Arts Pin-tucked to order

Guayabera legend Dos Carolinas is stitching for the Fiesta season

Having given up hope for winter this year, we might as well turn our thoughts to the foundation of any San Antonio gentleman’s spring wardrobe: the guayabera. And we’re not talking about your grandpa’s guayabera either — in a Latino city like San Antonio, your guayabera needs to stand up to even the most formal occasions. If custom-made by local legend Dos Carolinas, it will.

When Caroline Matthews was downsized from a major firm in the mid-’80s, she wanted to set up a small business using her Texas Tech degree in fashion merchandising and design. When a friend searched San Antonio for a high-quality, fashion-worthy guayabera and came up empty, Matthews found her niche. Dos Carolinas has been a Texas tradition since 1987.

Owner Caroline Matthews shows off samples of her hand-crafted guayabera shirts at Dos Carolinas. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The company name has several references, including an early partner named Carol and, Caroline laughs, “the manifestations of my split personality.” The name now refers to the shop’s residence on Carolina Street in Southtown. Matthews creates custom guayaberas in cotton, linen, and duponi silk in a variety of styles with both short and long sleeves.

The most popular incarnation is still a white, short-sleeve cotton shirt with multiple rows of tucks and no embroidery. “Men are so traditional,” Caroline explains. “Think of your boyfriend, your father, even your 14-year-old brother. The buttons are all the same size, the placket is always set up the same way; the shirts all follow the same basic construction.”

That said, Caroline does see some trends emerging in 2006, mainly due to a younger clientele: More embroidery, and more casual linen shirts than in the past, as younger men seem to be more comfortable with the heavier weight (and ironing requirement) of linen and with greater embellishment.

However, a few older clients have inspired reworkings of the traditional shirt in unusual patterns. “It would be boring, after 15 years, not to experiment with print,” says Caroline, “especially when creative clients request it.” She sells hunting guayaberas made from camouflage fabric, including a cheeky “mudflap camo,” a pattern highlighting the famous trucker silhouette of a reclining young lady. A client from Hawaii once asked her to manufacture guayaberas from authentic Hawaiian surf fabric. He abandoned the business, but Caroline continues to import fabric from the 50th state.

Less than 10 percent of Matthews’ business comes from custom-designed women’s wear. Usually she’s asked to create a dress-length version of the traditional guayabera for lounging and special events. However, she finds that when designing for weddings, as she often does, women fall in love with her work as soon as they see the men’s orders. For a recent Mexican ranch wedding, after customizing shirts for more than 20 male guests, including the groom, wedding party, and both fathers, she had an additional request for 13 bridesmaids and house-party blouses. Often, once wedding guests discover the wedding’s theme, they also place an order.

Almost all of Caroline’s business comes from this word-of-mouth type marketing. Many of her clients have been with her since she opened the shop. Not that they ever learn to order ahead of time. “Men don’t buy in advance the way women do, the way we start reading magazines and looking at collections at the very start of the season. Men wait until they have something specific on the calendar,” notes Caroline, and they’re willing to rush. That said, Caroline’s busy season starts at the first warm week of February and lasts through the end of September. It easily takes two to three weeks to create a custom-made guayabera, as much as two months in peak season.

Why all the extra time and money to have each client hand select their fabric and specifications? Caroline says it’s part of the larger trend in personalization. “So much of what we do every day, everyone else does, too. Even expensive clothes can be bought off the rack by someone else. Customized clothing is a way to say ‘This is me, and there’s nothing else like it.’” She sees this as especially true in men’s clothing, since men are much more concerned about fit, as opposed to women, who are more likely to ascribe to a retail size. “We take all the measurements first, before moving on to any other details. And we continue to fit the shirt as many times as it takes for it to be perfect. Men are so grateful for that.”

By Leigh Baldwin

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