Meet the man whose dress shirts are all the rage among Orthodox Jews
Nicholas Wheeler, the founder of men’s clothier Charles Tyrwhitt, has become an accidental fashion king in the Jewish community
Nicholas Wheeler, the English founder of men’s clothing brand Charles Tyrwhitt, has been dressing quite casually lately — at least by his estimation. On a recent afternoon, he was wearing chinos and a Bengal-striped collared shirt in lilac, unbuttoned at the top, while his wispy gray hair was slightly mussed, though still brushed back at a rakish angle.
“It’s the new normal at the moment,” he told Jewish Insider in a Zoom call late last week from his home about 30 miles outside of London, where he is hunkering down with his wife, Chrissie Rucker, and four kids.
The 55-year-old entrepreneur hasn’t resorted to daytime pajamas just yet. “That’s a slippery slope,” he said in his deadpan monotone, bewildered by the thought of wearing sleep clothes during work hours. “Not a good habit to get into.”
Wheeler was in a relatively cheerful mood in spite of everything. While the retail industry has been ravaged by the novel coronavirus, Charles Tyrwhitt has managed to weather the crisis better than other clothiers.
That’s primarily because the company does 70% of its business online, with physical stores scattered throughout the United States and Europe. Wheeler estimates that online sales have only decreased by about 20-25% since the virus hit, while most stores remain closed. “It’s not a boom time for us,” said Wheeler, who has had to furlough the majority of his brick-and-mortar employees. “But people are still buying stuff.”
Why would anyone want to buy a dress shirt now when nobody is going into the office? “It’s just a refresh,” Wheeler guessed. “People are just cleaning out their clutter and suddenly thinking, ‘Well, actually, I’m going to be going back to work at some point, and I’m going to buy some nice shirts.’”
There is one particular subset of Wheeler’s clientele that will almost certainly keep coming back for more: Charles Tyrwhitt is the shirt of choice among Orthodox Jews. “I am aware of that,” he said, clearly amused. “We do have a big choice of white shirts, and I suppose I would say this, but it’s a damn good shirt for a very good price.”
Dovid Bashevkin, director of education at NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth group, agreed. “I’m wearing a Charles Tyrwhitt shirt as we speak,” he told JI in a phone interview. “Jews need a lot of white shirts,” he said by way of explanation. “Where’s a good place to get a cheap, good white shirt? There’s JoS. A. Bank, Brooks Brothers and Charles Tyrwhitt.”
“I used to wear Brooks Brothers, and I shifted to Charles Tyrwhitt because I think the quality, for a very long time, was better,” he added, noting that the collar on a Brooks Brothers shirt yellows more quickly. “Keep in mind a yeshiva student is not changing his shirt every day.”
Bashevkin, of course, isn’t the only customer to go on the record singing Charles Tyrwhitt’s praises.
Yosel Tiefenbrun, a 30-year-old rabbi and bespoke tailor in East Williamsburg, also appreciates the brand. “I was always very happy with their shirts, for the price range,” said Tiefenbrun, who wore Charles Tyrwhitt when he was working as an apprentice on Savile Row in his early 20s. “It was very economical, and they usually have the deals.”
So popular is Charles Tyrwhitt — Wheeler’s middle names — among Orthodox Jews that the clothier influenced a member of the community to get into the business himself.
“We were very inspired by Tyrwhitt’s realization that dress shirts are much more than a fashion statement,” said Eli Blumstein, an Orthodox Jew and the founder of Twillory, an e-commerce shirt company, who grew up wearing Charles Tyrwhitt shirts. “They’re actually a commodity.”
Twillory is also popular in the Orthodox world. Blumstein cited a recent tweet in which a yeshiva high school director listed Twillory’s shirts as a hypothetical item in a “starter pack” for a “9th grade rebbe,” including Cole Haan shoes and Lululemon pants. “So it seems like we made it to the uniform,” Blumestein said proudly.
But Charles Tyrwhitt reigns supreme — even if the reasons for its dominance remain somewhat elusive.
“There’s always something very humorous about the Orthodox buying patterns, which is there is a herd mentality about the types of products that Jews like, and very often those products are because of convenience,” Bashevkin said. “Why do so many Orthodox Jews drive Honda Odysseys to go to the Orthodox grocery store? Because it’s an affordable minivan. I can’t explain why Jews suddenly decided that sushi belongs in a pizza store.”
But Bashevkin, who lives in Teaneck, N.J., ventured that there is another deeper, historically significant reason for the Jewish attraction to Charles Tyrwhitt. In the 1800s, he said, Jews regarded the opera as the ultimate vehicle of “assimilationist high society,” a place to be accepted in an unaccommodating world.
The 21st-century corollary, Bashevkin argued, is a bit more materialist: the Charles Tyrwhitt shirt.
“There is a kind of WASPy dignity that, I think, Orthodox Jews sometimes, however unconsciously, however subtly, appreciate,” he said. “It has a quality to it that gives you that air of highbrow culture that, I think, very often attracts the trendsetters in the Jewish community.”
“There’s no more non-Jewish cultural point,” he concluded.
For his part, Wheeler, who isn’t Jewish, is appreciative that his shirts are so deeply loved by the Orthodox community — a phenomenon he became aware of at least five years ago, he estimated. Wheeler said that Lakewood, N.J. — home to a sizable Orthodox Jewish population — has particularly robust sales. Periodically, he said, his company will receive a bulk order of 500 to 1,000 shirts in the U.S.
His guess for the purchases: “I think, in some of the very, very Orthodox communities, which are quite closed, we have people who literally act — they almost have a shop, I think, within the community, and so they’ll buy the shirts from us, and then I think they sell them on.”
Incidentally, Wheeler has the same fashion sense as some of his most loyal clients. “It’s quite hard to beat a white shirt,” he said. “A crisp white shirt just looks damn good on pretty much everybody.”
He doesn’t always wear his own shirts, though. “You have to wear other people’s clothing to understand what other people’s clothing is like, to understand whether their clothing is better than your clothing or whether your clothing is better than their clothing, or how their clothing is better or what’s better about theirs and what’s better about yours,” he said. “It’s quite important to do that.”
Not that Wheeler is getting too dressed up in quarantine. “At home,” he said, “if nobody else is around — it’s just the kids and my wife — they’re going to think I’m a bit crazy if I’m wearing a suit and tie.”