Trends - Fit to a Tee

The Challenges And Rewards Of Fashion T-shirts

Fashion T-shirtsOnce T-shirts made the jump from underwear to outerwear back in the glory days of black-and-white celluloid heroes like Dean and Brando, there was no going back. The tee became the go-to symbol of cool, relaxed, be-yourself confidence, and an American style staple was born.

But the T-shirt has moved on from its simple origins, evolving alongside youth cultures like punk and hip-hop, becoming cheekier, more irreverent and – under the direction of industry leaders like American Apparel – much sexier. Deep V-necklines, chaotic burnout patterns, wild colors and super-snug fits all fought to augment the standard tee as it settled into a comfortably dominant niche in the ad specialty industry.

These are still new frontiers for many branders, and the explosion in fashion tees hasn't come without its share of anxiety on the part of clients unsure of how to market them. But the desire for retail-worthy wear is winning out.

"End-users want what they see in retail," says Marc Held, national sales manager for Bodek and Rhodes (asi/40788). "They want to look fashionable, and sometimes they want fashion over comfort, but they want both." Held notes that his own friends' perceptions of promotional apparel as being primarily stodgy corporate-wear were changed by the appeal of fashion tees.

Mark Robinson, director of sales for Alternative Apparel (asi/34850), points out the promotional advantages of such desirable wear. "People want a retail-looking and -feeling T-shirt, and they want the best bang for their buck," he says. "If you get a better shirt, they are going to wear it 100 times more than an inferior product." And the resulting boom in ROI isn't lost on clients, who may otherwise be drowning in a sea of boringly orthodox tees and seeking relief in innovative approaches to classic garments.

If there is reluctance in the market, it may be due to the saturation of cheap tees and the extra buck or two a fashion-forward shirt may cost clients. Robinson and Held both remark on the challenges such a youth-conscious product may present, especially the more form-fitting nature of fashion tees, which may frighten off clients who anticipate a less shapely end-user.

Robinson acknowledges that these styles trend younger, and as such they are a natural fit for companies whose products resonate with younger demographics. He emphasizes, however, that the sizing on fashion tees has become more forgiving and that clients can better capitalize on this vibrant niche without alienating other promotional recipients.

Along with the fashion-forward styles of today's tees, there are branding rules that distributors and their clients should follow. Chief among them, according to Robinson, is to avoid large, complicated artwork and multiple logos. "There has been a huge trend of minimizing colors in prints and designs," he says. "In stores, almost 85% of shirts are one to three colors max."

While the fashion tee has quickly burst onto the scene, suppliers say the trend isn't going to be short-lived. "It's reenergized this market," says Held. "We're always going to sell a lot of normal T-shirts. But people want to look good, too, and it will only continue to explode."