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Performance Golf Shirts: No Sweat – products, fabrics, companies

Performance Golf Shirts: No Sweat – products, fabrics, companies – Industry Overview

Byline: Kim Mitchell

If you have clients hinting that they are tired of the “same old golf shirt,” it’s time to knock their socks off with this year’s bumper crop of performance fabric golf shirts. Polyester has come a long way, and today’s polyester microfibre fabrics and poly/cotton blends are redefining the look and feel of today’s golf shirts with moisture-wicking and easy-care qualities that eclipse the capabilities of traditional 100% cotton shirts.

Present one of these performance shirts to a client alongside a “same old golf shirt,” explain the differences, and closing the deal is no sweat – which is exactly what the end user will feel when wearing the shirt.

In today’s apparel market nothing has more buzz than “performance” fabrics. Fueled by the emergence of the new fibers, new fabrics and innovative processing technologies, performance apparel is rapidly gaining momentum.

“Performance fabrics are one of the fastest growing categories in the apparel industry, says Jack Pieklo, U.S. National Sales Manager for Scarborough, Ontario-based Ash City. “The change in consumer lifestyles is driving this growth. The opportunities for this category go beyond the golf course. Think of any physical activity and PPDs can effectively position performance products.”

Last year was definitely a challenge for high-end performance wear, given the economic hardships faced by so many buyers of promotional products. Not surprisingly, sales of golf shirts were largely relegated to inexpensive shirts and smaller orders.

But the burgeoning high-performance golf shirt market is opening up. Golf World Business recently reported that tech polos are by far the most widely adapted trend for the season, says Gina Barreca, director of marketing at Avenel, N.J.-based Vantage Apparel.

And, depending on how you measure the market, nearly a million dozen were sold last year, and those numbers suggest a large sales opportunity for PPDs nationwide, adds Len A. Van Popering, marketing manager for the Cross Creek and Jerzees sport shirts brands at Atlanta-based Russell Artwear. Cross Creek, he adds, introduced 11 new and updated garments in 2003, reflecting the company’s commitment to the premium sport shirt market.

Certainly, golfers covet apparel that can keep them dry and cool when exposed to humidity and sun, warm on chilly spring or fall days, and protected from wind and rainy weather. Fabrics that can do this are lightweight, quick-drying, transport or wick perspiration away from the skin, and breathe. They also are often easy-care and wrinkle-resistant, and will hold their shape and color through many washings.

The vast majority of golf shirts made of 100% cotton, while being very common and comfortable, do not fit into the “performance” category. Cotton breathes and can be lightweight, but it isn’t quick-drying and doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin – cotton simply absorbs moisture. It isn’t wrinkle-resistant, and won’t hold its color and shape as well as synthetics or cotton/synthetic blends.

Yes, performance golf shirts are typically a little pricier than your average cotton golf shirt, but they are less expensive than double-mercerized cotton and can be the perfect choice for that client who is looking for something that will offer a more sophisticated image than a basic, but doesn’t have the budget for double-mercerized.

Performance golf shirts are not just for golfers, and with today’s active lifestyle, many non-golfers are eager to experience the same technological advantages. “These shirts are designed as active wear, quite frankly, for whatever you’re doing, either on the golf course of out on the town, says Michael James, director of marketing for Cincinnati-based TSC Apparel, which carries golf shirts from several lines.

In addition to an excellent feel, a key element to high-performance shirts is the ability to wick moisture away from the body. According to Erwin Schiowitz, senior vice president of Phillips Van Heusen Career Apparel, which among others offers the Izod and Geoffrey Beene lines, the best performance test of wicking fabrics is to lay the fabrics face side down on a paper towel.

Place several drops of water onto the reverse side of each fabric. Watch for rapid absorption and spreading of moisture. “On a wicking fabric the water is immediately absorbed,” he says. “The reverse of this process also occurs in similar fashion, as perspiration is more quickly absorbed and wicked out, resulting in a drier, more comfortable shirt.”

“While this technology costs more, it is worth it,” Schiowitz adds. “This is one of the most impressive gains in textile technology since permanent press.”

Sticker shock

But let’s face it. Performance shirts don’t come cheap. In the golf shirt world, a relatively good price-point shirt wholesales for less than $10; a better, mid-range shirt runs about $10 to $20, and high-end golf shirts wholesale for $20 and up, with some super-premium styles wholesaling for $40 or more. Another way to look at it: There is an approximate difference of 25%-20% on selling from non-performance to performance shirts. Estimate of another 15%-20% from performance to mercerized golf, with the superb treatment and process on mercerization, from yarn to fabrication, and finishing.

