T-shirts are to springtime what floral-bedecked hats are to this week’s Chelsea Flower Show – but you’d never see the former at the latter, a haven reserved for little lace lunch suits or rose-bedecked frocks. At least, until now you wouldn’t. But on Tuesday, when the Royal Hospital throws open its doors to horticultural enthusiasts, that may change. The T-shirt is transcending its origins as a basic to become an eye-catching, sequin-bedecked, tulle-tufted luxury.
Summer’s runways were packed with T-shirts from Michael Kors, Proenza Schouler, Peter Pilotto and Jil Sander, worn over sharp tailored trousers and chic maxi evening skirts. Meanwhile, lower-profile premium brands such as Schumacher, James Perse, J Crew and The Row (among others) have built significant businesses on the “luxe tee”.
Roisin Murphy, women’s casual wear buyer at Selfridges, says: “People don’t wear tees in a casual way like before. For the first time, T-shirts are being bought and worn in a style-focused way. These T-shirts give a casual/effortless look to an outfit while keeping that element of luxury.”
Dorothee Schumacher, designer of an eponymous German brand that specialises in luxury T-shirts, says: “The beauty of great T-shirts is that they are flexible. You can wear a plain T-shirt as a base to an outfit, or bring a sportier look, or go for sequins and make a statement. They’re luxurious and smart but comfortable at the same time. That’s what women love.”
Schumacher first launched T-shirts in the 1980s “when most of the tees on the market were men’s underwear designs”, she says. “We reinvented them as fashion items.” Today pieces run from beautifully soft plain “foundation” shirts to decorated numbers with panelling, ruffles and sequin embellishment, and much of the company’s growth is driven by tees.
Another of the earliest champions, and beneficiaries, of the luxe tee boom was US brand J Crew (soon to launch in the UK) The label has established a devoted following for its vast selection of tees, which includes first lady Michelle Obama.
It is the west coast of the US, however, that has seen the greatest concentration of break-out T-shirt companies, including Splendid and American Apparel. The biggest success story, however, may be James Perse. Perse makes T-shirts that look understated but feel like cashmere while fitting perfectly. The tops have been embraced by celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, helping the company grow to 27 stores globally, with plans to expand into the UK and Japan next.
Noah Stone, the brand’s marketing director, says: “They’re not just about looking good, they’re about how you feel when you wear them.”
Holli Rogers, buying director at online retailer Net-a-Porter, says: “As customers turn towards stealth wealth and choose items that subtly introduce an element of luxury into their everyday wear, high-end T-shirts have exploded.”
Erin Mullaney, a fashion consultant and former buying director at Browns in London, believes: “T-shirts have become investment pieces.” And tee prices certainly reflect this. The average cost of a designer tee has gone up by one-third in recent years, thanks to a combination of workmanship and the rocketing price of cotton. A luxe piece from T by Alexander Wang is about £70; Schumacher sells for €79-€300 and James Perse costs, on average, £50. Yet, says Sarah Curran, founder and chief executive of fashion website my-wardrobe.com, “Sales of luxe T-shirts have increased over 98 per cent this season and we believe this will continue.”
“We’ve doubled our business in the past two years,” says Ed Burstell, managing director at London department store Liberty, citing T by Alexander Wang and Rick Owens as big sellers. “I think it will only keep going.”
The growing price of tees, it seems, is offset by the flexibility offered by the high/low appeal of a former basic given the luxe treatment. As social trends demand seamless day-to-night outfits, pieces that can be worn in the office and at the cocktail bar are in demand. “I love to combine T-shirts with designer wear,” says Mullaney. “I’ll wear a great tee with a Jason Wu or Jil Sander skirt. It looks really fresh and modern, and because I wear T-shirts every day, it makes sense to spend more. I started buying James Perse T-shirts in New York seven years ago and now I have a whole collection. They last longer and feel great.”
Burstell says: “The fit is so different when you wear a tee by someone like Rick Owens. He just understands how to cut and drape that fabric on the body. Alexander Wang does too. It’s casual luxury.”
The ultimate example of this, however, may be Lucien Pellat-Finet. His T-shirts can cost anywhere from around £350 to £1,000. The Paris-based label has become famous for its Japanese pop art-inspired prints on specially developed feather-light cashmere or Egyptian cotton, and tees adorned by swirls of feathers, studding and beaded fringing. Think evening wear transposed to the streets.