Oh, and $100 is just the beginning.
On the website for Barneys New York, there’s currently an elongated T-shirt by Rick Owens that costs north of $1,200, while Mr Porter.com features a cashmere tee with a unfinished edges by the brand the Elder Statesman that’s going for $895. Last year, Dior Homme offered a $1,000 tee made from patchworked pieces of neoprene while Hermès showed a T-shirt made of crocodile skin back in 2013. The asking price? $91,500. Graphic T-shirts from Givenchy to Raf Simons to Dries Van Noten all easily hit the triple-digit mark. Along with sneakers and jeans, T-shirts have become the latest benchmark in casual luxury.
“T-shirts are comfortable, they’re easy to make, and people can get a huge profit margin with them,” says Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Blackman notes that while Hollywood icons like James Dean and Montgomery Clift helped transform the T-shirt from undergarment to outergarment in the early 1950s, it ultimately gained popularity thanks to its ability to serve as a living bulletin board. “You can also put a message on it that means something to people,” Blackman says. “That’s when it really took off, when people started to use it as advertising, as a marketing vehicle. Most people recognize the Rolling Stones album image of the big lips and the tongue not from the actual album, but from the T-shirt. Most people recognize the yellow smiley face not from the buttons but the T-shirt. T-shirts are the perfect tool for adopting iconic imagery and that’s why it resonated with Americans. It’s a very American article of clothing.”
And for something so simple, it’s incredibly versatile. “As a category of clothing, there are multiple avenues that you can go down,” says Sam Lobban, buying manager at Mr Porter.com. “There are simple tweaks, i.e., the width of the neck, or the width of a cuff on a sleeve or a hem—but in real terms, it’s a T-shirt,” he says, laughing. For example there’s a big difference between a simple tee rendered in elevated fabrics from labels like Sunspel or Handvaerk ($75 and $65 for a basic, short-sleeve shirt, respectively) and more ornate printed “fashion” T-shirts from high-end brands like Givenchy or Dolce & Gabbana.
But, seriously, how much is a T-shirt actually worth? “Really, above $150, you aren’t paying for quality anymore, you are paying for the brand name,” says Blackman. “If you were to remove the graphics off a $300 T-shirt and kept the price, would it still sell? More often than not, no. People are buying that particular item for those graphics made by that designer.” Lobban, however, defends the pricier styles. “You might think that all printed T-shirts are created equally, but you’d be wrong. Some of those designs, like the ones from Givenchy, are actually quite complicated just to line everything up and the quality of the actual printing,” he says. “They’re using the best fabrics, the best factories, the best printer, and the actual design is quite complicated.”
But why the T-shirt, and why now? After the mid-market T-shirt boom of the 1990s-early ’00s (think James Perse and, to an extent, American Apparel, which Blackman attributes to a floundering Gap leaving a hole in the market), why has the T-shirt been able to make the jump to luxury item? Certainly the rise of the Internet, and with it, street style, has a lot to do with it. For graphic T-shirts, the allure is pretty straightforward: Brand-identified images like McQueen’s skulls, Givenchy’s Rottweilers, and Kenzo’s tigers are a quick and easy way to broadcast the message that you’re in the know. For the brands that hew closer to the “luxe basics” category, Lobban notes that it’s right in line with the current mania for casualwear, and athleisure (the upcycling of apparel once deemed only fit for the inside of a gym). “It’s due to the popularization of this more casual aesthetic. Guys are wearing T-shirts in offices where a few years back every guy would be wearing a collared shirt,” he says. “It’s much more acceptable to wear a nice T-shirt with short, tailored trousers and look smart-casual. I don’t think you’ll ever see a T-shirt on the trading floor but any borderline creative industry will embrace it.” Mix this embrace of the nonchalant with fashion’s ongoing obsession with minimalism (just look at Prada’s featureless fall/winter 2015 collection) and the high-end tee seems inevitable.
As for the future of this trend, it looks like it has staying power. Lobban says that Mr Porter.com does a very strong business specifically in the T-shirt category, and that designers who, a few years back, wouldn’t have offered T-shirts are now adding them to their offering in an effort to meet demand. “I don’t think we’re even at peak yet,” Blackman says. “It’ll morph and turn into something else. Innovation is always shaping the market. It’s like jeans—people used to say, ‘Well people won’t want to wear them all the time.’ But look at them. People do wear them all the time, they’re premium now! The thing with fashion is you can’t dictate, you can merely afford people options and they will choose from there.”
In the end, the T-shirt’s journey from humble supporting role to leading player is a thoroughly American story—an actualized version of the classic rags-to-riches tale. “It’s America’s wearable hamburger,” Blackman says. “What can you do to it to make it interesting? Sure, people are putting caviar on it but it’s still a hamburger. Same with the T-shirt. People screen-print it, they’re embroidering, they’re adding appliqué to add texture and dimension. That’s the beauty of it. It will always be part of Americana and it will always resonate with us.”