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Fit to a Tee
Women's Wear Daily
May 8, 2003

At the beginning of every month, Cindy anxiously awaits a special arrival in her mailbox. The latest and greatest from the CD Club? Fruit of the Month? Not likely. Fashion hungry and style savvy Cindy looks forward to her newest T-shirt.

T-shirts in the mail? It's true. In the quest to create the perfect tee and to deliver a continuing array of new styles, partners Matthew Sandager and Paul Marlow created k adorable, a homemade T-shirt company that offers monthly "subscriptions" of their unique designs. "We couldn't find tees that we loved, so we decided to create our own," relates Sandager. "Because Paul and I love media and magazines, we thought it would be great if we could get tees in the mail the same way. Eventually, the subscription idea was born when a friend gave us a check and asked us to sign him up as our first subscriber."

The tops are handmade in a variety of colors and screens, and no two creations are alike. "They're very individual T-shirts," affirms Sandager. "And we only make an all-cotton product." That seems to make a difference to consumers. According to the most recent data from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle MonitorTM, one out of two women in 2002 believed that garments were of a better quality when made with natural fibers such as cotton. And 59% of women also relayed to the Monitor that they were willing to pay more for it.

Offering tees by subscription is only one of the ways that this former fashion basic has come front and center as a current style statement. Screen-printing, embellishment, embroidery, slogans, personal statements, appliqués, and paint splattering are just some of the ways that designers are taking tees to the next level.

Evidence the designs of Custo Barcelona, whose unique inspirations have graced the backs of celebrities including Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Penelope Cruz and Sheryl Crow. "Some of our signature looks include faces, animals, graffiti and other graphic imagery. I just began using a range of metallic treatments, such as metallic screening and foiled graphics," says Custo Dalmau, designer.

"I'm inspired by the changing cultures of the world. I travel extensively before designing a new collection to get images and ideas. I often refer to Asian cultures; for spring 2003, I juxtaposed Asian-inspired blouses and kimonos for a cutting edge appearance," adds Dalmau.

While Custo Barcelona's styles stem from worldly inspiration, it's likely that the look and feel of a tee is decidedly American to most consumers. Enter American Apparel, a T-shirt company that manufactures exclusively in the United States, and offers product only via its online store. The Daily Candy Web site, which chronicles the latest and greatest in fashion, dining and entertainment, recently said of the tee, it's "so sexy, it's scary."

"The difference is quality," asserts Kara Messina, spokesperson for American Apparel, regarding the company's offerings. "They're finer and smoother than other tees and made in 100% cotton."

But the quest for perfection doesn't stop there. "We're maniacs about fit," Messina continues.

The perfect fit includes well-cut sleeves, the fit across the shoulders and appropriate length. And judging from the astounding percentage of return visitors to American Apparel's Web site, they've got it all.

So what makes the tee so important to the average women's wardrobe? Quite simply, paired with a pair of jeans, you've got the quintessential casual ensemble.

"If you don't have a pair of jeans and a basic T-shirt in your wardrobe, you are missing the big picture," states Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, a key destination for urban women seeking the latest and greatest in style. She estimates that they sell over 300 of this fashion mainstay a week, from the basic cotton petite tee to more complex knits.

When asked to expound on the importance of the simple tee to the average American woman, Greenfield offered an eagle-eye perspective from her stylish perch. "I always relate it to packing for a trip," she offers, "No matter where you are going or for how long, you wouldn't dream of not throwing a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt in your suitcase. They are the common denominators of the basic American wardrobe."

American Apparel's Messina definitely agrees. "You can dress it up or dress it down." As observed on the streets of Anytown, USA, tees extend well beyond partnership with denim to everything from business suits to ball gown skirts.

Daniel Butler, vice president of operations for the National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade association concurs, "The tee is seen at all levels of retail. There are different qualities, treatments, logos; it's just a question of how many you have this year versus last."

Butler's assertions certainly mesh with the opinions expressed to the Monitor by 42% of female respondents who claimed to have no concern with the quality of a shirt purchased for less than $25. An additional 40% were only somewhat concerned, supporting Butler's observations that women are buying tees at all ends of the retail spectrum for casual and dressier needs. "Tees are a fashion staple for all women," Butler concedes.