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Tees: Still Comfy & Classic

T-shirts continue to be a staple for any wearer’s wardrobe through visual identity, comfort and versatility.

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor

January 25, 2021

In recent years, T-shirts have evolved to be anything but basic. Identity and versatility consistently define tees, according to industry suppliers, communicating consumers’ needs and visions. The basic tee is not only fashionable, but also adaptable to current trends, especially for multipurpose styling and making a statement about the wearer.

For 2021, the basic tee will continue to reflect not only identity and versatility, but also comfort, with a nod to a sustainable future.

Comfort Still King
With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt far and wide, the T-shirt industry has taken a practical approach to understanding consumer demands.

“We understand [that] the impact the pandemic had on people has given the consumer a new perspective on consumption, habits and certainly lifestyle,” says Katie Zimmerman, director of design and merchandising, JERZEES, Russell Athletic and Fruit of the Loom. “Consumers have shifted priorities and made lifestyle modifications. They are working from home, working out at home, commuting differently and the way they gather with friends has changed. All of these things mean that the consumer is reassessing the value of their things and purchases.”

Younger consumers have begun to value relevancy over constant newness — with comfort still being key — while the growing demand for transparency and sustainability remains front and center.

Michael Johnson, director of marketing for HanesBrands Activewear agrees. “The move to a more casual athleisure lifestyle is only accelerating,” he says. “It’s evolving as well, and we’re seeing that Millennials are not wanting to trade off casual [looks] and sustainability.”

He highlights the popularity of options from “boyfriend” tees to crop tops and more traditional silhouettes.

According to Summer Scott-Samuel, senior manager of merchandising at Gildan Activewear, oversized styles — and even oversized crops — are important for the comfort element in what she has dubbed the “creative pragmatist” silhouettes.

“You could pair an oversize shirt in a unique color like mustard yellow with a high-waisted jean,” she says. “If you’re choosing a T-shirt, you might select the style with an interesting sleeve detail and a compelling graphical message. Even more relevant are unisex styles that work for all genders. Fashion will be driven by the brand’s color assortment, fit, as well as the storytelling [that] brands convey in their marketing.”

Zimmerman says comfort will remain a priority — and may even become a top priority — in the wholesale market. “While crop tops and streetwear-inspired items may show up from time to time, we see the bigger opportunity in unisex styling,” she says. “We check our fits on both men and women to make sure we provide a universal fit. For women specifically, we see them buying tees and cropping them themselves or choosing to buy oversized [garments] and wear as a dress. It’s more of a styling preference where the wearer does the customization.”

Sustainable Outlook
Manufacturing shutdowns and distribution delays made for a challenging 2020 throughout the wholesale supply chain. Although the pandemic hasn’t ended, consumers and manufacturers alike are eager for a return to normalcy.

“We have prioritized our business to be able to provide ongoing service to our customers and are taking the time to plan and develop what the consumer wants coming out of the pandemic,” Zimmerman says.

As working from home continues, a shift toward elevated workwear basics likely will be fast-tracked. “It’s about watching trends closely and responding to them as accurately as possible as a manufacturer,” Scott-Samuel says.

Sustainability practices previously have lacked transparency. Yet, in recent years, the wholesale market has begun to take part in bridging this gap.

“Sustainability is a driving factor in this industry, perhaps even more so than in traditional retail,” Johnson says. “For companies, organizations and events that put their names on printed apparel, they need to know that garment was made responsibly. Additionally, customers in the printwear market are increasingly younger and more driven to make purchase decisions based on sustainable practices. They take eco-citizenship seriously.”

Scott-Samuel also highlights the environmental evolution within the industry. “It is still evolving and the move to have more sustainable practices and products in the next few years will be happening at both the mill and distributor levels,” she says. “People want sustainability in a big way, and it’ll be the new norm and our responsibility to do it.”

Colors & Other Trends
Comfort considerations, performance and versatility have endured to drive softer fabrics and premium blends across the market.

“Cotton remains key but more recycled and upcycled fabrics will grow in popularity, and we will see continued growth in natural and cellulosic fibers,” Zimmerman says. “Interesting fabrics that have multiple uses help to provide the dual end uses that consumers desire. We will also see benefits for dual end uses such as UPF or wicking. Product improvements and innovations that enhance the wear experience give way for sweat to street wearability. Think ‘commuter’ styling.”

For Gildan, super-soft, ring-spun cotton T-shirts of varying weights are one of the fastest-growing segments within the company’s channel. “People also are drawn to visual interest in the form of textures or patterns such as color blast and various takes on traditional tie-dye techniques,” Scott-Samuel says. “We’re also seeing muted brights, softer pastels and tonal neutrals in sand shades to create more longevity with wearable styles and colors.”

Zimmerman also suggests color will be influenced by these trends and consumers’ mindsets. She says an expansion to what we think of as “core neutrals,” more earthy colors and muted tones wouldn’t be surprising to see throughout the year. On the flipside, however, a growth in colors evoking a happy and positive feeling will become relevant as society returns to normal.
With the market’s fondness for nostalgia, throwbacks to the 1980s and ‘90s in popular fashion and streetwear are expected to pop up. Zimmerman says the Gen-Z and Millennial demographics still gravitate to these periods, desiring inclusivity and finding these styles easier to incorporate into their everyday routine.

Scott-Samuel agrees, saying retro trends with a futuristic twist still will be going strong. “The 1980s will always be important, in part because of how the garments fit closer in more flattering silhouettes to our bodies,” she says. “Today’s oversized garments are very reminiscent of the ‘90s, playing into the idea of future-looking garments that fit all genders and bodies.”

Trending Tee-Printing Methods

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is growing by leaps and bounds as consumers become more accustomed to the customization opportunities it offers in DTG printing and custom dyeing.

“DTG will continue to be the leading edge of technology with its ability to capture intense color and detail,” says Michael Johnson, director of marketing for HanesBrands Activewear. “For printers willing to experiment, hybrid opportunities are endless and exciting. It’s great to see the creativity taking it to new levels.”

The flexibility that DTG can give a shop to fulfill different custom-order quantities is important, especially in the current era, where e-commerce is central, explains Summer Scott-Samuel, senior manager of merchandising, Gildan Activewear.

“Since softer, ring-spun T-shirts are in demand, softer screen prints that are more malleable and move with the T-shirts will be on buyers’ radar,” she says. “However, there’s also a segment of the market that wants
heavier-weight, oversized T-shirts and rougher-hand screen prints for a more old-school vibe. [But] you’ll want to avoid a heavy screen print that feels like you’re wearing a shield on your shirt.”