailor). 
  • Style Advice: You might remember, one of the things that got me hooked on Tie Society was their feature offering free style advice. While I haven't tried it out with Spectre & Co. just yet, I love the fact that they have this option. Which leads me to...
  • Overall Vibe: Honestly, I just like the way Jeff approaches business. From the writing on the site, to the interactions I had over e-mail, to the services Spectre offer, everything is friendly, conversational yet professional, and looking out for your best interests. I always felt like Jeff wanted me to look (and feel) great with my purchases, and never that he was only trying to make a buck off of me (complimentary shirt aside).  

The Cons:
  • Just for balance here, some things were a bit of a dig to find on their website. For instance, product descriptions describe the fabric as 'high thread count' without offering an actual number, which had me a bit skeptical at first. Turns out the info is there, but it's tucked away on their FAQ page in the explanation of price differences between products.
  • Along the same lines, this one isn't really a con, but just seemed odd to me: Spectre's Oxford-Cloth shirts land at a full $20 more than the rest of the options. It turns out this is perfectly well explained by a higher thread-count fabric, but I was (and still am) just a bit surprised to see this, considering I tend to think of Oxford Cloth as more casual and a bit rougher. More to the point, I've never picked a more expensive OCBD because of a higher thread count. Not bad, just not what I'm used to seeing.
  • While for the most part the pattern selection is great, there aren't very many strong plaids. This will probably change with the seasons, but just a personal thing now, as I'm in the mood for a big, blockish plaid. That's just me.

The 'Depends How You Look At It':

Just two quick things to note, that you can take as good or bad depending how you look at it:
  • While there is collar and pattern variety, no variety in other details (plackets, cuffs, etc.). For those of us picky enough to care about these things, it's a bit of a disappointment (but at $45.00, again it's not much of one). For others, this might come as a relief, as it streamlines the process (I spent an hour last night designing a MTM shirt after I had chosen the fabric) and you can't really go wrong with any of their selections.
  • They only offer free returns on your first order. This isn't horrible (at all) and is in fact pretty smart on their part. As an online merchandiser, they understand the hardest thing about buying online is being confident in the fit. By offering one free return, they give you a chance to perfect your fit with their brand. That way, moving forward your only risk is in the patterns and cloths you choose, but you can be sure you're ordering the right size. So really, if you need more than one return, it'll be due to your own indecisiveness, so just make up your damn mind and stick to it!

Bottom line, I would definitely recommend these shirts to anyone looking for a quality dress shirt without the budget to go full MTM. You may be able to find casual options within this price range from stores like Frank and Oak, but as far as dress shirts, this has been the best bang-for-your-buck option I have yet to find.

Has anyone else gotten the chance to try Spectre & Co. out? Thoughts? Feedback? Any other brand recommendations? On any given work day, I may or may not wear a blazer, may even go without a tie, but I always wear a dress shirt, so I love to hear what people think.

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