Simon King: How I’m Reinventing The T-Shirt

PSFK collaborator looks to design a new wardrobe for the 21st century.

Last week I was speaking to Piers, the Johnny Depp-like founder of this nimble monolith PSFK. The conversation went something like this:

Piers: I’ve been working with X brand, Y brand, flown here, partied there and had lots of people suck up to me. My wife’s gorgeous, my kids are angels. So what are you up to?

Simon: Designing t-shirts.

Piers: Well that’s nice. Did you see the great speakers we had at the last conference? We’ve got X coming and Y coming and they all love me to bits, especially my tousled, school boy hair. Do you think I could pass for a Twilight vampire? Oh forget that…so what about these shirts?

Simon: I’ve been trying to create a totally new signature for London Denim.

Piers: Sorry mate got to go, that sounds great. Tell you what, write me an article titled “How you’re reinventing the Tee.” Got to go now, Obama’s on the other line… -CLICK-

Simon: I’m not really reinventing…Piers…oh…

Could I claim I’m reinventing the t-shirt? Well if my mate can have conversations with Obama then I guess I could do with aiming a bit higher…

The Short Version – How I’m Rather Conceitedly Reinventing the Tee.

T-shirts became a staple in a man’s wardrobe when Marlon Brando strutted out in Streetcar and James Dean was without a cause. Quickly they became ubiquitous taking over from the button shirt. Then came the printing, embroidery and logos but the core garment form remained unchanged, meaning that at least on paper high fashion T’s look pretty much the same as the mid-market ones.

I find t-shirt design unfulfilled like jean design before the LA and Japanese brands got going in the late 90′s. I’ve been thinking about how I could make a plain unadorned t-shirt a bit more quirky and individual while keeping a core masculine aesthetic (the French tell us ‘t-shirt’ is a masculine noun).

The t-shirts I’ve designed ‘Understatement T’s’ have a focus on shape and detail while holding onto the plain t-shirt essence. They make a statement without having over-design or logos overshadowing their personality.

For the rather overstretched, over-analyzed and over-egged mind dump on what’s behind the core design read on below, but beware these shirts do have a rather high price tag which comes from following an ‘Arts and Crafts’ design and production ethos that’s been haunting me of late. After all if I’m going to specifically order my Midlands-based knitter to make jerseys for me rather than sourcing from the far east, then there is going to be a price to pay.

Nothing new has happened in T-Shirt design since the pretty boys Marlon Brando and James Dean took their underwear, made it outerwear and caused a million girls to swoon. However, the pedantic amongst us may cite:

  1. Richard Hells 1970’s reinvention of the t-shirt with safety pins and slashes fed inspiration to a fledgling 1970’s punk fashion movement.
  2. Katherine Hamnetts oversized slogan T’s worn by all in the 1980′s.
  3. The oversized trend on the streets of American cities by youth apparently inspired by prison wear or lack of cash.
  4. The boom in self-print and private labels on the Internet over the past few years, supported by guys like Threadless which coincided with the availability of great blank T’s from American Apparel, Stanley and Stella, etc.
  5. The revolution that has been digital printing on fabric which is still underway.

Ok, so something new has happened in T’s since Marlon and Dean, but that’s no reason I can’t reinvent it for the new century. Time for a new title, a new angle:

How I’m reinventing the Tee for the 21st Century!

simon-king-london-denim2

Brand-to-product alignment is the holy grail of the fashion industry. As a result labels with a tight designer to product relationship don’t put logos on their products and those with a looser alignment, traditionally at the mass end of the market, do. The relentless ripping-off forces those brands to plop a logo on whatever they are looking to sell.

As a designer I want my designs to stand by themselves. So placing a logo on the design defeats the point of my existence. God might as well strike me down. When logos are used it gives the designer a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It’s the logo that takes on the job of communicating what that item of clothing is really about and frees the designer to do more tweeting, navel gazing, cleaning out their fish tank or whatever. I want my tees to communicate what they are about without the need for crass markers.

