Easy to wear and hard to ignore, graphic t-shirts are among the hardest working items for cult brands and retailers.


    Funny, obscene, obscure, retro, rebellious, puerile or tribal the once humble graphic t-shirt punches far above its weight. For labels, it’s a high volume product with a healthy margin that requires no specialist manufacturing. For consumers, it can be an accessibly priced entry point to an aspirational brand.

    In the last decade or so, the over-licensing of graphics linked to cultural lodestars — from The Ramones to Star Wars — and the logo-heavy product of teen retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch have helped drive the graphic t-shirt out of fashion. But, now, retailers, distributors and brands at the trend-sensitive edge are reporting a resurgence of interest in t-shirts, specifically for smaller and hard-to-find labels.

    Craig Ford, menswear retailer, estimates graphic t-shirts represent some 35 percent of his business, which he admitted is “some would say too much.” Notably Ford’s most popular brands are fashion brands that command interest and loyalty through a combination of design and attitude, rather than symbols of affiliation to an actual subculture. “The desire to show allegiance to something real through a t-shirt has become a pretty redundant ideal due to mass culture, and big brands swallowing and re-appropriating underground culture and youth,” he explained. “Just look at the stores selling Ramones t-shirts now. It doesn’t mean what it did.”

    On July 11th, the London outpost of the high fashion retailer Dover Street Market opened for the new season with a dedicated space for t-shirts, including a large selection by niche, independent companies. “We have been fortunate to have always worked with brands that make great t-shirts and graphics and thought it would be interesting to bring these together in one space in addition to giving credence to the many smaller or completely unknown brands that are out there doing great things,” explained Dickon Bowden, vice president of Dover Street Market. The designers behind them feel that the ‘authenticity’ of a t-shirt that has an actual point of reference still has cultural value, albeit in a more nebulous form than the pure fan garb of yesteryear. Priced between €35 and €150, the t-shirts at Dover Street Market are — alongside the enduringly popular Comme des Garçons wallets and perfume — among some of the store’s most affordable products. They are also among some of the best performing; the most recent drop of pieces sold out online in a single day.

    He sees the growing appetite for graphic T-shirts today as rooted less in political fury and angst, than in the need for succinct modes of expression in an accelerated, image-driven culture. “We live in a mass communication information age where many people have a short attention span and an identity crisis. A printed tee is a quick, sure-fire way to communicate and express your identity.
    So, why not invest in a sophisticated new brand of tees that promotes what else…a Goat, even if it is a Motley one?