Wearables Business

the not-so-humble tee

the not-so-humble tee

Byline: Kim Mitchell

Ah, the humble T-shirt.

The basic tee is renowned for its relentless work in the promotional trenches as a giveaway item. And in its incarnation as a fashion tee it stylishly meets the needs of the young and of trendsetters. Sporty? Sassy?

Yes, the tee is all that and more. With basic tees wholesaling at record-low prices, and more choices than ever before in fashion and performance styles, this grandfather of wearables may not be such a humble patriarch after all – and it will shout out the same as loud as its full-front screenprint lets it.

People hoard tees the way squirrels hoard nuts, and they will always find room in the dresser for a new one whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In many ways the promotional apparel business was built on the back of T-shirts. The tee’s evolution from bread & butter to a virtual loss leader occurred in the 1990s, when the tee market exploded and suddenly wholesalers were faced with an extraordinary increase in product. The fiercely competitive marketplace resulted in margins being sliced all the way down the supply chain and rocked the entire industry.

“The steep decline in prices has been the biggest challenge with T-shirts,” notes Steve Feinstein, general manager of Seattle-based wholesaler SanMar. “Due to the drop in prices, selling T-shirts has become virtually unprofitable. These days the storage and shipping of a shirt can be higher than the cost of the shirt.”

Today, basic tees work best when you are trying to outfit masses for low prices. This means a basic, unisex, T-shirt program is a volume program, where hundreds, even thousands of units are being prepared for a giveaway or as a premium to promote anything and everything under the sun. With wholesale prices fluctuating anywhere from 90 cents to $2 each, cost remains the most basic consideration for these programs.

But please, let’s not diss the basic tee just because the margins for manufacturers and wholesale suppliers have disappeared. Volume tee programs remain a staple of the industry, and working closely with a client on these lower-margin programs can provide the foundation for future, more lucrative sales down the road.

In light of the current situation, the best margins for promotional product distributors selling tees clearly are in some of the smaller, niche markets.

“Some of the products that will provide the most margin for promotional product distributors are women’s products, especially those with a stretch component, performance tees and more vintage-type looks such as garment washed,” says Sabrina Bradford, senior marketing manager for Atlanta-based Russell Artwear, a division of Russell Corporation. Russell Artwear serves the promotional apparel marketplace with such brands as Cross Creek, Three Rivers, Bike, Mossy Oak Apparel, and, in fleece and T-shirts especially, the well-known JERZEES brand.

“The T-shirt market no longer forces you to compromise between price and quality,” agrees SanMar’s Feinstein. “Consumers know they’re getting an incredible value. We need to raise the bar and continue to introduce more innovative fabrics and styles.”

A basic tee for women

Although the industry’s attention is focused on niches these days, some companies are also finding unique ways to enhance the basic tee category.

One twist in the basic tee market is being provided by Anvil Knitwear, an old line mill known as a trendsetter in the fashion tee market, especially on the women’s front.

This year Anvil partnered with Broder Bros. and Alpha Shirt Co. to develop and distribute the new ladies’ basic tee, style 978. The 5.6-oz., 100% cotton shirt comes in 13 standard and fashion colors and is fashion cut for ladies. The shirt is designed to complement Anvil’s 976 and 979 unisex tees.

“It isn’t a fitted T-shirt per say, it isn’t tapered. But it is cut in a smaller size, with a smaller shoulder and neck and different width and length,” says Christopher Levesque, vice president of marketing for the New York City-based firm. Why bother to create a ladies’ basic tee when so much of the world seems content with unisex?

“The basic tee is never going to go away. It is what drives this business,” Levesque continues. “It is an extremely important part of the puzzle for what people demand and want. Our market research shows that you can’t neglect the commodity market.”

“Just because basic tees have become commodity items, why can’t they fit a woman’s body?” he muses. “Being able to offer something like this, something completely different, is a real advantage for PPDs.”

At the same time, Levesque says Anvil has launched two new silhouettes that meet the demand of the ladies fashion tee market: a ladies body-hugging crewneck tee with capped sleeves, and “a little baseball shirt” with capped sleeves.

“The sheer is the next generation in the embellishable, imprintable evolution,” says Levesque, “following the 1×1 rib and Spandex. We’re taking the popular silhouettes and making them sheer.”

