Brand Snapshot: Imperial Black

May 30, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - 4 Comments

Every once in a while, I like to deviate from the inner workings of branding, marketing, social business and other “businessy” stuff, to showcase companies and products that actually apply all the principles we discuss here and do things right. (See earlier posts about Poler, Rapha and Ford, for instance.) Today, I want to introduce you to Imperial Black. I ran into them pretty much by accident (a friend of a friend introduced me to one of their peeps socially) and that was when it occurred to me that I had been following both their Instagram account and their Pinterest account for some time. (They also have a very nice Tumblr, and all in all, their social presence is pretty solid, even on Twitter, where they engage folks who mention them. No outsourced BS there. It’s the real thing.)

Once I connected all the dots, I started digging a little. “Wait… you guys make shirts and pocket squares or something, right?”

You could say that. As it turns out, these guys make the best shirts on the planet (and I am not saying this lightly). That’s well worth a blog post or two, if only to get the word out to those of you who, like me, are always on the lookout for quality tailoring. For those of you who don’t care about sartorial awesomeness but like examples of solid 360 branding (where every aspect of the company, from the design and quality of the products to the packaging and storytelling, is true to its core beliefs), there are lessons here too.

First things first, their website: It’s clean, it’s simple, it’s pretty. Note that they lead with products but a lot of real estate is set up to help you explore their world. Also note that Imperial Black isn’t just a shirt company or a clothing company. They’re a lifestyle brand. Whether you’re part of the jet set or a journalist with a very full passport, a business guy who travels a lot or a UN inspector, the brand speaks to a common blend of travel, discovery, adventure and style. Is it aspirational? You bet. There’s definitely a luxury angle to all of this, but Imperial Black is also masculine enough to be rugged. These aren’t just shirts you want to wear with a suit at an important meeting. These are shirts you can legitimately wear everywhere you go, no matter the circumstances. Dubai, Kinshasa, Monaco or Beirut: if James Bond had a favorite shirt maker, it would be Imperial Black.

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There’s also a sense that at some point in every man’s life, he starts to realize the importance of having a shirt that is completely his. There’s just something about having a relationship with a sartorial brand. Suits, shoes, ties, shirts, shaving products… Not that there’s anything wrong with major brands you can buy at department stores (I even really like H&M’s shirts because they’re cheap but feel tailored), but it doesn’t suck to adopt a small handful of quality brands and make them your own. Out-of-the-way brands that aren’t necessarily household names but that connaisseurs will not only know but immediately recognize. “Is that an Imperial Black shirt?” Why yes it is. Cue the show and tell.

All right. About the shirts. Let me start with this: I have a hard time finding proper shirts in the US, and even when I do, they don’t necessarily fit me properly. 1) Those yawning button-collared, heavily starched, stark white “sales manager” style cotton balloon monstrosities that were acceptable in the early nineties have no place in civilized society, so 80% of American dress shirts are basically out right out of the gate. 2) I am lean like a European (I am a European) but I am sort of athletic, so fitted shirts can easily be a little tight around the chest and shoulders. That rules out most fitted shirts out there. 3) I have a long arms. Not freakishly long, I’m not a chimp, but long enough that shirts that fit my neck and torso properly tend to be an inch or two short on the cuffs. Awesome advantage in the pool or in a bar fight, but not so much when you’re shopping for shirts.  4) I am very particular about collars. Most collars, even on shirts that are well cut, are just… bleh. They don’t do anything. They just sort of sit there like an afterthought. Too straight, too wide, too open, too stiff, not stiff enough… most don’t sit evenly against the edge of a V-neck sweater or a sportscoat. Invariably, one side of the collar will pop up a little and jump the tracks. Long story short: when you’re somewhere north of a still buying your shirts at TJ Maxx, good shirts are hard to find.

When the folks at Imperial Black told me that everything about their shirts was perfect, I sort of nodded politely and pretended to believe them. Of course they were going to say that. “We make the best stuff ever. Blah blah blah.” Everyone thinks their products are the best in the universe, even when they know they really aren’t. There’s bias, after all, and they have to make that sale somewhere down the line… but they weren’t kidding. I mean yes, they were pretty and all that, and we’ll get to the aesthetics in a second, but the only way to understand this is to slip into one, button it up, and go about your day. After the thirtieth repeat of “no seriously, don’t just look at them, try one on,” I did. That’s when the light bulb came on and the knowing smiles appeared. “Told ya.” 

