Wearables Business

Fashion Tees Go To Work

Fashion Tees Go To Work – Industry Overview

Him Mitchell

New fabrications, cuts and colors stretch the versatility of the tee.

My stepdaughter recently came home from college with a pack of laundry so large and bursting at the seams that it completely obscured the back window of her Jetta. Amid the fashion horrors enclosed in that duffle were a number of cheesy, logoed T-shirts, most of which were doomed to disintegrate by their third wash. But there were also some T-shirt gems to be unearthed, the type of shirts that I coveted for myself — fabulous fabrics, neat colors and comfortable styling. The type of shirt that looks great and easy under a black cash mere jacket.

The difference between those two types of tees — cheesy vs. chic was easy to discern both by sight and touch. What is amazing to me is that a simple, basic garment like a tee can so easily be morphed from the simplistic to the sublime.

Certainly, the tee’s transformation into a fashion garment is evident everywhere, including in the retail market, where the trend toward fashion in T-shirts is reflected in the popularity of upscale private label tees, like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Tommy Hilfiger.

In the promotional apparel market T-shirts have always been a reliable workhorse. Now, however, as the occasional tee morphs into something dressier and trendier, it offers promotional products distributors yet another avenue into the world of corporate casual. It is the ultimate multi-use garment.

“Fashion T-shirts are pieces that customers will turn to again and again as part of their regular wardrobe,” says Julia Roehl, director of merchandising for Minneapolis-based supplier Premium Wear Inc. Noting that the company’s Jockey brand hopes to address an increasing demand for casual wash-and-wear apparel, she adds that “T-shirts are starting to incorporate better and novelty fabrications as well as improved detail and fit.”

Karen Adams, manager of brands/marketing services for the Greensboro, N.C.-based company VF Brand Solutions, agrees, noting that fashion tees are distinguishable by their upscale fabrications and styling treatments. “Fashionable fabrics include Lycra, pique, ringspun cotton and brushed.

“The layered trend,” she continues,” is still very prevalent and the T-shirt is an essential layering item — under suit coats, sweaters, camp shirts, polos, vests and fleece.”

A run-of-the-mill shirt may typically be very basic, but Atlanta-based Alternative Apparel tries to follow popular retail trends, such as using finer fabrics and details, says Lauren Sheffield, marketing director for the company. “We believe men and women find it enticing to wear fashion T-shirts that allow them to be stylish and comfortable at the same time,” she notes. “Women can wear fashion tees with almost anything these days: under a suit, with a skirt or even Hollywood-style paired with an evening bottom. Men most commonly wear fashion tees under suits, with a pair of slacks or casually with a pair of jeans.”

“People are tired of seeing the light, giveaway T-shirts,” says Roy Rolstone, director of merchandising for Vancouver, B.C.-based ID Wear. “Also, fashion tees allow for more logo options, such as embroidery and PVC labels.”

Premium Wear Inc.’s Roehl notes that fashion tees provide “an alternative to the ever-popular polo shirt.” Layering, she adds, is what makes tees look chic.

With all this in mind it is time to delve deeper into the world of fashion tees. In the coming year manufacturers and distributors will offer an unprecedented number of exciting new innovations.

Fabrics and style

It used to be that if you wanted a T-shirt your options were limited to 100% cotton or a blend of cotton and polyester. All-cotton has a softer feel, but 50/50 will be more durable, holding up under more washing and retaining its shape longer.

But times have changed. T-shirts now come in a variety of fabrications. They stretch, they flatter. There are pique knits, synthetics that do an amazing job of replicating silk and newer treatments like mercerization.

Fabric is the key. Across the board manufacturers and distributors agree that it’s the fabric that distinguishes a fashion tee from its more everyday brethren. “The difference is in the details,” says Brian McNamara, a collection buyer for Seattle-based SanMar’s Port Authority line of corporate and sports apparel. “It starts with yam quality and continuing with weight, hand feel, color and trim. T-shirts have become a 24/7 item with acceptance in the workplace.”

New colors and textures will be appearing in Port Authority’s upcoming new T-shirt menu, he adds.

For Scarborough, Ontario-based Ash City, luxury fabrications and fit differentiate fashion tees from the mainstream. “Fabrications are usually more upscale and some even include Lycra,” says Donna Hoskins, sales and marketing administrator. “For our men’s and ladies’ tee, we opted for 100% double-mercerized cotton jersey with its silk-like hand and drape.”

Also, she said, the fashion tee is generally a slightly slimmer cut than the regular tee.

What makes a T-shirt “fashion is the fabric and/or the styling,” says ID Wear’s Rolstone. “Traditionally T-shirts are made of a basic jersey and have a basic crew neck. Fashion T-shirts use fabrics which have Lycra added to the blend, different knit constructions, such as 1 x 1 rib, or exciting new blends using fibers such as polynosic Rayon and Tencel.” Rolstone adds that styling such as V-necks, contrast trims and color blocking all add to a fashion tee’s looks.