More options than ever

Indeed, some people might say the basic T-shirt has been around so long there is nothing new to say about it. But the truth is just the opposite.

Michael James, director of marketing for Cincinnati-based TSC Apparel notes there are more tee options than ever to pick from. “There are more weight options, more texture alternatives, such as ribs, hemp, pique, ottoman, etc. and more fits such as junior, women’s unisex, young men’s and now, even doggy tees,” he says. “And there’s technical features such as moisture-wicking, Lycra blends, hemp, stain, soil and odor release treatments, organic cottons, and heathers/melanges.

“There’s a lot of choices that we didn’t have just a few years ago,” he adds.

Certainly, when you talk about tees, you most often are talking about cotton fabric. Cotton remains king due to its tough nature, its ability to be easily embellished and popularity at retail. But there are many kinds of cotton. Open-end cottons provide a softer feel for an excellent price. Ring-spun cotton has an incredibly soft hand.

T-shirt weights range from the very light – 3.8 ounces – to the standard 5.5 ounces and can go as high as 7.1 ounces. Heavier weights have the advantage of being durable and holding their shape under repeated wearing and washing. Lighter-weight tees are more comfortable, especially in warmer climates, and provide a clean fit.

Higher-end tees will offer the added durability of double-needle stitching and shoulder to shoulder taping.

For active people, high-performance polyester microfibers quickly wick moisture away from the body.

“The top fabrication is still 100% cotton,” agrees San Mar’s Feinstein. “However, more technical, performance-driven fabrics such as dry-fiber are growing in popularity which is great, because now there’s differentiation. It’s a few steps up from the basic tee but it’s a style that the consumer is familiar and comfortable with.”

In addition to carrying a new ladies V-neck tee by Bella, and three new Silver For Her tees from Hanes this year, SanMar’s own Port Authority Signature line is offering a rapid dry performance crew that is made from a 60/40 cotton/poly blend in unisex sizes XS-4XL.

Also with an eye toward performance tees, TSC added Anvil’s new dri-release tee this year and it continues to offer high-visibility tees – both ANSI-certified polyester and non-certified 50/50 and $100 cotton for those engaged in construction and traffic-related activities.

“We’ve even included the family pet this year with the addition of the new American Apparel dog/kitty tee,” James adds.

Stretch in style

Of course, when it comes to fashion T-shirts, style is the key. People want more personality in a tee, not just a cloth box. As Levesque notes, sheer is hot at retail, and is now finding its way into wearables trade.

The stretch trend continues its run, with fabric content a key determinant in how form-fitting a style can be. Lycra and Spandex add stretch and hold shape, but they can cost $3 to $4 more per T-shirt than 100% cotton. Stretch can still be achieved with cotton, via ribbed styles, which both cuts costs and delivers the perceived value of 100% cotton.

Ribbing also adds texture, which is an important trend in fashion tees. Baby rib, or 1×1 ribbing, is so popular that some manufacturers are using it to make up the bulk of their fashion tee offerings.

Blends continue to be especially important. Hanes, for example, has a line of Beefy Silver tees, woven from a blend of cotton and Nativa rayon. The result is an improved drape and luster, giving a feel and look of elegance.

For 2004, stretch continues to be big news and JERZEES is introducing two new women’s jersey products both made of 95% combed ring-spun cotton and 5% Lycra. “The women’s stretch T-shirt (style 19WT) is available in seven sizes and eight colors,” says Bradford, “and the women’s stretch shell (style 19WS) is available in six sizes and five colors. Both feature side vents at the hem.”

JERZEES also offers traditional heavyweight T-shirts in 50/50 blend, 100% cotton and ultra heavyweight in 100% cotton. Styles offered are available in adult and youth short sleeve, long sleeve, and short sleeve pocketed tees. And new colors were added to the basic 100% cotton 6-ounce shirt (188M).

The JERZEES brand also offers a premium ultra heavyweight T-shirt in 100% combed ring-spun cotton, known as the Zt. The Zt (style 18Z) comes in a variety of colors and the combed ring-spun fabric gives the shirt a lustrous sheen, allows it to drape better on the body, and yields less lint build-up on screens.

Other key trends for 2004 include more vegetable colors and saturated brights. “For women’s styles, we are seeing more feminine details, including lace and picot trims,” says SanMar’s Feinstein.

