In Praise of the Humble Tee

The luxury sector will grow this year, according to a report from Bain & Co. published in April. Bain is only predicting 4 percent growth, but it's enough to evoke an audible sigh of relief and a quiet popping of cor

April 6, 2018

In Praise of the Humble Tee

The luxury sector will grow this year, according to a report from Bain & Co. published in April. Bain is only predicting 4 percent growth, but it's enough to evoke an audible sigh of relief and a quiet popping of corks. Obligingly, the world's biggest luxury group, LVMH, has supported Bain's prediction by reporting a first-quarter hike in sales that went beyond financiers' wildest dreams. Apparently well-heeled consumers suffering from "frugal fatigue" are back on the brands, and retailers are building up their stock of mega-branded goods after a period of austerity. Although this is very promising news for all of us at the other end of the trickle-down effect, I've been more moved this month by the humble tee, and by the creative and commercial efforts of designers and retailers to get you into a new one.

If you log on or walk into Uniqlo at the moment, you can't miss Tweety, and a number of other characters, carefully and cleverly presented on T-shirts. Uniqlo is a 900-strong Japanese chain specializing in affordable casual wear with shops around the world, including the U.K. and China. It has been a beacon of success throughout the downturn. Warner Bros.' Tweety is just one of an impressive 1,300 T-shirt designs created for Uniqlo's UT project, an annual retail event that celebrates the spirit of the T-shirt. "A T-shirt is more than just a T-shirt, it is an expression of who you are, how you feel, where you've been and what you love," posts the Uniqlo Web site. In the past, it has offered UT designs by '80s artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as photographers, musicians and designers from all over the world and from all artistic persuasions. For 2010, the theme is UT All Stars and the range of T-shirts, huge by any standards, offers a bold mixture of cartoon heroes and characters, interspersed with work by German graphic designers and typesetters, manga artists and patterns inspired by the work of Hans Christian Anderson. Characters from Warner Bros. and Toei Animation, for example, also appear. It is an eclectic mixture with contributions from all over the world and the products are at once individual and part of a club. Each UT T-shirt comes with a large, glossy label giving background about the design, credentials, cultural references, artist biography and incorporates phrases such as "Why does Tom always chase Jerry?" The swing tags have very high production values, but the tees cost only a tenner. What's behind this particular presentation? It allows the customer to learn about the character, buy into the design credibility and feel reassured of the authenticity of their choice. These are much the same reasons, of course, that consumers follow brands.


T-shirt is a powerful talisman of the modern world. From souvenir to statement maker, utility garment to the highest-ticket fashion item, T-shirts are universal and barely a brand remains untouched by them. As such, T-shirts are inextricably linked to the business of licensing.

Generally thought to have caught the attention of American troops in Europe a century ago and, as a practical, lightweight undergarment, was suited to manual work back home in the U.S. It underwent its own cultural awakening thanks, in part, to screen heroes and rebels Marlon Brando and James Dean. After the war, T-shirts were easily dyed, decorated or printed. T-shirts bearing Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett were among the first licensed ones made by a company called Tropix Togs in Miami in the 1950s. Since then, the history of licensing is impossible to conceive without the T-shirt. As well as being a billboard for brands, characters, political statements, sentiments or personal taste, the T-shirt has become an icon of international economics, fair trade, factory standards and green issues (the story of the garment from cotton field to compost heap is well told in Pietra Rivoli's "The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy"). And Uniqlo's current UT campaign shows that despite the ubiquity of the T-shirt, the world never tires of putting its favorite characters on one or finding fresh ways to present this most staple of garments. The marriage of T-shirt and licensed character continues to appeal to consumers in a splendid, till-ringing way.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.

Join 62,000+ members. Yes, it’s completely free.

You May Also Like




This site uses cookies to provide you with the best user experience possible. By using License Global, you accept our use of cookies.