The Old and the New

A 20-year snapshot of the woven tells us what’s next.

David J. Bebon is the CEO of DBEBZ Apparel, a manufacturer of men’s and ladies’ woven and knit sport shirts. He can be reached at davidb@dbebz.com

The din of winter still sounds near, but spring and summer are finally here at last. We have cruised through the January shows and begun to sample new products for clients and projects. Although we have just finished digesting the new styles for 2015, the mills and manufacturers have presented new product ideas for 2016.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but between February and May most wholesale distributors have reviewed new product for next year’s catalogs. By July 1, all the new product assortments will be confirmed.

As we prepare for the new 2016 assortments, it reminded me of where we have been, and where we are going, in our woven sport shirt collections. Everyone always told me that time passes fast – especially when you look at your children—and they are correct. Recently I found some old catalogs from the mid-1990s and got quite the chuckle leafing through a few of them. It made me realize how much has changed in our marketplace in the apparel we wear and sell, especially in woven sport shirts.

To recap, in 1996 the New York Yankees won their first world series in 18 years, “Macarena”was the big hit song (the same one played at your third cousin’s wedding after the “Electric Slide”) and there was a headline story about a bunch of cabins on a river in Arkansas called “Whitewater.”In our channel, there were a ton of T-shirts, a nice assortment of polo knit shirts and very few wovens. There were no designer or retail brands to speak of in our industry in 1996. No Bill Blass, Nike or Columbia. No dedicated on-course golf brands like Callaway.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the woven sport shirt landscape in 1996:

  • Denim assumed a leading role. It was a natural heir apparent, born and raised in the USA, and it paired well with tees and pique golf shirts. Buyers had their choice of 100% ring-spun cotton denim, washed or unwashed, and button-down, spread or banded collar. Yes, you read correctly: light blue bleach-washed denim in a banded collar model.
  • Other fabrics available included solid twills (known as “colored denims”), chambray and oxford. Fatter, thicker yarns were prevalent, though finer yarns were just beginning to be introduced.
  • Color assortment was limited and pattern choice was even fewer. Oxfords, for example, were available in light blue, white and pink and one “ticking”stripe the likes of which you would see on mattress covers.
  • Color-blocking was one of the unfortunate “fashion”elements. Twills, for example, had contrast fabric sleeves with solid bodies, or front panels in different colors, with back yoke and collars in contrast colors as well.
  • On the plus side, denim and twills had both men’s and ladies’ body specs. On the negative side, more banded collars.

Fast forward 20 years, and there are some glaring differences in brands, fabric types and styling – and also some striking similarities.

Brands: Big-name brands have completely infiltrated our channel. The golf brands that were once exclusively available on-course only, the great retail and designer brands only found in better retail outlets and the athletic-driven activewear brands: all available now and featured front and center. But private label/house brands will continue to grow in 2016, especially in wovens. As the retail/designer brands lead the way in new fabric and style development, a need is created for more moderately priced like-products under the house brand labels. This phenomenon is called the “Halo Effect.”

“There were no designer or retail brands to speak of in our industry in 1996.”

Fancy Yarn Dyes: We are seeing a continued increase in yarn-dyed patterned woven sport shirts. What was conspicuously missing from 1996 product pages and offerings are now available in an expanding assortment of checks, plaids and vertical stripes.

Performance: This story in woven sport shirts – which did not exist in 1996 – continues to grow. Today we are seeing both 100% cotton and cotton-blended fabric constructions that possess wrinkle-free/wrinkle-resistant features. In addition, we are seeing stain and soil topical treatments that prevent and control surface staining from liquids and dirt.

There is a vast difference in the breadth of product offered for this upcoming year versus 20 years ago. The 1996 woven sport shirt offerings were slim pickings, with just four major fabrics to choose from. Interestingly, the 2016 assortment plans will show oxford cloth and twills, with an exciting new spin on washed yarn-dyed chambray. (Denim has taken a back seat in today’s fashion wovens, and while it is still a basic cloth, it has been relegated to a commodity item. Thankfully the color-block and mixed fabric-pieced woven shirt models from 1996 have also remained in the past.)

Twenty years has really put things into perspective. Our industry is still built upon the T-shirt and knit polo, but the woven sport shirt continues to innovate, and has become an essential part of our business. It will continue to evolve.