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Factors Driving Fashion

June 29, 2015

Welcome to the mid-decade of promotional wearables. According to industry pros, it’s a season of transition, transformation and tradition — with a twist. Changes are not only seen in colors and styles, but also in the way’s we buy, sell and develop today’s products.

Picture a culture seeking greater balance and meaning in their lives. Yet, still-tight economics dictate that they enjoy free time more locally — more walking, day trips, weekend getaways and even “stay-cations.”

Imagine billions of today’s consumers choosing their apparel based not only on what they do for work, but also on what they do for fun and hobbies. Their favorite apparel pieces — on and off the job — are those oozing comfort, function and doing so much more than just looking good. These styles are performing, and many are based on outdoor lifestyles.

Because of this, fashions have changed. The new trend is layering — adjusting clothes based on the changing indoor and outdoor climates, from the morning chill to the afternoon heat blast. And just as our media-stimulated lifestyles crave interaction today, our bodies crave interactive garments that change as we need them to, according to Elson Yeung, alphabroder’s director of private-label design and merchandising.

Industry experts could not agree more. “One of the most significant developments today is layering,” says Mark May, co-owner of Imprint Marketing Concepts (IMC), Ramsey, N.J. “People are suiting up with layers, rather than outfitting themselves in bulky outer jackets. Remember the wind shirts of the ’80s and ’90s? Today, layers of soft, body-hugging performance fabrics are replacing that. It’s more weather-friendly, more comfortable, more fashionable.”

Performancewear is another dominant trend that continues to pick up steam. “Performance garments are the most popular [ones] out there — anything wicking, antimicrobial, with UV protection, anti-snag, water resistant … it’s selling,” says Brett Coplin, distributor apparel sales leader, IMC. “Buyers still ask for cotton polos and tees, but we see it as our job to educate them about the trends in retail, which are clearly performance garments. And some of them do switch.”

Coplin says he keeps IMC’s trends knowledge sharpened by continually studying fashion retail stores, watching golfers on tour, and analyzing what celebrities wear on and off the red carpet.

“They’re wearing performancewear, and we just have to continually communicate that to clients,” he says.

Although placket shirts hold their spot as one of the best-selling apparel categories, there have been few developments this year in the sector.

“Some athletic teams are choosing color blocking, but overall, corporate buyers [still] want solids as a background for their logos,” Coplin says. “Decoration has changed a lot. It is not just a left-chest fabrication anymore. We are using heat-sealed [applications] and transfers with unique locations, such as the hem, sleeves, hip, by the zipper and elsewhere.”

The IMC team explains that its blue-chip corporate clients now seek name brands that add clout to theirs. “Our upscale clients buy retail brands at department stores, know the names, and also know that they might pay $85 for their favorite name brand there,” Coplin says. “They’re thrilled when we can get those same name brands in the sizes and quantities they need — decorated — for $50.”

T-shirt trends go the extreme, from the super-soft, tri-blend fabrics draping into a buffet of in-demand necklines, such as scoops, boat neck, off-the-shoulder and V-necks, with alternative sleeve styles to match. These are the perfect palettes for not only logos, but also for accessories like scarves and necklaces that women love to add, Yeung says.  

The accessories, and even pants or leggings, have affected the tees women buy, says S&S Activewear’s Marketing Director Margaret Crow.

“The fact that leggings are so fashionable has affected our industry in that oversized tanks, raglans and T-shirts are in demand,” she says. “Hi-low and scalloped hemlines are showing up in T-shirts, sweat shirts and jackets as well.”

Yeung adds, “Guys want to look good, too, and want the softness [in their garments]. They also want more fashion self-fabric necklines. It is the difference between a T-shirt and an undershirt. People are drawn to this type of tee.”

Earth-tone hues are trending for tees, as are basic colors like navy, black and military-inspired shades. But the ultimate, true basic — ever-fresh white — also has made a comeback. It is the essential iconic piece that pops under a denim or workwear jacket to capture the non-branded, “I-reject-fashion” look that’s so current. Sunny, beachy and digital camo brights, as well as neons, still score with the youth and resort markets.

