Build Your Business:

What Can Tees Do For You?

The versatility of today's T-shirts further cement them as go-to options for wearers.

By Michael J. Pallerino, Contributing Writer

February 22, 2018

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the T-shirt’s role in a wardrobe? There’s more than one answer, right? Versatility. Fashion statement. Marketing/promotional item. Layering option. The list goes on.

While today’s T-shirts continue to be simple and stylish, manufacturers are putting an increased emphasis on quality. The fabrics are nicer. They offer superior printability. To be frank, the whole concept of the “dumbed-down” tee is fading because today’s fashion-conscious, yet always-on-the-go consumer wants more than a cookie-cutter option.

T-shirts are the foundation upon which many apparel customers build their wardrobes. Adding a jacket or blazer, layering, or pairing it with everything from dress pants and skirts to jeans can elevate a tee.

“The tee continues to be a stylish wardrobe basic that everyone wants,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president of activewear merchandising and marketing, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES. “In a world that’s increasingly complicated, nothing beats your favorite tee. [They] have become huge players in the fashion industry due to their versatility and ease.”

You even can make the case that more than ever, consumers are asking, point blank: “What else can this tee do for me?”

This much we know: Today’s highly connected, technology-savvy consumers are much more educated about the materials that make up their tees. No longer only searching for the best price, they also prefer softness, cuts, colors and details. That’s why manufacturers are building on past “value” lines to construct T-shirts that have extra details, such as stripes or a vintage look. Color continues to make a huge splash, while middle tones and cotton tees for men, and cropped or distressed options for women, are increasingly prevalent.

“In one word, I would describe T-shirts today as versatile,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager, Hanes. “While a T-shirt may look simple, there is usually something more to it. Consumers want T-shirts that can be worn for multiple occasions. Often, that means stylish enough to take you throughout the day, or multiple performance features that keep them cool and comfortable.”

Davis says consumers are looking for silhouette and fit versatility. For example, more fashion-forward, fitted tees can be dressed up or down and used as bases for layering. In addition, gender-neutral fits are growing in popularity with men and women. A more boxy-shaped, loosely fit garment can be worn multiple ways.

One of the more consistent trends is the blended T-shirt because it brings softness and adabtibility to the channel, and offers color and texture versatility.

But Davis says don’t forget about the cotton tee. “We are seeing a comeback with cotton,” he says. “The market has leaned hard into lightweight blends, but we are starting to see a resurgence in heavyweight [styles]. When everything you own is lightweight, you miss having that go-to heavyweight tee.”

Cotton will remain a No. 1 seller for Cotton Heritage in 2018, says Ken White, the company’s vice president of sales. “When people think of a T-shirt, they think of cotton,” he says. “It’s soft, comfortable, easy to wear — it is also superior for printing. Be it screen print or DTG, cotton gives you the best and most consistent results.”

White also sees consumers focusing on fabric and weight, in addition to silhouette, in 2018. For women, feminine, flowy fabrics will be important. In men’s styles, he sees a strong trend toward heavier weights. For example, Cotton Heritage’s 5.5-ounce 20’s tee has been a best-seller this year, and the company continues to have success with long-sleeve T-shirts across all classifications.

Retail, Wholesale in Lockstep
Another trend to watch is distributors carrying popular retail brands for customers in the promotional market. Driven by features, colors and price points, many manufacturers expect the momentum to continue.

Hanes’ Davis says the retail and wholesale sectors now are joined at the hip, and manufacturers must meet the needs of both channels simultaneously. For example, he says many consumers — such as Millennials — want instant gratification, so Hanes believes its products must be flexible enough to service such consumers.

“Today, retail and wholesale garments are often developed hand in hand,” Davis says. “The fashion-forward Champion Originals collection, which was designed specifically with embellishment in mind, launched in the wholesale market in March 2017. Some of those styles are now being introduced into the retail market.”

The Fruit of the Loom and JERZEES brands also are finding success in this area. “There’s no question that the customer for wholesale expects to have retail trends in silhouettes, fabric and color available at the same time,” Edwards says. “In our wholesale business, we end up with significant distribution at retail, so it makes sense to leverage the insights in retail strategy, consumer behavior and preferences across both businesses. We also touch base frequently with our Fruit Europe division to get a global perspective.”

The company tiers the T-shirt market into basic, better basic, fashion and performance categories. Aligning trends with the product-development direction is incredibly important in fashion and, to some extent, in performance.

“Those two areas are where we most frequently see customers’ demand for newness and innovation, driving SKU turnover,” Edwards says.

At BELLA+CANVAS, there is some level of name-brand appeal when it comes to the retail channel, especially for customers who aren’t familiar with the wholesale industry.

“It’s easy for [customers] to go with a name they know,” says Summer Barry, brand director, BELLA+CANVAS. “We are disrupting this by being the first wholesale-only brand with real name power. We have so many fans of the brand that only found out about us by getting a shirt with our label in it. Once our tees are in their hands, they realize it’s the best tee they’ve ever owned and will come back to us later as a wholesale customer.”

What Millennials Want
It’s difficult to find a consumer segment in which Millennials aren’t making an impact — and that’s not a complaint. For example, Millennial tastes are continuing to influence T-shirt construction and design.

“Millennials know what they want and they look for it until they get it,” Hanes’ Davis says. “They are discerning in what brands they connect with, and place a high-value on brands that are socially and environmentally responsible.”

From a fit perspective, Millennial men are driving the popularity of more fitted tees that they easily can layer. For example, the Hanes Modal tri-blend tee features a relaxed fit on the chest and then tapers down to the waist.

In addition, garment-dyed tees still are popular among the Millennial demographic. Interestingly, challenges related to softness and bleed continue to plague popular garment-dyed brands. Hanes is debuting its ComfortWash line, which will aim to solve some of these issues; the tees and fleecewear are soft right out of the box, and the proprietary dye process eliminates bleed, Davis says.

That Millennials make more purchasing decisions based on quality than previous generations is something manufacturers must continue to account for — a development that BELLA+CANVAS notices.

“Past generations made decisions based on price alone,” BELLA+CANVAS’ Barry says. “That is why the mega-giant, carded open-end (C.O.E.) brands did such massive volume.”

But Barry says the industry may have hit a tipping point. “It’s all about to change,” she says. “Millennials see the value in a product they are proud to put their brand on, and want to offer their customers something that will be worn again and again.”

After starting the “No C.O.E.” movement more than five years ago, BELLA+CANVAS now has a first-hand look at a massive shift toward combed, ring-spun garments.

What’s Next?
Along with the continuing demand for cotton, tri-blends and cotton/polyester blends will be popular fabric choices in the coming year. Manufacturers will continue to explore new fabrications in tees across the board.

“What I think you’ll see more of is different styling within the tri-blend division,” Edwards says. For example, JERZEES is adding a new Varsity ringer style to its tri-blend collection. Edwards says it’s the same fabric, but with new options such as contrasting-color necklines and sleeve stripes. The vintage theme injects personality and verve into an established line.

Barry says dimension continues to be more popular than ever. BELLA+CANVAS expects the growth in heather and tri-blend styles to outpace solids this year.

“We are finding new ways to innovate in this category,” Barry says. “In addition to adding tons more color to both the heather and tri-blend categories in 2018, we’re launching a new collection of heathers called Prism, where we reengineered the fabric-dyeing process to create stunning halftones and never-been-seen-before dimension. Prism is the evolution of heather and is sure to be one of the most talked-about collections in 2018.”

Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at