Ubiquitous or simple style can be difficult – finding the perfect T-shirt – an article
It seems so simple. A plain, casual, cotton staple.
But for most shoppers, the perfect T-shirt is all too elusive.
It is just as elusive for fashion designers and clothing brands. With more than $20 billion spent a year on T-shirts in the U.S., according to NPD Group, labels from the Gap to The Row invest considerable time and effort in the quest to build a better T-shirt. With prime T-shirt season approaching, every brand seems to have one.
And every one is “perfect.” Or at least “ideal.” Brands including Gap, Alternative Apparel, Old Navy, and Vince label their T-shirts “ideal,” “favorite,” “perfect” or “essential.” J.Crew offers a “Perfect-fit” tee for women that is made with a rib fabric for “a slim classic fit,” said Tom Mora, J.Crew’s head of women’s design. A men’s J.Crew slim-fit pocket tee appears among “The Everyday Essentials No Man Should Be Without” at men’s fashion site Mr Porter.
The push for perfection has led to higher prices for some shirts. While most basic T-shirts run from about $10 to $30, a midprice tee from a contemporary casual fashion label like James Perse or Vince can now cost between $50 to $150, and a number of designer labels sell plain tees for more. A seemingly simple T-shirt from The Row, the luxury line founded by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, costs $260.
Designers say it is much harder to make the perfect tee than it might appear. For one thing, perfection lies in the eye of the beholder. Some consumers like their T-shirts fitted. Others like them slouchy and relaxed. Some want the fabric to be thicker, others sheerer. Some want the sleeves high, others low. Some want the shirt to be short enough that it looks neat when untucked. Others prefer something drapey. There is the customer who wants crisp T-shirts that can go to work under a blazer and the one who wants something that looks well-worn and lived-in.
“It’s relatively quite simple to sew the perfect T-shirt, if there is such a thing, but it requires as much fitting attention and care as a complicated dress,” says Marcus Wainwright, co-founder and designer of Rag & Bone. The fashion label launched “The Boy Tee,” a $160 cropped shirt for women inspired by a basic men’s T-shirt, earlier this year.
While a T-shirt isn’t as technically complex as a dress, little details loom large, Mr. Wainwright says. “Like a jean, [a T-shirt] is so familiar to everyone and they’re so particular about it. Because they’re so familiar with it, they become much more picky, more precise about the fabric, the cut, the neckline,” he says. “It’s easy to design, but it’s a harder job ticking off all these boxes.” The Boy Tee took a year to develop.
Deceptively similar-looking T-shirts may have dozens of subtle differences.
Designer Tony Melillo spent nine months trying to perfect the tees he launched under his latest label, ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, exclusively at Barneys New York in 2012. Mr. Melillo developed a proprietary jersey cotton in Peru. The designer says he spent so much time on the shirts, which range from $62 to $120 and up for cashmere styles, because “for me it was about the fit and feel of the weight, the way it draped, how it would be sexy but not overly sexy to where it became see-through, not too sheer or too thick or too manly or too feminine.”
The T-shirt push in some ways mirrors the premium-denim phenomenon. A decade ago, new jeans brands emerged touting the pedigree of their denim and charging $200 and more. Consumers were suddenly willing to pay three and four times as much as they had been paying for a pair of jeans.
With T-shirts, too, labels are increasingly touting their T-shirts’ material and construction. “While other companies use less expensive carded cotton, we only utilize fine-gauge, preshrunk combed cotton for all of our T-shirts,” boasts American Apparel on its website. Mr. Mora of J.Crew touted its women’s shirt’s thicker “plied yarn,” saying, “it has great retention to prevent bagging out.” Everlane, an online clothing retailer that began by selling T-shirts in 2011, puts a detailed graphic on its website chronicling how its tees are made. “Before cutting we lay out our fabric for 24 hours,” it says. Otherwise, “unrelaxed fabric has a tendency to pull in on itself.”
“When you look at the info graphic, you can trust we know what we’re doing and that we’re paying attention to the details,” says Michael Preysman, Everlane’s founder and chief executive.
T-shirts have come a long way from the undergarments they once were. First worn by Navy men a century ago, they became a workwear staple for blue-collar men. In the 1950s, the tee was popularized in Hollywood by James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Wild One.” In the decades to follow, tees grew more popular for both men and women. Now they are worn everywhere. For instance, designer Michael Kors almost always wears a black T-shirt under his sport coat.
These days, T-shirts are the most commonly purchased men’s clothing item. Some 83% of 849 men aged 18 and over surveyed said they had bought T-shirts over a recent 12-month period, according to a Mintel report released in May. On average, each American owns about 15 of them, according to a recent survey of 6,000 men and women by trade group Cotton Inc.
The rising price for cotton is putting pressure on manufacturers. That has led to rising prices for T-shirts in some cases, and also lower-quality cotton T-shirts or cotton-blend tees in others.
A few qualities come up over and over when designers and consumers talk T-shirts: fit, thickness, drape, and the shirt’s ability to hold its shape. Though some designer labels charge more simply because of their cachet, these qualities are more often found in pricier T-shirts. “If you have things like long-staple, high-twist yarns, use mercerized cotton, double-chain stitching, you’re going to get a better T-shirt, and you’re not going to get those properties with a shirt that sells for $5.99,” says Jeffrey Silberman, professor and chair of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s textile development and marketing program.
Some qualities shoppers can look for on labels or websites include extra-long-staple cotton, plied yarns, mercerized cotton, combed cotton, Supima cotton, and ring-spun cotton, says Mr. Silberman. Those terms generally suggest the cotton will be more durable and more lustrous.
If a tee starts to wear down after having been washed per the care instructions, it could mean the brand isn’t using plied yarns, which are two single yarns twisted together to offer better strength, luster and uniformity, says Mr. Silberman, who is also executive director of the International Forum for Cotton Promotion. If a shirt starts to lose its shape or stretch, it could be due to the lack of strength of the seams, insufficient twist in the yarn, or too few stitches per inch.
On average, consumers expect their T-shirts to last about four years, the Cotton Inc. survey said. Brands generally recommend machine-washing cold and tumbling dry at low temperatures, but labels that make finer T-shirts recommend washing by hand or dry cleaning.
The weight and drape of the cotton were obsessions for Mr. Melillo, the designer. “But I wasn’t in a rush. I figured, who needs another bad T-shirt?”
Write to Ray A. Smith at email@example.com