Considering that only 15 percent of family businesses are passed down to the second generation – and a fraction of those make it to the hands of the next – it’s remarkable that Hamilton Shirt Co. has a fourth at the helm.
Founded in 1883, Hamilton is Houston’s oldest family-owned business. Today, sibling partners Kelly and David Hamilton are putting their mark on their family’s brand, but it almost didn’t happen. The brother and sister grew up playing under the cutting tables in the company’s workshop, but initially pursued other careers after graduating from college.
“My first job was in finance, and it was very esoteric,” David Hamilton says. “In doing that, I realized that I wanted a more tangible connection to the product and what the business was about – something I could put my hands on. I started to appreciate that we had something unique and special – and a business I wanted to be a part of.”
That mindset, in addition to his bloodline, makes David an ideal fit to co-lead a business that always has been chiefly concerned with simply making great bespoke shirts – content to let other designers fret over the messages bound up in their logos and the next product line they can slap them on.
“I think we’ve just always thought of ourselves as a producer and not a brand,” David says. “It’s more about a tangible product than an idea. We don’t have Hamilton ties, Hamilton shoes. We have Hamilton shirts. We don’t have any expertise in making any of those things, so we’re going to stick to what we do well.”
With the revival of “heritage products” and consumers increasingly craving authenticity, it’s an approach that has made the company stand apart.
“You can’t manufacture those stories or history, and that’s what we have,” David says. “We have been committed to making one product the best way we can since 1883. Not many people can say that.”
That’s not to say the company is stuck in its ways, but rather thoughtful and deliberate in making changes. After its founding, the label spent decades perfecting the craft of making shirts for the Houston market. David and Kelly’s father led the first major expansion, when national retailers, starting with Barney’s New York, began making Hamilton Shirts available to their clients. Such sales now are the biggest part of the business.
David and Kelly are now presiding over the next phase of the label’s evolution: the selling of ready-to-wear shirts to join Hamilton’s custom-made and top-of-the-line bespoke offerings.
“That’s really a different business when you’re putting shirts on store shelves,” David says. “We feel like with this ready-to-wear business, in a lot of ways we’re a startup business. It’s going to keep us busy for a long period of time.”
It may be a different business, but not a different manufacturing process. Every shirt is still made by hand at the Houston workshop. With custom-made and bespoke offerings still making up a majority of sales, automation hasn’t replaced Hamilton’s artisan techniques.
“If it doesn’t serve some purpose in making the product better, it doesn’t interest us,” David says. “Sometimes it produces a better product, but sometimes it doesn’t. If someone wanted to sell me a car and said they did their brakes by hand, that wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. But for us, the old, artisanal ways are best.”