Wearables Business

Following fashion tees

Following fashion tees

Eric Peterson

Fashion T-shirts are red hot at retail this fall, and you don’t have to wait a year for industry suppliers to catch up

It is a crisp and balmy afternoon in early fall and I find myself in my beat-up Jeep, on a journey to the mall. Not just any mall, mind you, but the newest and poshest one in all of metro Denver: Park Meadows. I’m not usually a real big fan of the mall, aside from the outdoor variety; the sterility, screaming children, and overpowering fluorescent lights are just a tad bit much. However, the magnetic convenience of many stores under one roof pulls me to Park Meadows.

My agenda is twofold. First, assigned as I am to cover fashion T-shirts, I want to gauge what is out there in the so-called real world. “Do trends carry over from the retail shelves to the promotional marketplace?” I wonder out loud into my “note-to-self” tape recorder.

The second part of my mission is less relevant: I need to get a birthday present for my cousin’s daughter Rachel’s third birthday. The gift, however, can wait, as upper most in my mind is what is present these days in fashion tees.

“Park Meadows sure is fancier than the malls I frequented as a teenager in the late ’80s,” I say into the recorder. I am impressed by the combination of wood-beamed ceilings, snazzy chairs and couches, and floor tiles that looked as if they were polished on the hour. “It seems the mall has grown up a bit.”

Later, the realization strikes me that the T-shirt, like the mall, has matured as well, advanced beyond its humble origins as an undershirt. Features usually reserved for classier clothing have appeared on these continually changing products. Evidence of this phenomenon abounds on my visits to the hippest and most-renowned clothing retailers. And I know from experience that much of what happens in the promotional marketplace takes its cues from retail.


The T-shirt’s evolution from throw-away to fashion accessory is on full display at my first stop: Nordstrom. In the men’s clothing department, I happen upon a mannequin garbed in a textured tan T-shirt made of 75% silk and 25% cotton, priced at $98.

“Probably not the price point most promotional buyers are going to want to hit,” I whisper into the microphone, fully aware that onlookers might think that a man in a department store with a tape recorder could be mentally unstable. Nonetheless, the point is further embellished in my mind: T-shirts have made a huge leap, from the gym to the office and beyond. I never thought that I would use the words ‘formal’ and ‘T-shirt’ in the same sentence, but a last look at the price tag demolishes that preconception.

Upstairs, in women’s fashions, I find the progeny of the basic T-shirt to be even more commonplace and complex. “You see them in all sorts of ensembles,” I record, “with sweaters, skirts, business suits … every imaginable color and fabric … boat-neck, V-neck, all of those styles … quarter-length, half-length, and long sleeves.”

More wary of my surroundings, I proceed to the Banana Republic, where –surprisingly — nearly every mannequin’s ensemble includes a white T-shirt devoid of a logo.

It seems the T-shirt has become the ultimate accessory, in that its simplistic style and lack of a bulky collar can go well with anything, from a suit to a leather jacket to overalls.

Cut to the promotional marketplace.

“It (the fashion T-shirt) is replicating more and more of the retail,” says Tommy Jensen, owner of Norfolk, Va., manufacturer/supplier Jensen Activewear. “They’re the ones who guide us.”

Jensen notes that the lag-time between products appearing on the retailers’ shelves and the ASI catalogs has been continually shrinking. Currently, the promotional supplier is only one year behind the top-selling name brands, he notes. “I guess you’re just staying with the fashion,” says Jensen. “It’s what’s selling and it’s what people like.”

Jensen Activewear’s product line reflects this ever-narrowing gap. Jensen points to two specific products: for women, a spaghetti strap tank top; and for men, a raglansleeved tee, with differing tones on the sleeves and the body. In tandem, these products are representative of the diversity the fashion T-shirt category.

Jensen explains that trends are easily visible via popular culture. “If you pay attention to the current TV programs, like Friends and the Saturday morning kids’ shows, you’ll find it’s a good place to get ideas (for promotional wearables),” he says.

Madeleine McLaughlin, the special projects manager at Philadelphia-based wholesale supplier Alpha Shirt Co., agrees with Jensen on the diminished lag between retail and promotional. “I think the mills have been able to react much more quickly to retail trends,” she says. In the last two years, McLaughlin notes, “Mills like Anvil (Knitwear) have really stepped up. It could be in stores in January and hit the promotional market in May.”

While McLaughlin notes that following retail trends can be risky “because it could be a niche or a fad,” she says that several styles of fashion tees have made a seamless transition from retail to promotional settings. Examples of this include sleeveless and 3/4-length sleeve styles for women and simple striped embellishment and ribbed fabric for men, she notes.