Even if a premium shirt looks similar to a lower-priced competing garment in a catalog, the “wearing experience” can be very different, notes Cross Creek’s Van Popering. “Sport shirt buyers should pay attention to details such as yarn type, how the fabric is knit, and how well the garment will stand up to multiple washings. A better-constructed, more comfortable shirt will likely be worn more often and longer than knock-off versions, and that’s good news for organizations whose logos are embroidered on them.

Most suppliers and distributors try to offer a variety of price points, even within the high-performance universe. And Vantage’s Barreca warns that that it is a misconception that high prices guarantee high quality.

Indeed, at Vantage, many of the high-performance golf shirts fall in the middle of the polo price range. Vansport polos are priced only slightly higher than textured solids without wicking capabilities and cost $4-6 (net) less than mercerized and almost $10 less than polynosic styles, Barreca says.

Who’s got what

The performance fabric golf shirt category has become important enough in the market that most suppliers who offer golf shirts have something high-tech in their line, usually with their own trademarked fabric name. What follows is a sampling of tech golf shirt styles from a variety of suppliers.

Vantage’s Vansport is a cotton-rich blended fabric offering moisture-wicking characteristics. One of the Vansport polos, style 2960, offers under sleeve gussets to give extra attention to areas of heavy perspiration. In total, Vantage offers three Vansport styles with new additions planned for both men and women in 2004.

Another winning addition to the fabric category is polynosic rayon, adds Barreca. This brushed fabric has the soft hand and silky drape of rayon, but, unlike traditional rayon, can be machine-washed and dried.

The Page & Tuttle label from Premium-Wear has done extremely well in the green grass (golf pro shop) market with a strategy of offering price points often more than 30% below that of the competition, which at green grass is typically big-name retail golf brands. Having the Page & Tuttle line available to the promotional market means, “a PPD’s customers have a great option to outfit their employees or event with true golf apparel but still stay within their budget,” says Julia Roehl, director of customer operations for the Minnetonka, Minn.-based supplier.

PremiumWear launched an innovative technical feature in some of its Page & Tuttle and Jockey solid pique styles for 2003 – The No Curl Collar. Available in men’s and ladies’ styles, a long-sleeve style and pocketed, the collar is guaranteed not to curl thanks to a thin, undetectable stay knit into the end of the collar to keep it from curling up and losing its shape.

“In addition, there are fabrications that we have found great success with for the golf market as well as promotional products – polynosic wovens being among the favorites, Roehl adds. “Customers are responding very favorably to the hand of the fabric as well as the easy-care properties.”

In addition to its comfort and coolness, Cross Creek’s Cool Knit fabric is really a variation of a pique stitch that creates an interesting waffle texture, says Van Popering. “Since we use 100% combed, ring-spun cotton, our Cool Knit garments, such as style 5540, have a soft hand and provide an excellent canvas for even fine logos.”

Peoria, Ariz.-based Antigua Group offers single- and double-mercerized shirts, says National Sales Manager Dan Moore. But the company is finding a foothold with its Desert Dry product – a 60%cotton/40% poly blend. “In addition to the moisture-wicking action the poly component provides a low-maintenance garment that has superior ‘wash and wear’ qualities,” Moore notes.

“Our experience is that the person who had previously purchased the high-end, double-mercerized styles moved to the Desert Dry fabrics,” Moore continues. “They seemed to feel there was more value in a fabric that actually ‘did something’ rather than just being luxurious and high maintenance.”

Despite this, he says there is still a market for the high-end dress polo. “This is not a golf shirt, per say,” he says, “but a shirt that can be worn with slacks and considered business/resort casual.”

At PVH, the Izod Dri-wicking polo employs a method of knitting polyester and cotton to ensure the moisture welled in the polyester fiber is quickly absorbed and wicked into the air by the cotton. The garment uses two weights of pique: a micro mesh for torso and a heavier weight for the raglan shoulder.

PVH’s Schiowitz notes that although Izod’s Dri-wicking fabrication is still a relatively small part of the Izod golf line, it is here to stay. “It is in fact becoming more important in the younger golf looks, which are a growing market for us,” he points out.

Even the Izod line is positioned as a moderately-priced, high-value golf line, and as a result Schiowitz says it hasn’t suffered as much as other companies from the nation’s economic doldrums and crowded marketplace.

