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The Fashion Tee Statement
The standard tee is great for promotion, but the fashionable T-shirt, especially for women, says something more powerful
Wearables Business
November 2000

The standard tee is great for promotion, but the fashionable T-shirt, especially for women, says something more powerful.

Certainly one of the most memorable moments in T-shirt lore took place in the 1950s, when Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski in the movie, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and wore a steamy looking muscle shirt and yelled passionately for his wife, Stella. Suddenly, the undershirt started moving into the "sexy" category. Another actor, James Dean, re-emphasized the T-shirt as a fashion statement in his films of' the same era.

However, it wasn't until the tie-dye craze of the late 1960s that T-shirts became very saleable units, with mass-market appeal offering a huge variety of decorating schemes for little money.

It took off from there, of course, and by the 1970s the T-shirt was deeply embedded in American culture as not only a popular, if very casual fashion accessory, but the No. 1 message board in the country, admonishing the masses with such bon mots as "Have a nice day" and "What's Your sign?"

On its web site, Hanes this year celebrated 25 years of its trademarked "Beefy T" the shirt that perhaps helped establish the wearables industry; back then, in 1975, the company started tracking the "trend of putting graphics on T-shirts and wearing them as outerwear."

In the meantime, the former lowly undershirt has become the casual and affordable giveaway of choice for hundreds of thousands of events and corporations, and a staple of the promotional products industry. Still, it's just a tee.

And a tee is a tee, right?

The answer is no, especially if you have a forward-looking attitude about fashion. The popularity of the T-shirt as a premier promotional vehicle hasn't waned, but the basic variety has morphed itself into variations that offer chic, trendy, and even dressy statements to its fashion appeal.

The fashion tee is becoming a showcase for adventurous designers, experimenting with details like body and cut characteristics, fabric, color scheme and decoration. And people, men and women, are requesting it. Fashion tees are now getting placed on the "I want one of those" list when it comes to ordering.

It also represents a potentially profitable line of new products for manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors alike, with important applications for the wearables industry where many styles for both men and women fit nicely into corporate casual programs.

The new styles are plentiful. We have seen fashion tees in pique and other nice knits and we have encountered upscale treatments like cotton mercerization and new synthetic fabrics that come very close to silk in look and feel. Try scoop necks, cabled collars, ringers, tighter fits, a ton of new color lines - and there's a lot to choose from.

And a lot to say. Especially if you want to make a fashion statement.

Subtle, Substantial Change

"Your basic tees have changed in that they've gotten better, more fashionable," says Anthony Corsano, vice president of sales and marketing at Anvil Knitwear in New York City, "The differences are subtle, but substantial."

Corsano should know. The company, though a major mill, prides itself on being a "niche" provider, rather than offering mass appeal. He says tees represent a substantial part of his company's business. And fashion tees, which he defines as a niche item, have been a logical step in the company's line of attire.

He attributes much of Anvil's success with tees to the strength of its color palette. There has also been the introduction of new fabrics, like fashion piques and herringbones, he says. The fabrics are going over well.

Anvil introduced a new line of khaki colors that is "driving the fashion flair, says Corsano. Even the color names have imaginative appeal. Try "red canyon," "blue river," "green cactus" and "silver/gray storm."

"We do our best to market our new colors as a palette," Corsano notes.

Fabric, too, is important. Corsano says that the ladies rib line ranks first in fashion tee products for the company.

Corsano believes his fashion tees allow his customers to set themselves apart from their competitors. "They see a great item that's different that they can sell and make a little extra money," he says.

Foreign Influence

Perhaps the biggest influence of the fashion tee has come from the women's side of the ledger. For women, the fashion tee is distinctly different than the traditional American tee that has been marketed to them, and for good reason, says American Apparel's flamboyant senior partner Dov Charney.

Charney is the self-proclaimed leader of the fashion tee movement, and one glance at the Los Angeles-based American Apparel web site (www.americanapparel.net) indeed says things are different here. It features a new look in fashion tees, especially for women. The featured product for September was the 3/4-Sleeve Raglan Baseball Tee for women. The tight-fitting product is made from superfine cotton baby rib and comes in 820 possible color combinations.

His inspiration was foreign, he says.

"We used to make 18 heavyweight T-shirts at $23 a dozen, then the price went to $20 a dozen," recalls Charney. The year was 1995. "I was broke but had a beautiful girlfriend in Miami who was from Argentina. And the T-shirt she was wearing was doing something for me."

The tee that happened to be doing something for Charney was not an American tee. It was cut tighter and had an alluring fit. In fact, the woman in question wouldn't even wear America's oversized tees; she did not like them.

As a result, American Apparel began producing a small line of experimental tees. Charney says the products were successful enough that they inspired such mainstream mills as Anvil to produce a new fine of tees.