According to Crow, allover prints in geometric or abstract patterns are a growing trend. “I love allover prints in our industry because when you add a screen-printed logo on top of an allover print, it really pops and looks so artistic,” she says. “It’s a big value-add for printers to offer their customers.”

Fleece hoodies still are staple garments, and full-zip and micro fleece remain popular. The big trend in this category is poly-blended performance fleece, driven by athletic leaders.

“For versatility, this is where fleece excitement really is,” Yeung says. “It’s the new standard. Buyers now expect wicking features in their fleece garments.

“People aren’t just buying fleece for warmth anymore,” she adds. “There are multiple levels of details and trends here. No matter the fabric, the sweat shirt has [definitely] taken a luxury spin. It is being embellished with bling and other fancy embellishments in different, creative areas, transforming these former basics into coveted spiritwear — especially in the collegiate market.”

For the IMC outfitting team, no one trend has been more widely popular than the soft-shell jacket.

“These are outrageously popular,” says Coplin. “There are now so many trend-setting styles developing out there, with prices dropping as well — some in the $20-30 range — so everybody wants this look that they’re already seeing at [retail stores like] Macy’s.”  

Another reason these jackets are extremely popular is their unique imprint location possibilities. Coplin says, “Ever since The North Face branded [its] logo on the right, left-back shoulder area, other leading corporate companies are ‘owning’ their own style by creatively branding these tech-style garments using heat-seal logos, tone-on-tone treatments and reflective heat transfers on areas like the back of the collar, hem, sleeves and along the zipper. One client decorated owl eyes in reflective transfers on the back of the collar, so they seemed to look at you as you moved. Now that’s effective and memorable decoration!”

The most popular shades have been demure shades like grey, with pops of color as accents, according to Yeung.

David Bebon, president of D-Bebz Clothing, a manufacturing house for many private labels in our industry, sees three trends in the wovens category.

“First, [there is] a demand for woven patterns, such as yarn-dyed mini checks, nail’s heads and houndstooth designs to add more dimension to the surface of the dress shirt,” he says. “Next, the ‘un-solid-solid’ phenomenon — a subtle cross hatch — of surface interest and other look-closely surface textures.

“Finally, there is a movement toward more lighter-weight, finer fabric dress shirts with tighter yarns and more luxurious hand,” he adds.

Bebon also says blends will continue to be popular, overriding the 100% no-iron products that are much more expensive.

“The sales and customer service professionals driving corporate America want easy-care and “fresh” looking [garments] all throughout the day, and blended shirts fit that bill,” he says. “Their color choices for this year are similar to basic tees, with whites, grays and blues as most popular.”

As for children, the experts see two subtle trends, the first of which is team colors. Children want to be affiliated with their favorite sports teams, whether high school, collegiate or pro. Therefore, the colors they choose will mirror those of their favorite teams.

Second, many best-selling adult styles are now being crafted in matching youth sizes to outfit everyone in the family.

End users most often buy what’s recommended to them. In the promotional products world, educated sales counselors  present trends they learn about from their supplier partners and from what they see in retail. The same can be said for traditional apparel decorators.

Ten years ago, the wholesale apparel market was behind retail when it came to trend introductions. According to industry apparel leaders, such is not the case today. In fact, wholesale and retail sectors often debut trends. In some cases, wholesale even drives today’s trends.

“Today, many of the fashion-forward lines have occupational uses, [and] the treatment and functionality we are building into our garments helps us offer new styles to the workplace before they even are available in stores,” Yeung says.

Lee Strom, director of marketing for SanMar, agrees. “We are not behind retail anymore in any way, shape or form,” he says. “Our industry has become the springboard where brands can catapult into retail. Well-designed artwork on T-shirts is now driving sales in stores. People go online to buy logos and designs they like. Our industry is now creating fashion and demand. How cool is that?”

Mary Ellen Sokalski, MAS, is the founder and chief creative officer of The Scarlet Marketeer, Cherry Hill, N.J. She has 33 years of marketing experience (including numerous industry awards), specializing in the decorated apparel and promotional products industries. For information or to comment on this article, email Mary Ellen at