Indeed, Rolstone says, ID Wear plans several new stylings and fabrics for its 2002 catalog, due to come out in February.

For 2002, Alternative Apparel is diversifying its already diverse line with some updates. New, fashionable women’s silhouettes are in the mix, says Sheffield. Alternative Apparel’s Women’s S-T-R-E-T-C-H Collection is adding a women’s golf shirt with a 6-button placket and side vents; a 3/4-sleeve V-neck with contrasting sleeve stripes; and a 2 x 1 rib “wife hugger” tank top.

The hottest current trend detail at Alternative Apparel — for both men and women — is the raglan-cut sleeve. “Our men’s pigment-dyed version with contrast sleeves, as well as our women’s short-sleeve and long-sleeve versions, have been flying off the shelf,” she adds.

At PremiumWear, new stylings will include V-necks, chest-stripes and rugby-type fashions. “Fashion colors are becoming more important, primarily in the shades of gold and red,” notes Roehl.

VF Brand Solutions’ Adams notes that the company’s Gitano brand in 2002 will introduce a ladies’ ringspun jersey collection to compliment its existing ribbed style. The ringspun jersey collection will consist of three fashionable styles – a tank, tee and short.

“For ladies we are offering sling tops, halters, tanks and stretch tees,” Adams adds. “For men we are offering rugbys, V-necks and nobutton plackets.

Color equals fashion

See that sunset? There’s your fashion colors for 2002. Rich golds and reds are definitely getting the nod.

“Fashion right now is all about color. Instead of the heather or white tee that everyone has in their wardrobe, people now want color,” says Byron Reed, director of marketing for MV Sport/Weatherproof. “We carry 40 colors in tees from earthtones, heathered and ringers. Ringer tees are a younger fashion but have been very popular lately and now color fashion ringers are doing well.”

Aside from that, Reed says, his company has done very well with earthtone colors. Various shades of gold – such as maize, sun, etc. – also are counted among MV Sport’s top sellers, as is Columbia blue:

At Alternative Apparel, look for new styles featuring fashionable camouflage fabrics and a brighter color palette in addition to standbys such as white, black and navy (“Still our best sellers,” notes Sheffield). Key colors being readied for Alternative Apparel’s 2902 line include red, hot pink and aqua.

VF Brand Solutions’ Gitano brand is looking to offer a broader array of colors in 2002. ‘The tee is an essential item, so white and black are always popular,” says Adams. “But we’re seeing emerging colors in oranges, reds and yellows.”

Over at SanMar’s Port Collection, McNamara says that basic neutrals – white, black and navy – still dominate sales. But new vibrant brights in gold, orange and purple are emerging trend setters.

At Gildan Activewear, new colors for 2002 come in the form of the brilliant new Floral Lights palette: Tangerine, The, Azalea, Violet, and Metro Blue, Gildan’s 6.1-oz. Ultra Cotton T-shirt, the top-selling tee in North America, will now be available in an array of 41 colors. Gildan’s 5.6-oz. 50/50 Ultra Blend collection has been expanded to 20 colors for next year.

White new, vibrant colors offer excitement, don’t overlook new applications of tried and true colors, says ID Wear’s Rolstone. “The traditional colors of black, white and grey remain very strong,” he says. ‘These colors are given a whole new life, when they are done in fashion forward yarns and combined with colored trims.”

The distaff side

Forget about Don Johnson in Miami Vice; it is women of the Baby Boomer generation who have made fashion tees fly. Manufacturers and distributors are now working double time to come up with new feminine styles and features that will help to differentiate their products.

“Going forward, we are trying to offer a complimentary women’s fit for our styles,” says ID Wear’s Rolstone. “Women require a T-shirt with different proportions and silhouettes than men, or even unisex items. Women also prefer certain styling features that are more flattering, such as a V-neck over a crew neck.”

For women, fit is definitely the issue,” says McNamara, of SanMar’s Port Collection. “And you need to pay attention to the small details, like the label, the rib trim or the stitching.”

At Ash City, they know that women want a flattering look. “Our women’s tee is a scoop neck, which is very flattering and works well casually, as well as under a business suit.”

Likewise, at VP Brand Solutions’ Gitano line, “we know that women are looking for a garment specifically designed for them — tapered side seams, fitted, stretch fabrics, etc,” says Adams.

At Alternative Apparel, they like stretch. For women, the 1 x 1 rib S-T-R-E-T-C-H fabric is the most popular and for its men’s line the pigment washed, garment dyed jersey fabric is popular. “Women prefer the more fitted silhouettes while men still opt for standard sizing offered in our jersey fabric,” says Sheffield.

Imprints Wholesale is adding a new label for 2002, Bella, consisting of tees designed exclusively for women. The new line includes the long-sleeve crew neck from Bella’s Baby Rib Collection, which appears on this month’s cover.

