Philly’s custom shirtmakers are shutting down as fast fashion takes over

Nearly all the city’s legacy bespoke tailors have quietly closed up shop in recent years.

Barton & Donaldson's storefront before closing up shop in 2017.

Barton & Donaldson's storefront before closing up shop in 2017.

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Correction appended, Feb. 19, 11 a.m.

From the moment Arthur Kover first stepped into the Barton & Donaldson’s storefront on Chancellor Street more than two decades ago, he’s been a lifelong customer.

Even after he relocated to Connecticut for a teaching post, he continued to place orders from the Rittenhouse haberdasher, always careful to allocate part of his professor’s salary for two or three beloved button-downs each year. Kover eventually amassed a robust Barton wardrobe.

“The shirts were really good with little touches that made them special,” he wrote in an email. “Cuffs a little wider on the wrist I wear a watch, a shank of thread so that collar buttons didn’t lie flat. And they really fit, from top to bottom.”

Last year, Kover retired and moved back to Philadelphia, his devotion for snug collars intact. But when he ventured over to his Chancellor Street mainstay for his annual re-up, he found the storefront empty.

After 40 years in business, one of the city’s last custom shirtmakers had quietly and unceremoniously closed its doors.

While Philadelphia has never boasted its own Savile Row, mom-and-pop clothiers once figured regally in the downtown business landscape. A 1983 phone book listed about two dozen custom tailors who built mens’ wardrobes the old school way, The Inquirer reported at the time, with half a dozen specializing in shirts. Today, they’re as rare as a shoe shiner on East Market Street. Phone calls around the region found just three legacy shirtmakers still doing business today.

The craft’s last practitioners say the mercantile tradition will likely vanish completely from Philadelphia and its post-industrial siblings within a few years.

“There’s nobody left,” said Harris Egendorf, another veteran shirtmaker who closed his Northeast Philly shop around the same time as Barton & Donaldson. “Nobody’s dressing. People don’t wear neckties or cufflinks or suits…The last 30 years of business have been absolutely brutal.”

Barton & Donaldson's storefront on 16th and Chancellor has sat vacant for over a year.

Barton & Donaldson's storefront on 16th and Chancellor has sat vacant for over a year.

Max Marin/Billy Penn

The final sew  

A recent visit to Barton & Donaldson’s found the entryway gated and clogged with trash. The careworn shop sat empty, as if abandoned in the middle of the night, with few signs of its tenure save for the name on the storefront windows.

Attempts to reach master shirtmakers Al Barton and Don Donaldson — a note left wedged in the doorjamb, phone calls to numbers associated with the operation — were unsuccessful. The internet has few clues about the business’ demise. Yelp calls it permanently closed, with the sole review left in 2015. (“Absolutely amazing work,” the Yelper wrote. “They’re an institution in Philly and have a very loyal following.”) An attendant at the florist next door estimated the shop shut down around December 2017.

Custom shirts and suits have long been a status symbol. For practitioners, price was part of the sales pitch.

“Men are in their clothing for 16 hours a day. They’re in their cars for an hour a day. So where do you put your values?” Donaldson asked at his Chancellor Street storefront in 1983, according to the Inquirer.

Along with Ray’s Custom Shirts, Barton & Donaldson was one of two premier shirtmakers in the city. Through their decades in business, the sartorial duo rarely made big news beyond the occasional fashion feature. In 1989, they had a manufacturing warehouse seized by the city for an ill-fated eminent domain project. Other than that, business was quiet but steady, from the flared collars of the 70s to the tight-shirt Wall Street boom in the 80s.

Egendorf, the Northeast Philly shirtmaker, says the decline started in the 1990s. He noted the major players in the city’s close-knit tailor industry are all on their way out.

Ray’s closed its brick-and-mortar shop in Bala Cynwyd, though owners Ray and Roxanne Nepomuceno say they continue to serve clients with work or home appointments. (Nepomuceno’s father, the founder of the shirtmaking family business, also takes orders by appointment at a Jenkintown location.) Charles Marrotta still does custom tailoring at his shop Distante on Sansom Street. And then there’s Nancy Gold — the first female custom shirtmaker in the country — who runs a shop in Ardmore.

“I think the prize goes to the last one standing,” Gold said with a laugh. “But when the pie is small there’s more for the last of us.”

Nancy-Gold1
Sarah R. Bloom Photography

‘The death of custom came from greed’

Gold got her start in 1965, apprenticing for then-master shirtmaker John Shaw on 17th & Walnut. She would go on to open her own bespoke shop in Shaw’s same storefront in the 1980s, where she served the well-heeled downtown clientele. She went on to write a book about her years in the business, called Shirt Tales. She opened King’s Collar in Ardmore in 2000, and today, at 78, she still has no plans to stop taking measurements.

Gold acknowledges that price is a deterrent — her starting point is $175 a shirt. Attorneys are her main clientele today, but she emphasizes that bespoke shirtmaking provides more than just luxury for the well-heeled. She also works with amputees and burn victims to craft a wardrobe that works for their bodies.

“It’s a wonderful service,” she says. “I have a 23-year-old grandson, he’s always telling me, ‘Nana, Nana, you won’t make a lot money, the business is done.’ And I tell him, ‘You know what? I don’t care. I love what I do.'”

She said custom shirtmakers were hammered by the rise of casual Fridays and the casual workplace. “The death of custom came from greed,” she says of off-the-rack suit corporations who use cheap labor.

Gold heard Barton & Donaldson also struggled with the ongoing Center City construction that hindered foot traffic to their business. It’s something with which she sympathizes. “We never knock a colleague,” she said of her fellow shirtmakers. “I never told people to come to me if they had shirts made elsewhere, and I’ve always loved that about the industry.”

As for the future, Gold says the bigger concern isn’t so much the dwindling of custom tailors and their high-powered customers — but the lack of clear generational legacy.

“Our children…no one wants to get into it,” she said. “For now, I just want to keep it alive for the people who appreciate it.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include mention of Distante, a custom tailor that remains in operation on Sansom Street in Center City. Additionally, Ray’s Custom Shirts still takes order by appointment.

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