Think you can just sew up some cotton panels and call it a day? Not if you want your money’s worth.
Think about your favorite T-shirt. The one that you reach for after you’ve pulled another out of the drawer only because you’re afraid you’ve already worn the favorite too often this week. Think about the weight and softness of the fabric. Where the sleeve lands on your bicep. Where the hem falls, and where it hugs your chest. The thickness of the neck. Think about the value you’ve gotten from this item. What you paid for it and the satisfaction, style, and comfort you’ve gained from it. How somewhere around the tenth wash, it started to mold to you like a second skin.
Go ahead. Takes about four seconds.
Erik Allen and Sasha Koehn of Buck Mason have been thinking about it for three years and counting.
When you spend three years thinking about a T-shirt like they have, you realize that a T-shirt, the perfect one, is the sum of its parts. It’s a result of adding elements that each requires its own devoted time and thought, coming together to create a man’s wearable security blanket. That is, if you’re lucky enough to have found one. The hunt for the perfect T-shirt is as enduring as the perfect T-shirt itself.
Koehn and Allen started Buck Mason in a garage in Venice, California, in 2013, putting together men’s wardrobe basics in a subscription-box service. When their T-shirt vendor couldn’t fulfill their orders on time, they went to make one themselves. They pulled from their own closets and broke down what made each of their favorite tees, in its own way, perfect.
They took an architect’s approach: learning how to make their own patterns, retooling the tee almost weekly, fine-tuning their dream T-shirt. They went through 52 variations of the tee before they were pretty happy with what they were producing. Though they still make tweaks here and there.
That addition and perfection of elements over three years included casing the fabric barons of downtown L. A. to find the perfect slub cotton—“it has consistent inconsistency,” says Allen. They landed on a midweight fabric—about 155 grams per square meter, just heavy enough to be suitable for year-round wear. It’s made of a tense yarn that’s knit loosely enough so that by the 20th wash, it feels better than when you first put it on.
It included fussing with an armhole that at first was dropped too low. So Koehn and Allen reshaped it, but they kept the proportions the same so you have better mobility without losing the slimming effect around the arm.
It included designing and testing the shirt on different body types within a size, so the tee looks as good on a barrel-chested kind of double-XL guy as it does on a big-bellied, skinny-fat kind of double-XL guy.
One of the trickier elements they tweaked was the hem. They added a slight curve to it, like your best dress shirts have. “I had found a lot of men faced a similar dilemma: You go out and you go through a month and maybe you drink a couple too many beers, you gain ten pounds,” Allen explains. “When you’re carrying just a little extra weight, the curved hem helps. It’s just a better shape. And if you’re really fit, you look great.” Another element was the neck binding. The Buck Mason guys were resolute about securing one that was thick, and of the same fabric as the T-shirt itself. Not a cheap, three-eighths-inch-wide piece of ribbing like you usually see, even on $50 tees. Doing so meant seeking out more-skilled (read: expensive) sewing operators.
The most important element? The price. They try to manufacture the tee as much as they can in the U. S. A. and keep it at $32. It’s a play between economy of scale and unwavering ambition regarding quality and value. The perfect T-shirt can be a luxury, even if it’s not a luxury item.