T-shirts that Sizzle
CONVENTION AND COUTURE collide often in the fashion industry, and where the clichéd can be seen, chic can be found fleeing the scene. It is rare for something to simultaneously be hip and popular; that common articles can also be cool defies the laws of fashion physics. So it is all the more surprising when one of the most blasé, traditional tops becomes the standard for an industry. Yet across the board, T-shirts are having their spot on the catwalk.
As the shirts themselves change and their place in society becomes more prominent, a different kind of T-shirt manufacturer has taken center stage. One that has a greater commitment to bringing distributors all of the endless decorating and custom capabilities now available with the rebirth of these coveted garments.
For a long time, a rift existed between promotional apparel and retail apparel. The problem for many promotional apparel companies once was adherence to the supplier-distributor-end-user model meant distance from current consumer trends. One would not expect to see people wearing a promotional shirt outside of the event or company promoted, let alone to a party or restaurant. As technical capabilities and business models adapt, the distinction between give-away and must-have is blurring faster than vision at the aforementioned party.
But blurring the line between promotional and retail markets has advantages. Dallas, Texas-based In Your Face Apparel has found great profit in closely following retail trends and incorporating them into promotional T-shirts. “It’s pretty much a fact that the promotional market is behind retail,” explained Doug Stayman, president. “Although the gap is closing, most suppliers are not going to create innovation and style because they have to wait for something to be tested in the retail environment before they can introduce it in the promotional environment.”
While Stayman believes a certain level of caution is necessary when it comes to promotional apparel, he indicated sometimes caution must be thrown to the wind. “We use baby jersey cotton with water-based printing, and of course unique appliqués, such as rhinestones,” he said. These are trends still visible in fashion magazines on newsstands. And since longer tees are all the rage these days, the company has lengthened its stock of T-shirts. “A lot of the things we do are fashion-related to real time or based on what the customer asks us for, and we satisfy those needs through our custom capabilities,” he said.
Like In Your Face Apparel, Article.1, Santa Ana, Calif., has ties to the fashion world. A prime example of the modern-day, “smart T-shirt supplier,” the company exists to educate distributors on the varied decorating techniques available on T-shirts through a savvy mentoring program. Gianna Giannulli-Chavez, design and marketing manager, explained: “Our Showcase program is artistic-based and focuses on young designers, and the techniques and ideas they can bring to the table,” she said. “Using lighter and softer fabrics than previously available in the blank market, we are able to show the Article.1 customer what is possible using the blank as a canvas.”
Meanwhile, Target Graphics Naperville, Ill., takes a different approach. “From a marketing standpoint, what makes us different from other T-shirt screen printers is that we are one of the few that markets and solicits solely to promotional products distributors,” noted Tom Vann, the company’s president. Target Graphics’ claim to fame is its popular HiRes AccuColor 4-Color Process. “It is a four-color process, but is beyond what anyone else is doing,” explained Vann. “We print dots twice as small as anybody else and so it’s very fine resolution. When people see our prints, they think an [actual] photograph or image is right on the shirt. That’s what we’re known for.”
The investment in ultra-high quality and precision helped Target Graphics win the contract for the King Tut Exhibit in 2005, in addition to other high-profile jobs, such as campaigns with Hummer and Corvette, as well as for the syndicated radio talk show, The Tom Joyner Morning Show.
Like Target Graphics, In Your Face Apparel’s bold style offerings have made the company a common name when considering promotional apparel. In Your Face is hardly shy about the company’s offerings and methods, made obvious by its name. “The difference, I think, between us and other T-shirt manufacturers is the range of capabilities and customization of the actual apparel,” noted Stayman.
One of In Your Face Apparel’s most recognizable embellishment techniques is the Crystal Transfer, a four-color process using caviar beads. In addition, the company utilizes other equally fascinating decorating techniques, including rhinestones (rhinestuds and nailheads), litho, plastasol, foil, felt, flocking, woven appliqués and glitter.
Consumer trends are not exclusive to style. Socially conscious end-users care about manufacturing trends as well. With a greater focus given to environmental sustainability across the globe, eco-friendly apparel is popping up all over the industry. “With the success of the organics [market], we felt it crucial to broaden our organics line,” said Giannulli-Chavez. Article.1 offers a new organic extended-length beater tank. “It is a very current style with a super-soft, silky feel and over-lock stitching on the side seams. We also offer an organic youth T-shirt.”
New at Target Graphics this year are leather and foil inks. Foil ink prints foil-like material onto a T-shirt rather than having to transfer actual sheets of foil onto the garment. But, it was the leather ink process that generated a great deal of interest at January’s PPAI Expo in Las Vegas. “It has to do with how we engineered the art and the print,” explained Vann. “When you look at it, it looks like a leather appliqué, but it’s actually screen printing.”
“In today’s market, we are finding the more you can do to a tee, the better it sells,” noted Giannulli-Chavez. “Gone are the thick, stiff shirts, and here to stay are the lighter, softer replacements.”
Today's shirts look, and sell, better than ever before. As they become more noticed, so will their embellishments. If these manufacturers are right, then the lights of fashion photogs may find their way to distributors’ doors.