For its part, Ash City this spring added two styles in its Extreme line specifically designed with moisture management fabric. The company’s e-dry fabric offers a clean and simple vertical cord surface interest, made of 43% 100/144 micro denier polyester and 57% 40/1 ring-spun combed cotton, with very soft hand and cotton rich feel, notes merchandise manager Mabel Kwok. Ash City’s Extreme e-dry in style 85027 has a raised welt trim while style 85028 has textured trim.

Minneapolis-based Trimark Sportswear Group has targeted the golf market with its On Tour brand. Pete Nutty, vice president of marketing, says Trimark in May introduced a new line of technical sports shirts called W.E.B. Tech to the On Tour line, with W.E.B. standing for Wicking-Evaporation-Breathability. One of these styles, the 3696, is featured on the cover of this magazine.

The fabrication is manufactured with Delight Tairilin special cross-section yarn and each section is constructed with four water-directing channels to quickly wick away sweat. Thanks to the cross sectional structure, the area of fiber in direct contact with the skin is relatively small, making the fabric dry and smooth to the touch, Nutty says. The yarn is high-twisted in such a way as to ensure a relatively large gap between the individual strands of yarn, so that it feels smoother than ordinary high twisted yarn.

W.E.B. Tech fabrics also receive a special treatment making it soil resistant. The Zelcon finish is naturally absorbent and keeps fabric dry and comfortable.

At TSC Apparel, Michael James says the hottest-selling performance styles are Reebok Golf’s PlayDry products. PlayDry was one of the first moisture management systems developed for men’s golf shirts. Pioneered by the Reebok Company’s Greg Norman Collection, the system incorporates a three-step process combining chemical, yarn spinning and fabric knitting innovations. Unlike a lot of the fabrics currently being marketed as moisture wicking, PlayDry performance will not wash out after repeated launderings.

The combined marketing of Reebok Golf, Greg Norman and Reebok International has expanded the audience for PlayDry. Specifically, the PlayDry portion of the line has grown to be 50% of Reebok’s green grass sales.

Vantage also carries three PlayDry polos in its exclusive Greg Norman Corporate line. The PlayDry technology has since carried into other product categories for Vantage, however polos remain the largest percentage of sales, Barreca adds.

Carlsbad, Calif.-based Ashworth is offering it’s proprietary EZ-TECH, which excels in its ability to combine the comfort and breathability of 100% cotton with all the performance characteristics like moisture wicking and ease of care. “This new fabric treatment enables the garment to resist shrinking, pilling, fading and wrinkles while remaining breathable. EZ-TECH also maintains a very soft hand throughout the life of the garment,” says Kellie Claudio, national corporate sales manager.

EZ-TECH will play a key role at Ashworth Corporate, beginning with the new 2004 Ashworth Corporate Authentics, Claudio says. Already placed in over 4,000 green grass pro shops, national golf accounts, and department stores, sell-through on the $55 retail polo are in the double digits, she adds.

Twenty years ago, Leland, N.C.-based Outer Banks was a pioneer in recognizing the potential of the placket shirt in the promotional apparel industry, and the label remains a top seller in the industry with a polo-heavy line targeting the needs of the promotional market. Director of Marketing Joy Hatch says the company’s 2003 collection features Active Pinpoint Pique Polos (styles #5226 and #5227) that stretch, thanks to the addition of Spandex.

“Spandex is probably the biggest news in our category and in the apparel industry in general,” notes Hatch. “For active apparel like golf shirts, the addition of Spandex is a huge plus. We have had great response to our new Outer Banks Active Pinpoint Pique Polos made with 94% cotton, 6% Spandex for their incredible comfort and fit.” The company also has found success with its Air Polos (styles #5080, #5081, #5082, #5084), which are made from a breathable cotton knit.

Broder Bros. is the exclusive wholesale supplier for Nike Golf apparel, which includes five styles made of Nike’s Dri-FIT cotton/poly fabric. Included are the Dri-FIT Great Sport Shirt, the Dri-FIT Pique Sport Shirt, the Ladies’ Stretch Dri-FIT Pique Sport Shirt and Sleeveless Sport Shirt, and the men’s Dri-FIT Long Sleeve Pique with Striped Collar.

The Newport from Diport USA is a new mini waffle performance sport shirt made of a moisture-wicking cotton/poly blend fabric.

Alpha Shirt Company’s new Devon & Jones label features the Dri-Fast Polo style D330, made of a 63% ringspun cotton/37% polyester knit designed to wick away moisture.

Supplier Century Place has style C1000, made of moisture-management 100% Fortrel polyester. The shirt’s durability makes it an ideal uniform choice, as well.

