There's a lot... To a T

Short of having three armholes (on this planet, anyway), the proverbial and versatile T-shirt has seen function to fashion and everything in between. An apparel industry chameleon, the T-shirt came on the scene as military men’s underwear designed to spare the world the unsightly chest hairs of sailors. Ts then emerged as acceptable outer garments, infiltrating the civilian market at 24 cents a piece. From there: pockets, Hollywood, loose, heavy, tie-dyed, beaded, flowered, soft, ripped, Bikers, preppy, working woman, cowboy, color, emblazoned, sexy, sporty, political, light, fashion. . . 

“T-shirts have always been a cornerstone product in our business, but they have also been one of the most dynamic products as well,” says Lori Anderson of River’s End Trading Company.

Flash forward to 2007: What could possibly be new to the T-shirt? And what could be in store? Yes, even our most quintessential and evolved staple is not exempt from this industry’s imposed obligation to be fresh, innovative and competitive.

Ts that perform

Partially driven by America’s fitness craze, packing T-shirts with performance features is just one of the ways in which the manufacturers are differentiating to offer unique products. “Today, it’s about performance with moisture-wicking, UV protection and easy-care,” explains Anderson.

One of the biggest facets of this genre is the performance of the fabric itself, with more consumers demanding moisture wicking and anti-bacterial features.

“Polyester now is cool,” Anderson reports, “where it never used to be. Now people want it for working out and keeping cool, and they want the lighter weight. Everyone is trying to be creative and find unique new features and fabrics—organic fabrics, anti-microbial, reflective and so on.”

Though made with gym-goers in mind, the comfort factor and style inherent to active wear materials allow performance Ts to break out of that niche market and appeal to the masses.

“We don’t really sell any additional performance Ts in those ‘active’ cities and states,” she says, “because everyone can wear a Nike or UV-protective T-shirt anywhere, anytime and for anything if you like the style and color. You don’t necessarily need to sweat to like your [performance] T-shirt.”

Classic components

John Martin of Gildan Activewear agrees that performance fabrics and moisture-management products represent a growing marketplace trend, but believes the T archetypes, with some slight modifications, are here to stay.

“By far and away, the number-one-selling silhouette today is and will continue to be the 100 percent cotton, six-point-one-ounce open-end T-shirt,” he comments. “There is a growing trend, driven by retail, of more form-fitting T-shirts constructed of finer yarns and lighter-weight ring-spun fabrics that come in a variety of basic and fashion colors.”

Emphasizing another important traditional T factor, Mike Reed of Hanes speaks of a component that’s played a large part in Ts dueling to be distinguished: their hand.

“People like the look and feel of a worn T-shirt making soft the real name of the game,” he says. “Ring spun cotton, combined with other features such as removable tags, make T-shirts more comfortable and likely to rise to the top of the drawer. The popularity of soft product features and the worn look stems from people’s refusal to throw away old T-shirts from their glory days.”

The ultimate substrate

When you Google “screen printing” most of the top results offer custom T-shirt services—despite the fact that there are scores of other commercial, industrial and artistic forms of the discipline that have nothing to do with apparel. A traveling billboard, medium of expression or token of the wearer’s fondest vacation memory, T-shirts’ accessibility, versatility and popularity render them an ideal blank slate for decoration.

“T-Shirts are the perfect promotional item,” Anderson states. “They are inexpensive, offered in every color, brand, fit, style, and people will wear them every day continuing to promote a company, logo and brand. They are easy to decorate and everyone loves a free T-shirt.”

Keith Robideau, Rivers’ End, points to numerous novel ways basic Ts are being embellished—laser printing, a print that stretches with the shirt, jewel studs, three-dimension embroidery and photo prints to name a few—that continue to expand the decorator’s envelope.

Still, no matter the embellishment techniques involved, what good is a promotional T, or any T for that matter, if it doesn’t hold up to the rigors of the decoration process, then last a reasonable amount of time thereafter? Thus, manufacturers are increasingly concerned with T-shirt composition related to the inevitable embellishments that will splash across their canvases.

“We rigorously test products to stand up to any ink an embellisher can throw at it,” Reed reports. “You can always spot a premium shirt by checking if it’s made with 100 percent ring spun cotton, but what’s really important in the world of promotional T-shirts is how long the shirt actually stays on the person.”

When the delivery of a promotional message relies on whether or not people will actually wear the T-shirt, there are really three basic considerations; aside from how well the wearer actually likes the design, comfort of the garment and its physical durability are critical. After all, how can people wear it if the design, or the T itself, is falling apart?

“Our clients who promote events, restaurants and destinations know the key to promoting a brand is actually getting people to wear the T-shirts longer,” says Reed. “There will always be a place for the give-away/throw-away T-shirt, but the promotion will yield more success if the message is worn and therefore seen in public.”