Gender is an issue in introducing new fashions to the promotional market. “People are more willing to take a risk on a women’s fashion T-shirt than a men’s,” McLaughlin observes. “Women are seen as more fashionable animals. The appetite is there.”

“We really think that the women’s market has a lot of viability,” says Dean Bassett, marketing manager of Englewood, Colo.-based Ouray Sportswear by SCI, Inc. “The ‘women-can-wear-the-(men’s)-small’ philosophy is gone.”

Target-marketing towards specific audiences, such as women, is the name of the game in fashion T-shirt sales, adds Bassett, noting that their release of products into the promotional market coincides with the same catalog’s debut at resort retail — in other words, no lag time.

Watch what s happening

Research, whether it be watching television or shopping the hot retailers, is a prerequisite to releasing a retail style in the promotional marketplace for many suppliers.

Brian Jewell, owner of Component, a Kansas City marketing agency that works with promotional suppliers Dog Daze and MV Sport, says that following trends can be a tricky business, however. His rhetorical question, “Does it die on 3 o’clock one afternoon and you’re left holding the bag?” demonstrates the downside of closely following retail trends. Jewell’s advice: keep a close eye on the world of fashion to avoid a bloated and unwanted inventory. “Watch the retailers, watch what’s on TV, watch what the personalities are wearing,” he suggests.

“(Research is) an unscientific process,” adds Alpha’s McLaughlin. “We’re just constantly educating ourselves as to what’s out there.”

The Alpha team hunts for products during research that are easily decorated, with a potential to be priced promotionally. Via retail research, McLaughlin notes that Alpha can collaborate with the mills and their customers in designing new products. “It’s a very fluid process,” she says of transferring concepts from “out there” in the retail world to the promotional arena.

Ouray Sportswear’s Bassett notes that his firm’s Varsity line is fashion-forward, harking to prominent name-brand styles. For example, the Long Sleeve Triple Stripe Tee is reminiscent of branded fashions currently favored by the younger men, with its heavy, 11-ounce, 100-percent cotton construction and ribbed knit collar and cuffs. “It’s a different look,” Bassett notes. “It’s really emulating what’s in the retail market.”

Application of the Varsity line to the corporate world, Bassett explains, is not universal. “Would a 60-year-old man wear some of these things? Possibly not,” he says. “These would be perfect for those younger computer, Internet, or software companies.”

Bassett is fully aware that marketing to the “Microsofts of the world” requires a fresh outlook. Promotional products for fast-growing companies in a labor-starved industry need to further recruitment efforts as well as build overall brand equity, he claims. Employing this strategy requires a product coveted by Mr. or Ms. Computer Science Major.

Decorating cues, too

Roger Carroll, the vice president of marketing for King Louie, a Grandview, Mo.-based supplier, notes that fashion tee decoration — like design — has followed retail fashion’s lead, especially in terms of the younger demographic. This is evidenced by two major crossover trends. First, Carroll refers to the “distressed look” screenprint logo, commonly seen at retailers like Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. “You can’t fight ’em; you might as well join ’em,” laughs Carroll.

The splashier, bigger, more colorful logo is the other decorating style Carroll highlights as jumping the retail-promotional chasm. Exemplified by Tommy Hilfiger designs, such logos still exist in retail but the concept is cooling of late in favor of simplicity.

“That’s what’s happening in the retail marketplace: logos are getting smaller,” notes Carroll. It follows, he says, that more subtle logos will be the “next generation of ‘knock-off-edness”‘ for the promotional wearables industry.

“Leveraged exposure: that pretty well sums it up,” he says. “You want a T-shirt that someone will wear out of the house.”

As for upscale fashion Ts with a subtle logo, Carroll enthusiastically says, “I’ll wear it out.. .(to the) golf course, office, or ballpark.”

More retail

Meanwhile, at the Colorado Gifts and Apparel cart in Park Meadows Mall, I find myself looking at a rack of 100-percent cotton T-shirts embroidered with attractive Rocky Mountain-themed graphics.

Minutes later, in J. Crew, I observe aloud into my tape recorder, “Two-buttoned T-shirts … left chest logo, pretty small, just J. Crew screenprinted, fairly subtle … all sorts of colors. There’s stacks and stacks of them, some with two buttons on the placket, some without.” I continue on my mission, fighting off the urge to satiate my hunger pangs at the food court or scan the toy shops for gifts labeled, ‘3 years and up,’ for the aforementioned Rachel.

I want to delve into the crux of hip, so I head to Gap and note, “Almost every mannequin has a T-shirt. There’s ensembles … adventure travel logos on some T-shirts, and the standard ‘Gap,’ lots of flags, and just a ‘G’ in the middle of the T-shirt … ‘Gap’ on the left breast, kind of subtle. More of the garment-dyed kind of stuff, from gold to navy.” A Gap employee interrupts my recording to ask if I need help. I decline and exit, making my way to another red-hot retailer: Abercrombie & Fitch.

