Slogan tees and summer festivals go together like mud and Glastonbury, but increasingly the former are not just for rock followers – nor protesters, for that matter. Rather, today’s slogan tees have gone beyond words of wit or whimsy to deliver a serious message that works as well as a fashion statement in town as it does on a protest march or at a gig.
“Celebrity involvement, exclusivity and limited edition sales all play a part in this newfound appeal,” says Amy Howgarth, marketing manager at high street retailer Uniqlo. The Japanese chain is selling 10 different tees by top celebrities and designers in support of the Save Japan! website, set up by publishers Condé Nast Japan to aid parts of the country affected by the earthquake. Uniqlo is donating Y100m (about £780,000) from sales of the tees to the Japanese Red Cross and the spotlight is on messages of love and hope. Karl Lagerfeld has created a tee with “Love, Hope and Change” across it and Alber Elbaz, Lady Gaga and Nicole Kidman have also taken part. Not only is it a good cause but, for £12.99, you get a sprinkle of celebrity stardust.
T-shirts have always conveyed certain messages – albeit covertly, rather than spelled out in bold letters. In The T-shirt Book, author Charlotte Brunel writes: “The T-shirt went through several mid-century phases, as a symbol of heroism worn by second world war fighters, the rebel uniform of movie icons like Marlon Brando, the socially conscious garb of the 1960s peace movement, and the in-your-face costume of the punk rock scene.” After that tees were used to make an overt statement; both as a form of political activism – such as the one created by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, which featured the words “No Future” repeatedly – and for charity campaigning. By the 1990s, however, advertisers had taken over, regularly putting simple T-shirts through doors as a promotional tool, and tees lost their fashionable appeal.
So why has the campaign tee become cool again? “Today’s fashion customer is increasingly and genuinely concerned about how we interact with and affect our surroundings,” says Gary Edgley, contemporary wear buyer at Selfridges, who spearheaded the recent range of slogan tees by activist designer Katharine Hamnett, for their Project Ocean campaign in aid of global marine conservation. “It was also interesting to see how diverse the tees can look,” he adds. “Younger shoppers styled them in a cool and slouchy way over leggings or shorts, while the glamorous ladies from designer wear paired them with sharp tailoring.”
New printing techniques are also enhancing the look of charity tees. Eight images by the late photographer Bob Carlos Clarke have been licensed for the first time and now feature on 100 per cent organic cotton tees made by Collective, a clothing company dedicated to ethical manufacturing, bringing fair trade opportunities to Africa and driving positive social change. While Clarke’s fetish-themed images of women, often in latex and rubber, are somewhat risqué, Collective sees the tee as “wearable art” and a “perfectly fitted frame” to illustrate the pictures.
More hip tees form part of Hamnett’s autumn/winter collection, complete with slogans such as “Save Life on Earth”, while Browns boutique and Harpers Bazaar’s recent styles in aid of the charity Women for Women were a sell-out. Designers such as Henry Holland, Sonia Rykiel and Markus Lupfer have also contributed to a more general trend for clothes with words on.
“Beyond the activist aspect, slogan tees have become part of culture,” says Hamnett. “They are cool and retro and it’s now cool for people to care.”