Where the runway meets the street

The campaign for Hamilton 1883 has brought to the attention of much of the blog world the fine shirts of Houston-based Hamilton. Clearly, in a period defined by a particular sense of American pride, Hamilton has a certain appeal. A home grown story, interesting for its location (Texas) and its fans (Barneys, for example).

Founded, as you might guess, in 1883, Hamilton is currently the charge of David and Kelly Hamilton, great-grandchildren of co-founder Bernard Hamilton. Together, the siblings have breathed new life into the shirt makers and done so with heavy reverence for the full story behind the Texan company.

Admittedly, the 1883 range piqued my interest in Hamilton. While the campaign was not my first point of discovery, it did prompt a few questions. David Hamilton was kind enough to answer a few of those. What follows is a brief Q&A about the beginnings of Hamilton and a few of the moments that have brought us to today.

Who are the Hamilton’s? How did they arrive in Houston and make it the family home?

This is what we know from a published article in 1948.  “A chance meeting on a train in the early spring of 1883 between two Virginia gentlemen on their way west to raise sheep and another traveler also on his way west to open a men’s furnishing store, resulted in the founding of one of Houston’s oldest stores, the Hamilton Brothers…. The prospective sheep raisers, two brothers, Edward J. and J. Brooke Hamilton stayed on in Houston with the young firm after their friend and partner, John Mason, had left for the Colorado nines.  The store which the three founded was located on the site of the present Rice Hotel not far from its present location.

Mr. Mason sold his interest to a captain of the Houston Light Guards who in turn sold to Williams E. Hamilton, Jr., and then the store became Hamilton Bros.

A few years later, a shirt making factory was added to the business after Edward J. Hamilton had learned the trade in St. Louis.  Bernard J. Hamilton (great grandfather of Kelly and David), who joined the firm in 1891 and was made a partner in 1906, took charge of the factory.  He is the only founder of the firm still active in the business and is, in fact, still working at his old job.”

Hamilton opened shop in 1883, what’s your understanding of how it fit into Houston’s needs at the time?

There were less than 20,000 people in Houston when Hamilton Brothers was founded.  My family opened shop about the same time that the frontier closed.  Commerce was expanding and they were outfitting a growing business class.

Who were the original clientele?

I imagine the original clientele were farmers and railroad men.  Those were the main industries at the time.  In 1901, they found oil outside of Houston at Spindletop.  After that, oil men became our primary clientele and that really continues to this day.  Houston is more diversified than it used to be, but most fortunes made in Houston are tied to oil in some way.

Where were fabrics sourced from in the initial decades of the company?

Honestly, I can’t say for sure.  The fabrics were almost certainly domestic.  I know that when my father entered the business in the early 1960’s he and his father would purchase Italian and Swiss goods from American Sember in New York.  They are still around.  Today we buy the same goods but direct from the mills.

Where did Houston draw its fashion inspirations? In some respects, the City amalgamates Southern and Western charms, and I wonder if this is indicative in the shirts commonly purchased at Hamilton as the company grew?

Houstonians are a diverse people and Houston fashion reflects that diversity.  In the shop at any given time we might have a local attorney, a cowboy buying western shirts a banker relocated from the northeast and someone from Scotland living here to work in the energy industry.

Native Houstonians have a practical and relaxed style.  It’s a city built on energy, shipping and manufacturing.  You want to look like someone willing to roll up his sleeves and go to work.  It’s also a fiercely independent and entrepreneurial attitude that is consistent with Texas ideals in general.  So, people do add shirt details to set themselves apart, like western yokes on dress shirts or a particular cut on their pocket flap.

What role did taking trips to New York for fabric sourcing play in introducing the manufacture of Hamilton shirts to the New York (and wider) market?

My father joined the business as a young man.  His father died soon thereafter, so my dad had to learn fast.  He bought most of his fabric from Elie Semhon in New York.  He’s an amazing man and was a mentor to my father.  We eventually grew large enough to purchase directly from the mills in Italy, but the Semhons mean a lot to our family.  I believe that Elie just turned 100.  My dad had lunch with him a few months ago.

Understanding that the 1883 Range is off the rack, have their been other moments in Hamilton’s History where off the rack was offered?

In the 1980’s my father started an off the rack shirt line under the name Lucerne.  It was a popular shirt at Barneys.  My father sold that business in the early 90’s to Robert Talbott.  Barneys was still a big fan of the shirt and asked my father to make custom shirts for Barneys.  We still make custom shirts for Barneys and have expanded our wholesale distribution to a little over 20 accounts.  We are fortunate to work with the very best men’s specialty stores in America.

Any instances of producing private label shirts for shops in the local region?

We used to do a lot of private label, but decided to get out of that business.  We do have one remaining private label customer – M.L. Leddy’s in Fort Worth.  Probably the only store in America where you can buy custom saddles, boots, Hamilton Shirts and Oxxford clothing.  I think they would be an interesting story for Selectism.

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