Why America’s Oldest Custom-Shirt Brand Picked the Covid Recession to Launch a Touching New Video

Two generations of the Hamilton family talk about the value of tradition

jim hamilton
Jim Hamilton, who turned the business over to his children 14 years ago, introduces viewers to his father Joseph (r.) and grandfather Bernard. Courtesy of Hamilton

As an avowed history fan and the fourth-generation scion to run his family’s shirt-making business, David Hamilton is aware that Hamilton Shirts has made it through worse than the Covid-19 pandemic. There was the last pandemic, for one, the Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed 675,000 Americans and caused double-digit losses to businesses across the country. But Hamilton Shirts, the oldest custom shirt brand in the country, kept its doors open. World War I and II, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the OPEC oil embargoes, Black Monday—the family-run company somehow soldiered through all of those disasters, too.

Even so, there’s an edge of menace to the coronavirus era that had been missing from past crises. So as prognosticators declare that the country’s millions of cubicle stiffs simply won’t return to their offices—that the work-from-home uniform of socks and tracksuits is here to stay—this is probably not the time for a dress-shirt business conserving its cash to launch an ambitious piece of marketing.

But then again, perhaps it’s the perfect time.

Last week, David and Kelly Hamilton (who run the company as a brother-and-sister team) decided to launch a short film via the brand’s web site and social channels. The four-minute video—more documentary than advertisement—walks viewers through Hamilton’s factory (attached to its Houston store), where they can see how its bespoke and made-to-measure shirts are all cut from paper patterns with hand knives and sewn by craftspeople with decades of experience.

But the film’s real power lay in the Hamiltons themselves, two generations of owners talking about the company’s history, standards and continuity.

The decision to debut the film now, in a period of national anxiety, was a strategic one.

“I think that anytime things feel so uncertain, people want to see something that is stable and has existed for long periods of time,” Hamilton told Adweek. “I just feel like people are open to that message.”

An instinct, and a precedent

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, restaurants saw a marked increase of people ordering “comfort foods” including beef stew, mac and cheese, apple pie and similar dishes that remind people of the safety and security of home. Writing in Psychology Today a few years ago, Rice University marketing professor Utpal Dholakia observed a similar tendency when it came to shopping. When consumers feel that their safety is threatened, they often focus on the time ahead of them and making the most of it. That focus, he writes, “increases the appeal of goods and services that provide people with a sense of comfort and stability.”

Can a dress shirt do all that? Perhaps. But David Hamilton wagers that, at the very least, consumers with money to spend will be “far more receptive” to a message from an small, independent business (as opposed to, say, a big-box chain) in addition to gravitating toward brands with a sense of permanence and tradition.

And Hamilton Shirts has plenty of that. In the spring of 1883, Virginians Edward Joseph Hamilton and his brother James boarded a train to head out west and start a sheep farm. Along the way, they struck up a conversation with a haberdasher who was so enthusiastic about his trade that, by the time the Hamilton brothers reached Houston, they decided to open up a men’s shop instead. Initially advertising “hats, caps and gents furnishing goods,” the brothers broadened their offerings to include dress shirts which, today, is Hamilton’s core offering.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.