A shirt must last for many years — Interview with Victor Besnard

Portrait of Victor Besnard by photographer Jeroen van de Gruiter.

It’s been a long time since I last wore a Polo collar shirt. Polo collar is the original name of the buttondown-collar. Allegedly the points of the collar were fastened with buttons to keep them from flapping up during Polo games. I’m not sure if this story is true but this is the legend told by Brooks Brothers in New York, where this collar style was first sold. 

30 years ago I wore Brooks Brothers “soft roll Polo collar shirts” that I found in English or German second-hand stores, later I bought them by mail-order from the US or asked friends to bring me shirts from New York City. In the early 2000s I had Polo collar shirts made by several shirtmakers that I used then and the results were sometimes good and sometimes not. In the past 10 years or so most of my shirts were made with a cutaway collar and the only shirts with a Polo collar were linen shirts for casual wear. 

This spring I somehow felt like trying a Polo collar again. When I was introduced to Besnard I decided to give their Polo collar shirt a try to test the brand and the collar style. I like to wear Polo collars with ties and bowties even though in Germany most people perceive this collar as a style reserved for casual wear. This is of course a misconception and most Germans are surprised when they see this collar worn with a tie and suit. The Italians are the only ones in Europe who know how to wear this collar with a business suit. 

In our exclusive interview Victor Besnard explains the roots and the concept of his brand and his idea of a good shirt. 

Feine Herr: Could you please introduce your brand?

Victor Besnard: The story of BESNARD started when I found a bespoke suit in the attic of my parents’ house. This suit was made by my great-great-grandfather A. Besnard, who owned a tailoring shop in the Hague (La Haye). I wasn’t aware of this detail of my family heritage and, coincidentally, at the time I held a part-time job at a bespoke tailor. It just felt like I was meant to continue his legacy.

I started working on a concept for my own label in the spirit of my ancestor and decided to change the focus from bespoke to ready-to-wear, while maintaining the same level of quality and craftsmanship as tailoring. I admire traditional craft and many of our products are still partially made by hand. 

When designing a collection, I am always searching for the right balance between traditional style and modern wearability. I own a bespoke overcoat commissioned by my grandfather, which I still wear today. Not just because it was well made but also due to its timeless style. That is my ultimate goal; to create clothing that is passed down from generation to generation. 

We’re reviewing your shirt because we haven’t had a chance to see your complete collection and because we think that a shirt is a good introduction to a brand. What makes this shirt special?

The design is heavily inspired by vintage OCBDs (Oxford Cloth Button Down). It has a generous collar, placket front, chest pocket and a box pleat. A style famously worn by menswear icons such Miles Davis, Paul Newman and Gianni Agnelli.

There was no doubt about the design and the details, but it took a while before I found the right fabric. I wanted a heavy-weight oxford cloth that would only get better with age. I finally settled for a sturdy 180 grams two-ply fabric made from American Pima cotton. It might feel be a bit stiff when you wear it for the first time, but it softens after a few washes.

Finally, the construction of the shirt is truly something special. Our shirts are made in Naples and are made with the utmost attention. Each shirt is cut by hand to ensure all patterns match on the shirt. The collar, armholes, buttons and gusset are all attached by hand. 

What is your philosophy regarding shirts in general and button-down shirts in particular?

It is part of my philosophy to make – and wear – products that endure. A shirt might not be the most suitable piece of clothing to be passed down to the next generation, but if a shirt is well-made, it can be worn for many years. The construction and materials have to be able to withstand some wear and washing.

A good shirt is sewn with a single needle, has fine stitching and is made with care. The next step would be functional handwork such as armholes to improve freedom of movement. 

For a large part, the fabric determines the character of the shirt. It affects how the shirt feels, looks and drapes. My formal shirts are often made from poplin or oxford pinpoint. I prefer more matte fabrics, so I do not own a lot of twill shirts.

For casual shirts, I wear a lot of oxford cloth, chambray, and denim. I do combine these shirts in more classical combinations, I often wear a denim shirt with a navy sport coat.

Where do you get the inspirations for your collection?

Movies and pictures from the ’50s and ’60s are a tremendous source of inspiration for me. One of the few positive effects of the COVID lockdown was that I had more time to watch movies. I became fascinated by the suits Alain Delon wore as his portrayal of Tom Ripley in Purple Noon. I instantly wanted his navy dupioni silk suit and off-white linen suit. 

At the time, I was reviewing the final sample of our sport coat and was searching for fabrics for the first collection. I decided to produce a navy dupioni silk sport coat. However, finding the right fabric was easier said than done; present-day silk has fewer slubs than that of the 60’s. When I finally found a vintage dupioni silk in a similar style, the stock only allowed me to produce a small series.

A lot of inspiration can also be found in the present day, for instance on social media. I closely follow some Florentine, Neapolitan, Korean and Japanese tailors. I am always interested to see how they differ in terms of style and cut. Furthermore, there are many menswear enthusiasts – within and outside the industry – who have excellent taste and make interesting choices. 

Observing people and craftsmen can really broaden your perspective in terms of cloth choice. I often notice a cloth that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen myself, but seeing it being used in original ways makes me recognize its potential.

What is your personal recipe for dressing? What is your favorite business outfit? What is your favorite weekend outfit?

I have a rather conservative style and many of the outfits I wear are simple and classic. There are some traditional combinations – such as charcoal trousers with a navy sport coat – that I often fall back on. Such an outfit can easily be elevated by adding a patterned tie, a striped shirt, or a combination of the two. 

Opting for a textured or patterned cloth is another way I enrich an otherwise simple combination. I recently found a beautiful sport coat in light brown herringbone summer tweed, which quickly became a favorite. For some reason, the texture of the cloth makes a simple outfit a bit more playful. 

It may come as no surprise that my favorite formal outfit is a pair of charcoal high twist wool – flannels in the winter – trousers, a navy sport coat and brown suede tassel loafers. This works with essentially any shirt and tie.

My casual style is influenced by two schools of thought. 

During my visits to Italy, I would often study the way some older men dressed. Their clothing is well-worn, roomy and sometimes a bit weathered. It all just seems so natural and unfabricated. This made me embrace linen fabrics and unconstructed jackets even more; I also ended up removing the collar stays in my shirts.

The second influence is the semi-casual style made famous by the Ivy League students in the 60s. Oxford cloth button down shirts, chinos, penny loafers and Harrington jackets are typical pieces from that era. These are all items you will find in my wardrobe.

My favorite casual outfit is probably a pair of Levi’s 1947s 501, a blue OCBD, my Barbour waxed coat and a pair of brown shell cordovan penny loafers.

What do you plan for your brand in the second half of this year?

There is certainly no shortage of ideas, but as a small company, we try to focus on introducing a few pieces each season.

I am very excited to announce that our tailoring collection will be available soon. In the coming weeks, we will launch two summer sport coats. Later this year the collection will be extended with a line of fall winter jackets.

Furthermore, we are also introducing high twist wool trousers to pair with our tailoring. A perfect material to wear throughout the year.

I have a few interesting ideas for winter shirting, but we’re still in the exploration phase. At the moment, I am testing some Japanese fabrics, to observe how they hold up after frequent wear and washing. Among these fabrics is a selvedge chambray which I will certainly introduce later this year, it’s such versatile material I’m convinced that my customers will love it.