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Tees: Packed with Purpose

T-shirts continue to cement their popularity by being staples for identity, versatility and comfort.

By Hilary Daninhirsch, Contributing Writer

Women’s crop tops, specifically the long-sleeve style, will be popular in 2020. Photo courtesy of Next Level Apparel.

January 28, 2020

In 2020, expect the basic tee to be anything but basic. Like last year, expect trends to reflect both identity and versatility. However, this year comfort will be king.

“Basic tees are evolving and serve so many more purposes now than ever before,” says Jennifer Oleksik, design and merchandising manager, LAT Apparel. “The basic tee is now, more than ever, a staple fashion item while also continuing to serve as a commemorative item from a concert or a way to represent your favorite team. As trends evolve and the presence of athleisure continues to grow stronger, the basic tee is so much more than basic for 2020 and beyond.”

Identity and Versatility
Even the softest-spoken apparel wearers can say a lot with their embellished clothing, including tees.

“Historically, identity was based on your family or perhaps the town you grew up in, but with urbanization and frequent relocation, that’s challenging,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president of marketing and merchandising, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES. “Wearing a T-shirt with a clever, funny or inspirational, type-based print is a great way to instantly tell people something about yourself.

“The other factor for 2020 is that it’s an election year,” Edwards adds. “No matter what party you support, it’s all positive for decorators, as it means a year with increased sales. Even flubbed sound bites, ‘hot-mic’ moments and leaked text messages will end up on the front of a T-shirt somewhere.”

Versatility is another characteristic that will stick around in 2020. After all, the options for styles, fabrics, styling and colors seem endless. Oleksik says easy-to-wear, transitional pieces that are both casual and fashionable will be trending.

“Everyone has a favorite tee that they like to wear around the house or when hanging out with friends,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager, HanesBrands. “If that same tee gives added benefits, such as [ultraviolet] protection, wicking or anti-odor performance features, then the desire to wear the tee more often or in additional settings is always a bonus. It’s in a screen printer’s interest to offer tees with added benefits because of the likelihood they will be worn more often and in more settings.”

The Comfort Factor
Comfort is the third — and perhaps most important — trend in T-shirt design for 2020, driving fabrics, silhouettes and design. Oleksik says to look for fabrics that are soft and comfortable, paired with details that elevate a garment without taking it too far into the fashion category.

Slightly oversized and relaxed fits will be mainstays, as they contribute to comfort. For men, the streetwear influence will continue. “Look for slightly oversized tees featuring functional patch pockets and mock layers,” Edwards says.

She also says women’s crop tops will continue as a trend, in part because they provide the perfect balance to the trend in wide-legged pants and jeans.

“We’ve seen variations of a short-sleeve crop, but a long-sleeve crop — regardless of the season — will be big for 2020,” says Amanda Mintzman, marketing director, Next Level Apparel. “For men, I think a heavier-weight tee is trending, which is definitely based off of streetwear. This has trended in the past and is back, with more structure to it.”

More blends will be available on the market, especially those that are soft, yet durable. These include polyester, rayon and modal, Edwards says. Textures also will be important, as they have visual value and translate well for the online consumer, according to Oleksik.

Cotton will continue to remain a top choice, as its durability, breathability and inherent softness defines comfort.

“[Cotton is] the fabric that immediately comes to mind when someone thinks about T-shirts,” Davis says. “Cotton blends and tri-blends have become very prevalent in the market in recent years, which has also resulted in lighter-weight fabrics. While [these] fabrics will continue to be popular, we’re now starting to see a shift back to the mid- to heavyweight fabrics, which tend to be 100% cotton or CVC blends.”

Sustainable Trendiness
Apparel longevity is important to many young, financially crunched consumers. “Sustainability is about quality items that stand the test of time,” Edwards says. “For manufacturers, this means producing quality apparel with classic style that can hold up over time.”

Historically, Davis says, the wholesale channel has been several seasons behind market trends at retail — which has started to change in recent years.

“Clothing manufacturers selling in the wholesale channel have begun to launch product collections more often than just once a year,” he says. “The challenge with this is managing stock levels on anything considered trendy, as there is a risk of it becoming unpopular within one or two seasons. Manufacturers addressing these trends tend to keep track of what is happening at retail season after season to understand where the ‘one-and-done’ trends are and what the longer-term trends are,” said Davis, likening it to following the stock market.

Oleksik says keeping abreast of retail trends amounts to “a balancing act of being on the verge of fashion and knowing the kind of styles that will have longevity in the market.”

Decoration Methods
There’s a certain level of collaboration among industry stakeholders that’s necessary to ensure apparel styles resonate with end users.

“As manufacturers, we work closely with ink and equipment manufacturers to ensure that when a new fabric hits the market, everyone’s ready for it,” Edwards says. “Yes, new fabrics can be more challenging initially for decorators, but newness is driving sales.”

Certain upcoming 2020 styles and fabrics translate into good news for decorators, as text-based graphic designs can be easy to print. Some decorators even have a standard shop setup for printing on blends.

Davis says any change in how a fabric is produced can have a negative or positive effect on print quality — which is challenging for manufacturers selling in the decorated-apparel market — but innovation helps with market growth.

“Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is a great example of a print technique that’s fairly new to this industry and has changed very quickly over a short period of time,” he says. “To actively participate in this DTG market, apparel-manufacturing techniques have also changed and [have been] updated to adapt to the challenges associated with this print technique.”

Colors and Everything Else
Colors no longer are limited by seasons. Sure, oranges and yellows often are synonymous with fall, but Pantone’s 2020 spring/summer palette includes colors such as saffron, orange peel and Biscay Green — all of which will appear on tees. Holdovers from last year include coral and mustard, as well as neutrals like oatmeal.

“Mashups will also be popular — think camo [patterns], raglan and race stripes mashed up together in one T-shirt,” Edwards says. “Animal prints are also going into overdrive in 2020, with leopard, snakeskin, zebra and crocodile being popular in prints and appliqués.”

Davis says the 1980s and 1990s are inspiring trends such as bright neon colors, cropped tops and mock-neck tees. Mintzman agrees, saying throwback styles, like raglan and baseball shirts, have resurfaced. She adds that bright colors will reign for kids.

Hilary Daninhirsch is an award-winning freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Her writing has been featured in a number of lifestyle and trade magazines. She can be reached at or

Influx of Influencers

While Millennials still influence T-shirt design and end use, Davis and Edwards agree that Generation Z (people born between 1995-2015) also has a strong voice in the industry.

“Generation Z is young, but they’re connected and rather influential in the fashion industry,” Edwards says. “They tend to value individuality over conformity. Social media will influence trends for this generation more so than retail or manufacturers.”

Generation Z also is concerned with global issues and has strong values. “Their voices can very quickly make or break an apparel brand or product offering by posting positive or negative reviews,” Davis says.