Looking Ahead: Apparel Decorating Trends in 2024

By Adam Cort, Content Director

Photo by AdobeStock/ImageDesign

December 21, 2023

I suppose it’s only natural, but in times of trouble, it seems people are forever trying to forecast whatever it is that might lie ahead. Suffice it to say, yours truly is no exception.

Luckily, coming out the other end of the worst of the pandemic (and despite the best efforts of a certain class of politician to throw sand in the works at every turn) 2023 not only proved a banner year, both for the economy as a whole and the decorated apparel industry, in particular, it did so precisely as yours truly predicted! (See “First Impressions” Jan./Feb. 2023.)

Better still, I see no reason for the party to come to an end. (Provided that same aforementioned class of politicians doesn’t finally succeed in driving the economy off a cliff the ways its members seem hell-bent on doing for some reason.) On the one hand, people just can’t seem to get enough of custom-decorated apparel, whether it’s for a church group, their favorite sports team or a family reunion—and who can blame ‘em? On the other, both the quality and affordability of today’s tech, equipment and materials is such that what was once a substantial ask financially is increasingly attainable to pretty much anyone interested in giving decorating a try.

Bottom line: barring any kind of craziness on the part of the powers that be, I see no reason why business shouldn’t continue to boom across the board, with everyone from equipment, consumables and blank apparel suppliers to decorators themselves getting in on the fun.

Apparel Decorating Without Limits

Moving on to design and tech, I believe that while there will always be a place for old-school decoration (like the maize and blue University of Michigan sweatshirt I’m wearing as I type this) we are on the cusp of a truly unprecedented explosion in terms of creativity and sophistication. The reasons for this are two-fold.

First and foremost, there’s the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in the area of art creation. As veteran decorator, business coach and Midjourney expert and instructor Marshall Atkinson explained in a recent “Ask the Experts” conversion, the nature of this tech is such that it allows designers to generate pretty much any kind of art you can imagine in just a fraction of what it would take in the past. (The lead image for this article, for example, was created using AI.) This in turn will allow both decorators and their customers to explore strange new worlds, so to speak, that would have been difficult, if not impossible to explore this way in the past.

Second, there’s the increasing ease with which decorators across the board can now translate these and pretty much any other kind of design they might imagine onto the industry’s ever-growing selection of blank apparel. I’m thinking heat transfers and direct-to-garment (DTG)/direct-to-film (DTF), in particular.

With respect to the former, today’s custom-transfer companies are so good—and so fast!—filling orders in a timely fashion for even the most sophisticated of customers is now well within the capacity of even the most rudimentary startup. Get yourself a commercial-quality heat press, set up an account with a blank apparel supplier and you’re ready to go.

Same thing with today’s DTF and DTG technology. Granted, the upfront costs are substantially more than with a heat press. But once you’ve made that initial investment—an investment that is becoming progressively less onerous with every passing year as the technology goes increasingly mainstream—the sky is literally the limit. Again, get yourself the necessary equipment, and you’re ready to go, creating top-quality custom garments that would have been inconceivable to a generation earlier.

Of course, whether or not these new designs are going to be worth anything aesthetically, or whether we’re about to enter and era of unbearable schlock, is anybody’s guess. One way or the other, though, (and for better or worse!) look for eye-popping concepts to become the norm.