On my way, I see no less than four stores carrying fashion tees with “pre-weathered” athletic logos and nostalgia-influenced design. “That retro-athletic thing is all over the place,” I note as I head into Abercrombie, the epicenter of that school of decoration.

I cross the threshold into the store and see a gaggle of T-shirts, of both the standard and fashion varieties.

“The weathered look is all over the place here … kind of industrial … the used-athletic look is hip,” I record, asking myself, “Can this be the future for the staid corporate market? As long as the young computer whiz likes it, it remains a possibility.”

Satisfied, I tuck my tape recorder into my pocket and stroll to the food court en route to the toy store.

Niche Markets

To really take the risk of providing a high-fashion item requires the nimbleness of a specialty house.

“There wouldn’t be enough volume for someone of our size to consider doing it,” says Christie Lindsey, marketing manager for Fruit of the Loom’s Activewear division.

Likewise, Hanes Printables does not skew its designs towards the fashion tee market, due to its size. This philosophy opens up a host of specific niches for the smaller manufacturers that see the value of catering to customers who need fashion-forward styling more than large quantities and low price points.

“Gone (from the promotional wearables market) is the cheapie 50/50,” says Ouray Sportswear’s Bassett. “If you want to build your brand identity, you need higher quality.” In this case, “higher quality” equates to better fabric, different textures and collars, and more fashionable styles and decorations.

In the end, close attention to all of these aspects results in a more satisfied end user. For a promotional wearable to effectively fulfill its purpose, that is the name of the game. And looking to the cyclical trends in retail as a guide can be a good first move for any player in the industry, especially when it comes to fashion tees.

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based writer and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.


The fashion T-shirt is not always the easiest wearable to decorate.

A screenprinted logo will often clash with its upscale design and relegate it to the end user’s bottom drawer. Additionally, the textured fabric on some fashion tees can interfere with traditional means of decorating. Finally, if the audience is particularly narrow, considerations must be made concerning the appropriate size, style, and placement of embellishments. Also, oil-based screenprinting is on its way out for other reasons, says one observer.

“(The big manufacturers) are really moving away from screenprinting, because of the environmental implications,” notes Scott Schoenbauer, director of promotional product sales for Fort Collins, Cob-based FiberLok, which decorates wearables via a patented heat-transfer process known as Lextra. Lextra, Schoenbauer notes, is ideal for textured fabric decoration because “it sits right on top” of any surface to which it is affixed.

Two current trends that are popular for decorating promotional fashion tees, Schoenbauer adds, are “flocking” — by which vat-dyed fibers are bonded to the fabric with a heat transfer — and combining screenprinting and heat transfer graphics for “a two-toned, two-textured effect.” Overall, the decoration is geared towards emulating retail fashion.

“That’s a big trend,” notes Schoenbauer, whose firm provides decoration for many retail lines, including Tommy Hilfiger. “They want it to look like they bought it at a store.”

“A standard T-shirt, because of its weight and because of its application, is traditionally screenprinted,” explains Eddie Hall, a sales representative at Atlanta-based wholesale supplier Georgia Tees, Inc.

“The upper-end T-shirts … at least 40 percent of them are embroidered nowadays.”

Noting that the fashion tee market segment’s growth has been driven by the movement to corporate casual, Hall notes, “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that casual Friday would have turned into casual week.”

T-shirts have a place in this new dress-down paradigm; the same thing might not be said for screenprinting.

“A lot of things are going to be embroidered … more so today than screenprinted,” echoes Jeffrey Barr, the vice president of marketing for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s Barr Wholesale, Inc. Tone-on-tone decorating is gaining speed in the promotional wearables market, he says, as well as a reversion to subtlety.

“There’s a lot more simple logos,” Barr notes. “Things seem to be getting more basic.” A specific fashion tee look that has become popular in promotional wearables is the retail-influenced, garment-dyed designs with a small embroidered logo.

There’s no question there is significantly more embroidery on T-shirts today than five years ago, but a visit to the mall will tell you screenprinted tees are far from a thing of the past — even on fashion tees. The “weathered look” screenprint has been a staple at popular retailers this fall on fashion tees going for somewhere in the $18-$29 range. Many of them are about the size of a left-chest design, but are placed in the center of the shirt, a few inches down from the collar.

Currently, students seem to like to wear button-front shirts over tees (unbuttoned and untucked). In such cases, a left-chest design gets hidden by the shirt, but a small center logo remains visible.

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