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Collar Commentary

The days of the comfortingly drab corporate uniform are gone. Show that you're hip to the dressed-down office without stooping to chinos.

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Morley Safer, fashion icon. Stop sniggering. And pay attention. Men are dressing in a new way that combines informality with business attire, and before you know it you might be showing up at work dressed in a dark suit over a brightly colored, checked or striped shirt -- just like old Morley.

In the old days that reached their apogee way back in the eighties, the corporate uniform was a blue suit, white shirt, and yellow foulard power tie. But those were the pre-entrepreneurial, not-yet-downsized, hierarchical days when corporations resembled the Army. You dressed to show your loyalty and your rank. No one much wants to be in the Army, large corporate organizations, or uniforms anymore. Earlier this year, when a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists trotted out to old-school Procter & Gamble, they donned their starched and pinstriped best. The P&G men, trying to be groovy, greeted the VCs in the now-familiar garb of serious equity builders -- khakis and polos. It's officially a dressed-down world. But without a general consensus on how men should dress for work, the e-decade has been marked by sartorial confusion.

Dressing down means anything goes, but many guys can't bring themselves to do khakis at the office, so they are taking their old conservative suits and pairing them with bold shirts in voluble colors and patterns. "A patterned shirt," the Atlanta-based designer Edgar Pomeroy says, "takes a boring suit and gives it new life. It separates the dandies and the dressers from those who merely get dressed." Morley Safer has done this for years, injecting excitement into staid suits with the addition of a large gingham check. Each week, he virtually conducts a seminar in the subtle vocabulary of men's clothes.

Where can one get distinctive patterned shirts? If you are a ready-to-wear man, go straight to midtown. A block apart stand Façonnable and Thomas Pink. Both feature colorful shirts in creative patterns that you won't find anywhere else. Façonnable took the American Ivy League style and made it cool. Here you will find subtle color combinations and elaborately constructed checks that will keep people staring at your collar for hours. To add a twist, try out the store's spread collars that button down. (Only the French could get away with combining British dash and American comfort.) Pink goes for a stronger palette. The colors are, as a friend of mine says, vivid but stop short of being vulgar. Look out for herringbone patterns that will all but shimmy underneath your shirt collar.

You can get a better shirt that will last longer for just a little more money if you go to a custom shop. Many men extol the virtues of bespoke shirts by praising the superior cut, the higher-quality construction, or the ample choice of collar styles and cuff treatments. While all of these rationales hold water, the best thing about having your shirts made is the freedom to pick the patterns and colors you want in the season that you want them.

Finding the right shirtmaker is a little like finding the right bar. You want a comfortable place frequented by guys with whom you identify. No matter what your position in the social matrix, there is a shirtmaker for you. Barneys, Bergdorf's, and Brooks all have made-to-measure-shirt departments that will see you kitted out in style, as do Saks, Sulka, and Dunhill. But if you're having a shirt made to measure, why not seek out a specialist?

The granddaddy of one-of-a-kind-shirtmakers is undoubtedly Turnbull & Asser. The British company's current rep may be a far cry from that of its heyday in the swinging sixties, when loud shirts and kipper ties made the scene, but it still prides itself on having exclusive, sit-up-and-take-notice fabrics. Three times a year, new patterns come to the store on 57th Street that will never be made again. A band of devoted customers shows up immediately upon their arrival. If the price doesn't make this one of the most exclusive clubs in town, the sheer riot of colors will. These shirts are not for the faint of heart, and they take some practice and daring to wear well.

If there is a purple glen check with a blue overplaid pattern you want and cannot seem to find, stop in to Ascot Chang across the street. As befits its roots as a knockoff artist, there is seemingly no common pattern that the Hong Kong-based tailor doesn't carry. But don't let the bargain-bin ancestry fool you. Ascot Chang carries some of the finest fabrics -- high-thread-count super 200s that feel like silk -- at prices apparently inspired by the Hong Kong real-estate market.

Paris Custom Shirtmakers manufactures high-class shirts in a grubby building near Madison Square Garden. Paris gets most any fabric made by the best mills, often exclusively for the first few months. It makes exquisite shirts, but some men won't brave the tumult of the Korean gift district just to get a burgundy Bengal stripe.

If, in the end, you are more of a new-economy type, tired of wearing T-shirts but unable to stomach the formality of midtown, James Jurney of Seize sur Vingt is doing a good business selling the same product in a downtown setting. His Elizabeth Street shop pushes the concept of the power shirt for those who never think about ties. Seize sur Vingt will do made-to-measure shirts from a highly edited selection of fabrics that are guaranteed to make you feel powerful and cool. And you'll look almost as good as Morley Safer.

Façonnable (689 Fifth Avenue; 212-319-0111; $89.50 to $275); Pink (520 Madison Avenue; 212-838-1928; $120); Turnbull & Asser (42 East 57th Street; 212-752- 5700; $195 to $350); Ascot Chang (7 West 57th Street; 212-759-3333; $87.50 to $475); Paris Custom Shirtmakers (38 West 32nd Street; 212-695-3563; $175 to $275); Seize sur Vingt (243 Elizabeth Street; 212-343-0476; $135 to $250).


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