A couple of years ago I almost had a seizure laughing at the new Ralph Lauren polo shirts with the extra large horse and rider embroidery logo. I figured Ralph Lauren had worked out that the lawyers, bankers and bean counters who gobble up their polo shirts would like to communicate their sartorial taste to people at a distance (or perhaps it was simply that enlarging the logo was a natural step in the face of an ageing, eyesight-failing customer base). We’ve all got to thank that executive for marking those folks so they are easily avoided.

So what’s all this got to do with my reinventing of the fashion tee for the 21st century?

I want to go back to the future; I want to pull men’s fashion t-shirt design back to a time before the logo and then to take it forward in a new direction. I want to create a t-shirt that people would buy because it would say a bit more about them than just the projection of brand values.

Using my un-patented jean design theory I began deconstructing then reconstructing the basic t-shirt. My jean design theory is:

  1. The end product must look like a pair of jeans.
  2. The end product must feel like a pair of jeans.
  3. The end product must not look like anyone else’s pair of jeans.

These rules may seem simple but remember they are on top of the a load of technical product design rules which underpin what how a pair of jeans is constructed from the inclusion of chain stitch to the appropriate cutting technique for the different types of denim, pocket setting and so on. Just as there are a host of basic rules dictating what defines a t-shirt. Thus my t-shirt design theory rules were born:

  1. The end product must look like a t-shirt.
  2. The end product must feel like a t-shirt.
  3. The end product must not look like anyone else’s t-shirts.

When you look from a distance most T’s look the same and its hard to tell your Ralph Lauren from your Topshop. Up close it’s easier where quality of make, fabrication and tactility come into play. Design-wise there’s nothing in it. Both are following almost the same rules, not really playing in the margins of design like us denim designers have to in order to tease out differences. This leaves the label as the main difference from one brand to another.

That’s where rule 3 really works. Rule three demands innovation, and rule three was informed by my Arts and Crafts design ethos with a focus on tactility, quality and relevance. I hope it has led me to re-invent the tee so that it becomes more than the sum of its parts, so it helps its wearer communicate much more about themselves with out the need for a oversized logo or over the top design.

The results…fashion is subjective. Look to the pictures. You judge. I’ve created a t-shirt with heavy 210gsm bespoke jersey and rib. I’ve followed my ethos and no piece of the design, production has been outside my vision and command. I started my tee journey having a heavy jersey knitted in Leicester in the British midlands. Then sourced thread from Gutermann (There are no English thread manufacturers) and found a factory 3 miles from my front door in London. The factory is more accustomed to working with Fashion Week designers rather than t-shirts, but then you don’t trust these designs and this fabric to your standard factory. Then I commissioned artisan embroiders to create my inside brand label and the core product was finished.

It is my conceited, egotistical opinion that these T’s are so perfect that from the moment they are finally produced in my XL size I will wear them for the rest of my life and be buried in them. Commercially I hope lots of people follow my lead. Realistically I know it will probably just be a few of my friends. Perhaps even Piers will wear one. I must remember to give him one to gift Obama with.

My thoughts went back to those Polo logos, suddenly I was jealous, I wanted something nice embroidered on my chest – was I falling into the same trap? No, I’m an arts and crafts inspired boy and I do love a bit of decoration when done well.

So back to my artisan embroiders, Andrew and Lucie, at the London Embroidery Studio (whose client list includes Louis Vuitton, Gieves and Hawkes and strangely the Super Furry Animals) to create my version of the giant logo. What could be nicer than a beautiful bird on your breast or three different types of birds? So what if a 1/3 of the value of the T-Shirt is in the embroidery. Its a thing of beauty, a talking point, a conversation opener that is the exact opposite of the Polo player embroidery which instantly closes conversation down. If you’re wearing these tees the person over the other side of the room will want to talk to you. I tried it with Jackdaw on white, the first T I sampled. It works. Everyone loves a man who wears something simple and beautiful.

Then came the prints, a screened lobster and block-printed beetle and suddenly London Denim’s men’s creative direction for ready to wear was a bit more developed. In fact I’m now feeling closer to the start of my story rather than the end. Need some advice…better call Piers.

Switchboard: Sorry Simon he’s in with the Pope and can’t be disturbed. -CLICK-

Simon King is the founder of Understatement T’s

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