Youth market

Tees have always been popular with young adults. For manufacturers and distributors, the challenge is to create garments with a fresh look that still works in a professional environment. What elements appeal to younger end-users?

“I keep coming back to color!” exclaims MV Sport’s Byron Reed. “Fashion fingers are great for the younger market — just watch the movies and TV and there is always someone wearing a ringer tee.”

Fit is important as well. “Younger people tend to prefer fits which are closer to the body or snugger,” says ID Wear’s Rolstone. They like garments with Lycra.”

“In my opinion,” adds Sheffield, “the younger generation is always looking for retail-driven, stylish silhouettes.”

Gildan has added an Ultra Cotton Long-Sleeve Tee to its youth collection for 2002. Particular attention was paid to sleeve lengths, neck widths and body lengths in creating the new youth style.

Comfortable fit and easy care are the younger crowd’s main concerns, notes PremiumWear’s Roehl. Likewise, she says, women are looking for a garment that fits well and is comfortable. “In both cases,” she says,” fabric hand is important.”

Sales opportunities

So now that you know a lot more about fashion tees, where are the best sales opportunities for a promotional products distributor?

“I believe that the most obvious sales benefit for fashion T-shirts is the ability to embellish them with greater decorative detail,” says Sheffield. “We have found at Alternative Apparel that our customers are more willing to decorate our fashion pieces with rhinestones; screenprints or other accents. This, we feel, increases the value of the product which is an obvious sales benefit. We believe that fashion T-shirts are strong candidates for promotional pieces because the promotional industry is becoming more receptive, to fashion trends.”

PremiumWear’s Roehl reminds us that tees have great appeal in college, resort and restaurant markets. ID Wear’s Rolstone says PPDs need to consider fashion T-shirts as a viable alternative to the traditional polo shirt, especially when the tee is shown in a high-end fabric and styling. “This offers a new outlook, especially if the fashion T-shirts are in the same price range,” Rolstone adds, “Also, women are more apt to wear a fashion T-shirt than traditional men’s polo styling.”

At MV Sport they are finding that clever packaging is another way to sell tees. “We have taken the T-shirt in another direction by packaging them in a collectable tin can, corrugated roll, and gift box,” says Byron Reed. “This has upscaled the tee to a gift rather than just another T-shirt. This has been very successful for us.”


Kim Mitchell is a Denver-based jounalist and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.


A Little Stretch Goes A Long Way

Cotton is still king when it comes to fashion fees, although new blends and synthetics offer plenty of variety of choice. And anything that offers a little stretch is definitely a front runner for 2002.

“Cotton rich fabrications are still the most popular,” says karen Adams of VF Brand Solutions. “However we are seeing a trend toward blended heathers, and stretch fabrics.”

“Polynosic blends are becoming increasingly popular because of their silky hand and upscale appearance, “says ID Wear’s Roy Rolstone, director of merchandising. “Lycra is also being sought after.”

At the same time, it should be noted that T-shirts are produced in a variety of fabric weights, ranging from a 3.1-ounce promotional weight to a 7-ounce super heavy weight. Contrary to what many may think, this weight does not describe how much the garment itself weighs, but rather the weight of a square yard of the fabric from which the shirt was cut.

The heavier the fabric weight, the more luxurious and longer lasting the shirt will be as a rule, the lighter the weight, the less costly the shirt.

“We are always experimenting with new fabrics and various weights to create the best fashion T-shirts in the business” says Alternative Apparel’s marketing director, Lauren Sheffield. “In terms of weight, for men’s wear our 5.9-oz. jersey fabric has worked best and for women’s the 1 x 1 rib, 30s combed ringspun cotton and the 2 x 1 rib cotton has worked well.”

Indeed, she says, AA will add additional 1 x 1 and 2 x 1 rib fabrics to its 2002 line.

Lighter shirts delicate nature also makes them versatile, some say. “The lighter weights seem to work best for fashion tees,” says Donna Hoskins sales and marketing administrator at Ash City. “Lightweight tees still outperform the heavyweigh tee,” says MV sport’s Byron Reed.

But, says Sanmar’s Port Collection buyer for sports shirts, sweaters and tees Brian McNamara, “the concept works well in any weight.” He agrees that cotton still is king, but notes that there is interest “in some technical applications = stretch and moisture management, for example.”

Weight really depend on the end use of the garment,” says PremiumWear Inc’s director of merchandising Julia Roehl. “If used as a layering piece, a lightweight drapey fabric works best,” she adds. “If used as an active, rugby type look, beefier is better.”

When the shirt is intended for use as a large-quantity promotional giveaway, such as a supermarket, newspaper or radio station might require a 3.0 to 4.0 weight works well. A 5.0-6.0 is an excellent weights for a fashion fee. Super heavyweight of 6.0 to 7.0 and up perfect for a high-end promotion or for embroidery involving high stitch counts.

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