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BY DESIGN : Q & A: IKE BEHAR : 'I Had Always Wanted to Do My Own Thing'

August 03, 1995|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few recognize the name. Yet Ike Behar has left an indelible mark on American men's fashion. It was during Behar's 12-year stint designing dress shirts for Ralph Lauren that he created the prototype for Lauren's best-selling "Polo" shirt.

Behar was already an established custom shirt-maker in New York when Lauren, a young tie-maker who wanted to add dress shirts to his product mix, bought an 80% share of Behar's company, R & R Custom Shirts. Behar's shirt designs--combined with Lauren's marketing genius--helped establish the multimillion-dollar business for designer shirts.

Behar and Lauren parted company in the early '80s and Behar now operates a $15-million family business out of Miami. In Los Angeles, Ike Behar shirts--considered by many to be the best dress shirt in the world--sell in such stores as Sak's Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

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Question: Can you describe the original Polo dress shirt?

Answer: It was a heavy Oxford with a button-down collar. Ralph wanted it to be the best and he didn't care what it cost. We sold it for $52. It sells for around $58 today. But now it's made in Malaysia.

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Q: Was the embroidered "Polo pony" on the chest part of the lure?

A: No, that came later. For at least two years we made shirts without the pony.

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Q: Who ended the relationship?

A: I had always wanted to do my own thing and so I started making some of my own shirts. One year we got one of our shirts placed in the Bonwit Teller catalogue right next to a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt. But I was making both shirts. And Ralph saw it and said, "You can't do this. You have to choose whether you want to be with me or do your own thing. Which is it?"

And so I got up and I said, "Ralph, I respect your decision but I'm not dropping my line." Then I went outside and thought, what the hell am I doing giving up a $1.5-million business for a $30,000 business? But it was the right thing for me to do at the time.

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Q: Does it frustrate you knowing you made all those Polo shirts and Ralph got all the credit?

A: No. You know, sometimes I think he wasn't nice. But I really have no resentment of any kind.

About eight years ago I met him on the street and I was with my sons, who were crazy about Ralph. He was their idol. And he asked them how they liked working for their father and they said great. And he was a little sad. He said his own sons had no interest in being in business with him. And I realized I had something to envy.

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Q: I understand you are the only American shirt-maker to own a patent on a shirt collar. Is this true?

A: Yes. It took 11 years to get the patent, because we had to prove this had never been done before. It's called a diamond quilted band and basically it's a zig-zag stitch that keeps the roundness of the collar. So when the shirt goes to the laundry, it doesn't move all the fabric to one side. The stitch holds everything in place.

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Q: Is there a secret to buying a dress shirt?

A: I think that's a very important question because most men, especially young men, don't really know. We don't pass on that knowledge anymore, like from father to son. But I think the main thing is how the shirt feels and the comfort of the collar.

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Q: What specifically should a man look for?

A: Look at the way the collar is constructed, number one. Does it feel soft or stiff? Also feel the fabric for the beefiness of the material. It should feel strong but soft. The back yoke, the double layer of fabric at the back of the shoulders, is very important. Most companies make a straight yoke. But we cut it at a 17-degree angle so it's contoured like a man's shoulders.

The buttons should be pearl or non-breakable ceramic, not plastic. They should also look for single-needle construction, which is a single row of stitching on the seams. Most companies use double needle.

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Q: Double needle sounds like it would be more durable, no?

A: No. Double-needle construction takes a special machine with two needles that stretches the material and the seams come out rippled and wavy, especially after the shirts been laundered. With single needle the construction is seamless, the fabric looks like one piece. And it's much more durable because it's stitched on both sides rather than twice on the top.

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Q: Is there a reasonable price a man should pay for a dress shirt? How much is too much?

A: Last Christmas we made some cashmere shirts for Bergdorf that sold for $950 to $1,100, and they sold 172 of them. But basically I think once you pass $200 you overpaid. It takes 52 manufacturing steps and about 2 1/2 yards of fabric to make a dress shirt. We have some cotton shirts with $25 to $30-a-yard fabric, so we have $70 in fabric alone. Our shirts sell from $70 to $165. We also make a line of shirts called Ike, which sell from $52 to $65.

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Q: Is there such a thing as a well-made dress shirt for under $30?

A: Only if a guy can find it at a close-out sale.

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Q: Is there one company that does a better job than any other at that price point?

A: I suppose Lands' End. I went to their factory once because they wanted to improve their products and asked me to come and help them.

They make maybe 40,000 shirts a week for around $40 a shirt, compared to the 60,000 shirts we make a year. But they do everything automatic, no hand work. Even when they make a collar it takes five minutes to complete, whereas it takes us maybe 20 people and an hour to do a collar.

I think most guys would probably say they make a decent shirt. But I loved my house until I saw another house that was better.

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