While Crystal Springs has three double-mercerized styles favored by company-sponsored PGA Tour pro Chris Smith, style 7401 is made of Intera DryForce 100% polyester that not only wicks away moisture, but also inhibits odor, bacteria, fungus and mildew.

At Timberline Colorado, the latest thing are techy-looking Poly-Dri 3-layer microfibre sport shirts – in pique (PP97) and textured jersey (PG97) styles. In addition to the moisture-wicking microfibre, both styles feature another innovative feature: a patent-pending Permafold Collar that is scored on the back, similar to a cardboard box, so it always folds in the perfect place.

Turfer Sportswear’s take on the performance sport shirt market is the Champion, available in men’s and women’s styles. Made of a high-tech blend of cotton, polyester and stretch yarn, it is designed to give golfers a greater range of motion and cool comfort on the course.

How to sell it

To sell the performance story, you have to understand it. That means sharpening up your product knowledge, having plenty of samples to touch and wear and being bold about showing customers more expensive products. That’s right, take out those pricier shirts and let the customer touch them.

“I think the first mistake PPDs make is asking their customer, ‘What is your budget?’ and then bringing only those items that fit neatly into that price-point to a presentation,” says Ashworth’s Claudio. “This cheats your buyer out of learning what’s hot, new, and exciting in the marketplace. A good sales person would bring a good, better, best to the table. You won’t believe how easy it is to ‘sell up’ when the product is on the table to touch, feel, and compare. For instance, our sales people show the consumer the difference between an EZ-TECH treated garment after 20 washes vs. the same garment washed 20 times without the treatment. The results sell the product.”

The majority of suppliers offering performance styles have included labels and hang tags that remind and inform the wearer about the shirt’s special characteristics. If you don’t have the luxury of having a manufacturer’s rep accompanying you to a key sales presentation, you can brush up on the shirt’s features by reading the hang tags.

“The performance characteristics of different moisture management fabrics and fabric blends will vary among brands,” says Vantage’s Barreca. “Fabrics can be compared against each other by evaluating moisture absorption and drying time.”

Trimark’s Nutty stresses ongoing education and keeping abreast of trends. “This new class of technical shirts will require product knowledge and selling abilities,” he says. “Explaining to the customer why they need to invest their budget funds in these shirts is an art. The benefits will always pay for the time invested in selling the products. Everybody can sell a $5 sport shirt; being able to set you apart with quality products is the key. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.”

Sometimes customers aren’t even aware that performance products exist and PPDs need to build awareness about their availability, says Ash City’s Pieklo.

PPDs also need to invest in samples, he adds. “Also, proactively planting the seed is effective,” he says. Educational follow-ups – via e-mail or snail mail – are a great way to keep customers on top of new product offerings.

And if you can, get your buyer to wear the shirt. “We believe that once they wear it, they will love it and wish all their other golf shirts were as comfortable,” says TSC’s James.

In the meantime, high-tech continues to roll and performance shirts continue to be fine-tuned. Antigua, for one, is already planning its 2004 line with an eye toward more technical fabrications, such as anti-bacterial.

Trimark’s Nutty believes 2003 will be a benchmark year for the category. “Sales last year were primarily in the lower end of the price point category,” he says. “We feel strongly that 2003 will be a strong year for the higher-end sport shirts.

Kim Mitchell is a contributing editor to Wearables Business.

Suppliers mentioned in this feature:

Alpha Shirt Co.: 800-523-4585 Antigua: 877-610-1444 Ash City: 800-761-6612 Ashworth: 800-619-0096 Blake & Hollister: 800-909-9088 Broder Bros.: 800-521-0850 Capital Mercury: 800-227-6372 Century Place: 800-438-1246 Crystal Springs: 800-633-4635 Diport USA: 800-351-8262 Outer Banks: 800-438-2029 PremiumWear: 800-347-6098 PVH Career Apparel: 800-999-0146 Russell Artwear: 800-321-1138 Tehama: 800-955-9400 Timberline Colorado: 800-733-1033 Trimark Sportswear Group: 800-488-4800 TSC Apparel: 800-289-5400 Turfer Sportswear 800-222-1312 Vantage: 800-221-0020 Weatherproof: 800-367-7900

For high-end projects, mercerized shirts are your ‘top dog’

If you are looking for top-of-the-line, look no further than mercerized shirts, double mercerized to be exact. Mercerized shirts offer a dressy and classic appeal, wear comfortably and offer the feel and characteristic of natural cotton with the luster from the mercerization.