Colors get interesting

Everything old is new again and fun retro looks are everywhere both in retail and in the promotional apparel trade. As such promotional tees are being recharged with colors such as Vegas gold, Texas orange, chocolate brown and baby blue.

“Colors are bolder and brighter, with brighter brights and deeper deeps,” adds Tabitha Manresa, marketing manager for Gardena, Calif.-based wholesaler, The Americana Company. “They’re a great retro look in tees, but you probably don’t want to go and redecorate your kitchen with them… again.”

Rich jewel tones also are trending up, as are pastels. “Pink shirts for men again?” asks Manresa. “Yep. It’s baa-ack.”

In keeping with the retro trend TSC this year added more heathers/melange styles from American Apparel and Bayside and more ringers from Bayside. The company also added traditional rainbow spiral tie-dyes, and updated tie-dye styles like bursts, crinkles and chest stripes in fire and ice designs.

TSC also is expanding its juniors line with melange tees from American Apparel, new loop terry styles and the Anvil semi-sheer tee. On the ladies side, TSC added Jerzees’ cotton lyrca tee and stretch French terry line for women and juniors.

“We continue to look for some ‘old’ styles to be hot again,” James says. “Can neon tees, roll sleeve tees, crop tops/shimmels be far behind?”

Environmental angles

TSC also added the Hemptown Clothing line. “Not only is it environmentally friendly,” James said. “It also is a more durable fiber with the hand almost of raw silk.” Vancouver-based Hemptown Clothing Inc. produces hemp T-shirts, caps, polos, oxfords, tote bags, hooded sweatshirts and long-sleeve T-shirts.

Companies like Aveda, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Home Box Office, the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Toyota, along with music acts, zoos, health food stores, environmental groups and yoga/wellness spas have bought Hemptown’s apparel, which boast improved longevity and wearability, as well as an eco-friendly and pesticide-free history.

Hemp has been grown for at least the last 12,000 years for fiber. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp, and the first American flag was made from hemp fabric. Out of use for decades, hemp currently is enjoying a renaissance.

“This is part of the value proposition that is often overlooked when comparing the cost of a hemp tee and a cotton tee,” says Hemptown founder and chief operating officer Jason Finnis. “If you pay 20% more for a hemp shirt that lasts three times longer than a cotton shirt, which one is more expensive?”

According to Gary A. Oldham, owner of Samnorwood, Texas-based SOS From Texas, there are many organic cotton T-shirt companies and his is the only one manufacturing in the U.S.

“Our tees are made from organic cotton that we grow on our farms,” Oldham says. “We have been certified organic producers by the Texas Dept. of Agriculture since 1992.”

New this year from SOS is a ladies scoop-neck shirt, a baby onesie and a new version of the “green genes” shirt that is made from organic cotton that grows green in color.

“We have had many requests for the ladies’ shirt and started producing it late last year,” Oldham says. “Organic cotton is very important for the baby clothing market and the onesie was an easy fit with the youth and baby tees that we already offered.”

“Our markets are for individuals looking for a truly environmentally friendly product,” he continues. “Most everyone is interested in the environment, some not as radical as others, so don’t just think that you have to have Greenpeace for a customer. In fact, they actually have not wanted to pay the extra price.”

Active end users want performance

Performance tees are a newer market segment and one growing in popularity. Designed for active people, these tees are constructed from durable microfibers that help wick perspiration away from the body and provide added comfort.

“I think you will find that one of the most important trends in performance tees is really just the process of building a full line by offering more sizes, colors and styles,” says Rich Norwalk, who along with his partner Lou Villareal, are the co-founders and co-presidents of WICKid (pronounced wick-I.D.). “Since it is still a relatively new niche compared to other wearable segments, there is still a lot that can be offered.”

The two men started their Raleigh, N.C.- based company in 2002, making one unisex T-shirt in three colors. This year they have expanded the line to include several different styles.

“After seeing that the performance trend is definitely here to stay we really expanded our line by adding additional colors (navy blue, hunter green, red and maroon plus the basic white, black and gray), as well as a long-sleeve and sleeveless Active shirt,” Norwalk says. “We also added extra-small and youth large sizing to cater to women and children.”

Sales for performance tees can be generated from athletic teams, schools, gyms, fitness centers, sports facilities, athletic events, running races, golf events, outdoor active groups, lifeguards, emergency service workers, police offices, firefighters, the college bookstore market, camps and outdoor workers.