"What we do that's special," notes Charney, "is we only use high-end retail combed cotton rib as opposed to open-end cotton." The shirts are also much smaller than the extra-large sizes that are common with heavyweight tees.

"I think women have been abandoned by the producers of imprinted T-shirts. Reengineering the fit is going to be very important. " - Dov Charney, American Apparel

"The trend T-shirts are much smaller than they were. People want a better tailored fit," says Charney. He adds that the more fitted trend applies to men as well as women. "I think women have been abandoned by the producers of imprinted T-shirts," he says, pointing to the fundamentals of design. "Reengineering the fit is going to be very important," he contends.

One thing is certain. The old standards are giving way to new looks, even everyone isn't making the same shift at the same time.

Women Are King

King Louie International, a Grandview, Mo. supplier, also found its way into fashion tees by targeting women. Roger Carroll, the vice president of marketing, says much of it started with golf, through the company's Timeout division, a collection that included, among other things, a line of clothing inspired by the Ladies Professional Golf Association, called the LPGA line.

Included in Timeout's offering are women's silhouettes and a women's pique knit tee that looks like golf shirt with a jewel neckline.

The line of tees, says Carroll, is "cut for women, sized for women and fit for women." He notes with some pleasure, but not endorsement, that Karrie Webb, the Tiger Woods of the women's pro circuit, now wears an entire assortment of tees when she plays competitively.

"That's sort of where we got our inspiration for the women's tee," says Carroll, who adds that many of the Timeout lines became part of what King Louie offered. "We Would show the King Louie catalogue to women and they would say, 'Do You have anything like this for women?' When they saw the Timeout catalogue they went wild."

Timeout still exists for the resort and college business. But the rest of the business became part of' the King Louie line. "It ties into the whole demographic of having more women in the workplace," says Carroll.

He recalls a trip to Minneapolis when he presented his catalogue to a woman buyer. The woman was so taken aback, she told Carroll, "I can't believe you're really making this stuff. It's so difficult to find."

It hasn't stopped at golf. One of his featured products feels like silk and is made from a synthetic material, polynosic. "It drapes superbly, resists wrinkles and has a silky hand," is his description.

The product isn't even on the shelves yet. Carroll says it will be unveiled in November at the company's international sales meeting and should be on the market by December.

Nor have King Louies fashion tees been targeted only at women. Men are being offered a new line of Baja colors that Carroll refers to as resort colors. "They're (men) tired of just black, ash and white," he says.

Karrie Webb - the Tiger Woods of women's golf - wears an assortment of tees when she plays. "That's where we got our inspiration. It ties into having more women in the workplace. " - Roger Carroll, King Louie International

Not bad for a company that once specialized as a manufacturer of uniforms for the armed forces under the name Lerner Brothers, and later became the No. 1 maker of bowling shirts in the country.

Men Want Fashion, Too

Fashion tees for men are becoming more called for, says Byron Reed, marketing director for MV Sport / Weatherproof. Certainly through the use of color.

"What we're finding is that tie-dye, even though everyone cringes at the name, is pretty strong now," says Reed.

In the way of corporate wear, this includes items like the chest stripe, a white stripe crossing the chest of the tee. Reed also cites the Hombre, a dipdyed tee that goes from light to dark in color value.

Of the Hombre line, Reed says, "They're continuing to do well for us and will be carried into 2001."

Other colors that are being introduced by his company include peppered heathers. "What people are seeing in retail stores, they want," comments Reed. Earthtone colors continue to sell well. Last year, the company featured 14 colors.

Where does it all lead? "Nobody wants the standard tee anymore," he says. "You have to have fashion to make it work."

A large and growing part of making a T-shirt into fashion, observes Reed, is in the decoration. He notes that if you look at retail, for example, you see things like screenprinting on the sleeve of long-sleeve tees, and the very popular use of small, classic screenprint design positioned on the center front of a shirt, rather than the traditional left chest or the screaming full front and/or back.

Some Conservatives

Not everyone thinks the fashion tee has a place in a discussion of corporate casual attire, and even suggest that what applications do exist are outside the realm of the promotional products industry.

"The T-shirt that's being worn to the office is the polo shirt," says Jim Lander, manager of national sales at SCI/Ouray Sportswear.

As to items like fashion tees, Lander thinks they are the domain of another industry.

"From my point of view," Lander says, "most of that type of product is not sold through the ad specialty market but through mass merchandisers."

If Lander and others are just as happy avoiding this market, they have plenty of counterparts in the promotional products industry who are willing to walk where few others have ever dared to tread.

If you still find yourself wondering out loud, "Who ever thought somebody would be a fashion plate with a T-shirt?" Go take another look.

You might enjoy some of what you see. Your customers may, as well.