“Mercerized and double-mercerized are some of the finest golf shirts available in the marketplace,” says Roger Stiefel, co-owner of Blake & Hollister. “They’re made from very fine yarns that take and hold their color washing after washing. They tend to be lightweight and extremely comfortable. While they’re higher in price, they also present an excellent image.”

“Mercerized knits have found their level in the corporate, premium market,” says David Bebon, vice president of New York City-based Capital Mercury Apparel, which offers Bill Blass and Arnold Palmer in the premium golf market. “Mercerized knits are the top dog in your golf shirt assortment. They are dressier, cleaner and fit beautifully into the new corporate casual dressier movement we’ve seen the last 18 months.”

Mercerized prices are all over the map. In the mercerized higher-count yarns (60s) two-ply category many of the traditional golf brands start at $24 to $26 and retail for $48-$60. Start playing with an even higher count (80s) two-ply from Italy and retail prices often spike over $100.

Capital Mercury offers an assortment of mercerized golf knits under the Arnold Palmer brand. They are 100% cotton, 2/60s yarns, and double gas mercerized. “They are selling quite well and I think that’s due to brand recognition and competitive price points,” says Bebon. “Mercerized golf knits are running $15 to $25 case pricing. Our Arnold Palmer mercerized shirts are moderately priced.”

Some companies, like Weatherproof/MV Sport are also bucking the trend. “Our philosophy was to offer our shirts at $24 and go down from there, giving extremely good value and targeting customers that wanted the upscale product but felt like they couldn’t quite afford it,” says national sales manager John Meis. The Weatherproof line includes three new fabric-dyed mercerized solids and three new yarn-dyed mercerized styles for 2003.

At Denver-based Tehama, the high-end golf/lifestyle apparel brand from Nancy Haley and Clint Eastwood, they are finding the market for mercerized shirts is wide open, says Kevin Bloomquist, vice president of corporate sales. “High-end fabrics have many benefits,” he adds. “They are comfortable and have a great feel, they are extremely soft to the touch.”

New in 2003 to the company’s mercerized golf shirt line is a mercerized rib stripe polo called the Coogan, featuring a hidden placket and horizontal rib stripes. “It takes to a logo very well,” says Bloomquist.

Haley says Tehama’s corporate market strategy is to encourage PPDs to go after companies that have great brands. “They really shouldn’t hook up with a no-name shirt brand – it hurts their brand,” Haley says. She also encourages PPDs to take Tehama sales reps along with them for key corporate presentations to help push the benefits of brands, not to mention their expertise in talking about mercerized shirts.

“When we go into a higher-end company that really cares about their brand, that’s the shirt they go for,” Haley says of Tehama’s mercerized styles.

TSC Apparel carries a number of mercerized shirts in different styles, says Michael James, marketing director. “Of course, the main benefit of mercerization is a shirt will have a noticeably nicer touch and a silky feel to it. The process also helps the fabric hold dye better, making for a better looking, and, longer-lasting attractive look to the shirt. It’s approximately a $5-10 difference at retail between performance and non-performance fabrics.”

Mercerized shirts are dominant for the Izod golf line, says Erwin Schiowitz, senior vice president of Phillips Van Heusen Career Apparel. Noting that Izod is the largest manufacturer of double-mercerized fabrics, he warns that customers shouldn’t be fooled into buying single-mercerized shirts as the mercerization process is only on the finished knitted cloth and its effects will only last a washing or two. “Double-mercerized fabrics involve yarn and then again when it is knitted, the effects of which last for 20 or so washings,” he says.

The “maintenance” and “washability” of mercerized products has become a perceived issue, or problem, with some people, according to Bebon.

He says too many people “cook” their mercerized shirts by drying them at high heat instead of line-drying them.

“Sixty minutes of high heat is cooking your mercerized shirt, and it will distort and create ‘Torque’ and possibly even high shrinkage on your garment,” Bebon says.

“Torque occurs when the body of the shirt will actually twist to where the side seam of the shirt is now at your belly button. When your favorite new golf shirt comes out of the dryer and the side seam is doing the Twist, throw it out – you’ve cooked it!”

The “maintenance” discussion on mercerized knits means educating your sales force and customer base that a better golf shirt deserves better maintenance.

“The mercerized golf shirt is a crisper, dressier look than collar and placket wearables,” Bebon says. “Yes, it costs more, and has some bad maintenance press, but it’s your top dog. It’s the best golf shirt you offer to your clients. Just don’t cook it!” – Kim Mitchell

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