In short, people with active jobs or hobbies are willing to pay more for a tee that keeps them cool, dry and comfortable.

“This is good news for the PPDs because performance tees indeed should and do bring better margins,” Norwalk adds. “We want to offer PPDs the opportunity to bring their customers performance gear that is affordable and customizable, but has the same feel, quality and moisture-wicking technology that they are used to buying at the retail level.”

The key to successfully selling performance shirts is to become familiar with how they work and their benefits. To that end, Norwalk suggests that PPDs wear a performance tee next time they are working out in the gym, the yard or engaged in any activity that breaks a sweat.

“We see that once people actually experience the performance tee, compared to a cotton tee, they become believers,” he says. “This helps them sell the value of keeping active people cooler, drier, lighter, energized, comfortable and body temperature-regulated.

Fit for a lady

In the last three to four years, the public’s demand for women’s wearables has increased considerably. Again, it is a small but growing niche that offers improved margins and high marks for customer satisfaction.

Educated PPDs know that women generally abhor unisex garments and that they are rather inclined to bristle at a bad fit. In other words, no matter how nice the quality of shirt and logo, it will end up in the woman’s rag bag if it doesn’t fit.

“The women’s T-shirt market is becoming increasingly important,” says Vickie Lents, director of marketing communications for Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Hanes Printables. “Women’s T-shirts don’t have the competitive margin issues found in the basic unisex tees because the women’s shirts offer differentiation and uniqueness.”

The Silver for Her new 2004 style offerings include five women’s T-shirts – a ringer tee, a raglan cap sleeve tee, a V-neck tee, a long-sleeve tee and a 3/4-sleeve V-neck hoodie.

Women, it should be noted, also like a lot of options.

“One of the key factors for the ladies’ T-shirt market is the need to offer new, fresh styles designed specifically for ladies; as well as the ever-expanding product offerings from manufacturers,” agrees Keith Shannon, S&S Activewear’s marketing director.

Bella covers men with Canvas

Along those lines, Bolingbrook, Ill.-based national distributor S&S Activewear also is offering Bella’s “Canvas” label for young men.

“It’s a younger, more fashionable line made from quality fabrics – the shirts are all 100% combed ring-spun cotton, says Shannon. “Canvas serves the young-male niche that hasn’t really been met yet. It represents a fresher look in the market.”

Canvas, a higher-end tee option, is a departure for City of Commerce, Calif.-based supplier Bella, which has primarily focused on the women’s market, with a wide variety of jersey tees, baby rib tees and a youth line for girls. Bella products are carried by a variety of industry wholesalers who have reacted to demand by adding plenty of women’s styles to their inventories.

Many of Bella’s most popular styles feature combed ring-spun cotton in 5.8-oz. 1×1 baby rib knit fabric that offers the stretch and softness women want. Bella lists university stores, sororities, camps, conventions, radio stations for promotional events, and concert tours as all being strong markets for women’s tees.

The Americana Company also offers three styles of Canvas shirts in 100% fine combed, ring-spun cotton in a 5.0 oz. baby jersey knit. “The tees provide maximum comfort with styling and details which are more ‘retail’ oriented,” Manresa says. For ladies tees in 2004, Americana has added everything from trendy ringers, hoodies, and yoga styles to more conservatively styled corporate looks.

“Ladies styles are specifically styled for more form-flattering, well-tailored fits,” says Americana’s Manresa. “Girly tees in a 1×1 rib, like the cap sleeve raglan tees, tank tops, and crew tees are definitely hot sellers. The little girls’ versions are good sellers too, since all little girls want to look like the big girls.”

Denver-based Kim Mitchell is a contributing editor to Wearables Business.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:

Alpha Shirt Company: 800-523-4585 or Alternative Apparel: 888-481-4287 or The Americana Company: 800-473-2802 or American Apparel: 213-488-0226 or Anvil: 800-223-0332 or Bella: 323-727-2005 or Broder: 800-521-0850 or Gildan: 877-445-3265 or Hanes Printables: 800-685-7557 or Hemptown Clothing: 866-436-7869 or Russell Artwear: 800-321-1138 or S&S Activewear: 800-523-2155 or SanMar: 800-426-6399 or SOS From Texas: 806-256-2033 or Summit Sportswear: 800-793-8337 TSC Apparel: 800-289-5400 or

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