How do you explain something that can’t be explained? It’s sort of like driving a brilliantly designed car around a race track, or coming out of a hairpin turn on a pro-level bike, or jumping out of an airplane. You can’t explain it. You have to experience it to get it.

Let’s talk details.

So anyway, I tried one on and I understood right away. Needless to say, I went home with my first Imperial Black shirt that day. I picked something simple that I knew I could wear with my favorite navy suit. My next one will be a little more bold, but it was a good first choice. Say hello to some of my favorite details about my Philby:

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I’ve tried to understand what makes Imperial Black’s collars so perfect. I still have no idea. I’m sure that there is a mathematical formula, some kind of arcane insight born of centuries of sartorial experimentation from Milan to Tokyo and back through London and Paris sketched out in some old notebook hidden somewhere in the back of an old tailor’s shop. Whatever the secret is, it works. That collar is phenomenal, tie or not. Whatever you wear with the shirt and however you wear it, the collar always fits and folds and falls just right. It’s a subtle thing, but it makes all the difference in the world (and speaks to the degree to which the folks at Imperial Black are serious about cracking the perfect shirt code).

As much as I dig the collar, it’s the cuffs that always get all the comments. Everyone loves the cuffs. The signature orange stitching is a really nice eye-catching detail and and the beautiful Australian mother of pearl buttons feel amazing. (You really do get what you pay for.)

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Here’s the mark of a damn good shirt right there:

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The’re a first layer diagram that helps explain the alchemy behind the perfect shirt on the site if you want to check it out.

More than shirts.

Imperial Black also makes ties, pocket squares, socks, wallets, grooming accessories, travel kits and all kinds of very cool sartorial items I have yet to collect. I did manage to acquire a rather bright pair of socks to test them out, and so far, I love them. They’re super comfortable, they’re holding up great, and they definitely brighten up my wardrobe. (Unless I am wearing a tux, I tend to shy away from plain black socks.)

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What the folks at Imperial Black don’t know is that I am going to be sporting those socks on quite a few bike rides this summer. (I just scored a bright pink Gran Fondo jersey from Strava, so the socks will help balance out that Giro-inspired eyeball-burning kit.) I ought to be visible from space with that blend of colors, and that is probably a good thing.

Here is what the socks look like with jeans, by the way:

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(Hey, life’s too short to wear boring socks.)

More than clothes.

I mentioned earlier that the company is more than just a clothing manufacturer. There’s something to be said for having a vision about their brand, their identity. They understand the value of developing and sharing their heart and soul, and drawing inspiration from outside the world of tailoring and apparel. They even take the time to keep a travel journal, which is a nice touch and a good start. (More, please.) Also, their involvement with Project Soar – Marrakech is also as exotic as is it commendable, so check it out. (Any company that takes the time to make the world a little better earns extra points in my book.)

Here’s another really cool thing these guys do: packaging. Check out the detail from the back this shirt box. (Yes, it’s the back.) There’s a whole travel story printed back there. You know how you keep hearing about the importance of storytelling? These guys even weave it into their packaging. (Trust me, you won’t be throwing that box away. It’s a work of art. It’s even better when you give a shirt to someone as a gift. The box alone is the antithesis of the now ubiquitous gift card. This here is what’s called doing it right.)

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Okay look… That’s it. If I keep at this, I’ll need to start charging these guys a fee, like a daddy blogger or something. You get the drift: they make awesome stuff, they don’t cut corners, they’re very nice people, I’m a big fan, and they deserve all the success they can hope for. You owe it to yourselves to check them out and, with Fathers’ Day just around the corner, here’s your chance to score points with someone you care about. (What do you give the man with everything? Something he doesn’t have.)

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Okay, one last thing before I leave you, and this is time-sensitive so pay attention. When I contacted Imperial Black last week about writing this review (I wanted their blessing because… you know… sometimes companies get weird about this sort of thing), they mentioned a special offer thing they wanted to do. Here it is:

1) Sign up for the blacklist between now and Monday – imperialblack.com/blacklist – and they will choose someone at random to become the proud owner of a $100 Gift Card on Monday morning. I know it’s short notice but you have all weekend and it only takes a few seconds.

2) From now until Fathers’ Day (June 15), Imperial Black is giving my readers (that’s you) a special discount of 20% on your online purchases. Just use this code during the checkout process: Papino.

Okay, that’s it. I’m out of here.

Cheers,

Olivier

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