A Search to Replace an Old Amigo
By Michelle Slatella
The New York Times: August 11, 2005
YOU could say my husband's obsession started with Canul Jr.
That was the brand name sewn onto the neckline of a certain four-pocket, lightweight cotton shirt, a guayabera that my husband bought nearly 20 years ago in Mexico.
He became attached to the loose-fitting shirt - or "my Canul Jr.," as he came to call it. Upon learning that the guayabera had long been prized in Latin American countries for its ability to keep wearers cool and crisp in sweltering temperatures (Ernest Hemingway donned one in Cuba), my husband wore his faithfully during hot weather.
I dared not criticize the shirt, even if its boxy, untucked style spoke a certain fuddy-duddy language that at the time I felt was best spoken by an older, checkers-in-the-park-playing generation.
A beloved shirt lasts only so long. Over time the fabric developed the shine of a thousand washes. (He loved it more.) A button fell off. The collar frayed. Eventually the guayabera mysteriously disappeared from his closet.
But he has always mourned it. All these years later my husband recently pulled a novel by Gabriel García Márquez from a bookshelf, looked at the author's photo on the dust jacket and said accusingly, "He's wearing my Canul Jr."
"Your shirt fell apart," I reminded him.
"I want it back," he said, jabbing a finger menacingly at Mr. García Márquez's photo.
I promised to buy him a new guayabera online. Why not? In a summer when it has suddenly become fashionable for shirttails to go untucked, the barrel-chested silhouette of the guayabera wearer has gone hip. Not one to resist peer pressure, I was ready to admit that like other styles that scream retro, the shirt's firm refusal to evoke a world any more modern than Ricky Ricardo's was the key to its charm.
A starting point was authenticity. I figured that if I was going to take the trouble to hunt down a guayabera, I wanted to avoid a cheap knockoff. I hoped to buy a time-honored design with four pockets, traditional pin-tuck pleats at the shoulders and, if it happened to be a fancy one, embroidery. Preferably the shirt would come from Mérida, the Yucatán city at the center of Mexico's thriving guayabera industry.
I started reading the fine print. At Pennersinc.com, the site of a men's wear store in San Antonio, I absently clicked on "About Penner's," and stumbled across some information that I found intriguing.
"Penner's Men's Store was established back in 1916 by Morris Penner," the site said. "Morris, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, started working in a secondhand clothing and shoe store. After 14 years, his son, Sam Penner, joined him in the business."
"Sam's dream was to become the largest distributor of 'authentic' guayaberas in the United States. Today his dream has come true!"
"Penner's carries the largest selection of customized guayaberas made in Mérida Yucatán, Mexico, specifically for our store," the site says. "Almost every guayabera you see on our Web site is available in long sleeves, which are extremely difficult to find elsewhere."
It was signed "Matt Penner, Penner's Inc., Since '1916.' "
I picked up the phone.
"What makes your shirts more authentic than others?" I asked Mr. Penner, who as the great-grandson of Morris and grandson of Sam was the fourth generation to head the family's store.
"The majority are junk, stuff made in China or Korea, and that's what you don't want," he said. "All my guayaberas are made in three factories in Mexico or one in Panama. The ones on the site with the embroidery? Those are my patent. I design them myself."
Mr. Penner, who in addition to selling Sans-a-Belt slacks keeps an inventory of 4,000 guayaberas "at all times," sells many different designs and colors, from Style No. 121, described as "pure elegant 100 percent Irish linen for the groom and his men" ($125.50), to the "Presidente," Style No. 201, "with one pocket and fine custom tone-on-tone embroidery" ($78.50).
"My husband likes the style very much," I said. "Does that make him hip or fuddy-duddy?"
"About 10 years ago the guayabera used to be an older gentleman's shirt, for a guy who's 65 and older, but now I sell them to anybody who's 4 and up," Mr. Penner said.
"Hip, then," I said. "What size should I order?"
"His usual size," Mr. Penner said. "You have to watch out with a lot of guayaberas made in Mexico, because an extra large made for the Mexican market will fit a medium in the U.S. But I have every one of mine made in American sizing."
After consulting my husband, I placed an order for a Presidente, white with black embroidery - "the most popular one I sell," Mr. Penner said - and a linen guayabera (white).
When the shirts arrived, my husband lined them up for inspection. Immediately drawn to the fine white linen wedding shirt (with a label in the collar that says "Renato"), he wore it to work the next day. The pink shirt from Land's End was cut so generously, he described it as "a muumuu for men." (His advice: order that one in a size smaller than your usual shirt size.) Although initially put off by the flashy black embroidery and buttons on the Presidente, he said the tailored fit saved it from making him look "like a waiter."
The guayabera experiment was a success. Less than a week later, he is referring to "my Renato."