Similarly, Gildan’s Martin says that, from the basic to the fashion T, quality, a good price-to-value relationship and availability prove important factors at every industry echelon.

“End-users also want quality, comfort, value and variety,” he remarks. “Everything that we do from a merchandising and manufacturing standpoint is driven by market demands and dynamics. This relates to product development, design, styling and color offering.”

T for too little?

Increasing quality and value is certainly a desirable way to differentiate, and can be seen progressively as the fashion-forward T gains popularity, putting economic pressure on an industry where the basic, inexpensive T has reigned supreme. While this premium presence threatens to dethrone the original staple, higher-value T-shirts come at a higher price that not everyone is willing to pay. Bottom line, the cheapo T isn’t going anywhere for now, and it may never.

Low price points are usually viewed as a positive thing, but in this case, the value of a single T-shirt is so negligible, low prices translate to negative profits.

“T-shirt commoditization came about when prices dropped and technology made mass printing possible at a low cost,” says River’s End’s Robideau. “It is still the part of the business that drives the volume part of corporate apparel and, despite a break-even venture at best, helps suppliers like us stay important to embellishers as they source other, more profitable apparel options.”

Martin offers another perspective, attributing commoditization to growing off-shore production.

“Globalization has contributed to the commoditization of the T-shirt,” he says. “As competition has increased from countries outside the United States, traditional domestic manufacturers began looking for production capacity off shore to remain cost competitive. The lower costs achieved from this off-shore production trend are passed along to the end-user through the distribution highway. As trade barriers have come down, capacity and supply have increased which has helped to drive the commoditization of the product.”

Despite this bleak reality, the competitive, commoditized market isn’t likely to disappear soon because, while some companies may be losing money with T-shirt production, they can’t afford not to continue it. “I don’t think it can be stopped or even controlled,” Robideau says of the situation. “The industry is too fragmented and too many decorators have too many customers demanding cheap shirts.” The savings and, therefore, the obligation to sell for next to nothing is passed on to the embellisher, forcing them to offer other services to their clients to make additional revenues, Robideau explains. “Embroidery, cut-and-sewn lettering, and the newest in print technologies have to be shown to avoid being labeled as just a contract printer.”

Manufacturers seem to have taken T-shirt commoditization in stride, offering a positive outlook on the necessary evil that these garments have become. “No matter a person’s taste in T-shirt style,” Reed says, “or how commoditized the market gets, our customers all have one thing in common: They appreciate value. With the number of fabrics and weights available today in the marketplace, offering new alternatives at a value is key when selling to this new breed of T-shirt buyer.”

To that end, Gildan’s Martin stresses the importance of offering value across all product lines. “It is our goal to offer the highest quality product at the best possible price to our customers and ultimately to the end user,” he states. While basic Ts are not likely to be any company’s money maker, Martin mentions the redeeming value of a number of different apparel categories that are not as commodity-driven: “Fashion products utilizing different weights, fabrications, and detailed styling can command higher price points and higher margins.”

All around diversi-T

Pull it over your head to cover up your torso. Other than that, it appears the only constants in the T-shirt biz are the inconsistencies that bring life to this garment. And even within that basic function we see variety, as people use Ts to swathe their upper bodies in unique ways.

“We’ve seen people layer T-shirts on top of other T-shirts and wear them under sport coats,” says Reed. “Basically, anything goes as long as it looks cool. Because of the innate cool factor and affordability of the basic T, it will always be a staple on the runway, in movies and at retail, opening the door for increased promotional T-shirt usage.”

In the midst of all the versatility and personal style individuals bring to their Ts, the garment never gets too far from its roots.

“You see it still used as an undershirt. I’ll wear a long-sleeve under a short-sleeve,” Anderson states.

What has changed considerably is who is wearing them. Exclusively portraying an essence of masculinity at its outset, the T transitioned to androgynous attire, and Anderson points to the now dominating trend of T-shirt styles made especially to fit women.

“You’ve got the really neat lightweight, smaller, better fitting women’s T-shirts,” she says. “You see women wearing them dressed up, dressed down, it’s just kind of amazing that it’s gone from underwear to everyday all-day wear for every single person.”

T-shirt diversity can be found all the way down to the detail innovations that make the above styles possible.

According to Martin, “The biggest points of differentiation lie in the product attributes such as double-needle stitching, diversity in color palette, yarn types—open-end versus ring spun—and, obviously, basic fashion treatments such as raglan sleeves, ringer and so on.”

The T-shirt—and its surrounding culture—has and will continue to take shape in many different ways. This exemplary garment will undoubtedly remain at the center of the industry as so much more than a means of covering chest hair, because, as Martin so eloquently puts it, “T-shirts are a part of pop culture and remain the most efficient and, in a sense, fashionable way for people to express their feelings, loyalties and experiences."