Promo apparel styles tend to lag behind retail trends, but that’s not a bad thing, as employee apparel and giveaway garments need staying power so they’ll be worn for the long term.

That said, the time frame between trends emerging in retail and those same styles making inroads into promo is getting shorter as the industry becomes more nimble and forward-looking.

“When I joined this industry seven years ago, it felt like there was a year or two between retail and the promo industry, says Taylor Borst, director of marketing events and PR with Minnesota-based distributor American Solutions for Business. “Now it feels like that time frame has gotten smaller and there’s less turn time.”

Although classic blanks will always remain at the heart of promo apparel, she adds, the brands that do a really good job of forecasting and trying to keep up with retail are the ones that will win.

Here’s what you need to know about four key retail trends percolating into promo apparel:

1. Y2K/Oversized Styles Loom Large

The ’90s nostalgia train is still full steam ahead, so oversized garments, bucket hats, straight-leg pants and other Y2K styles remain popular. This includes heavier fabrics, especially for T-shirts and hoodies. Remember the Hanes Beefy Tee? “It’s back, baby!” says Borst.

The classic heavyweight cotton Hanes Beefy Tee features soft U.S.-grown ringspun cotton (some colors cotton/poly blend). Available in 49 colors (grape smash heather shown) and unisex sizes S-6X.

S&S Activewear / PPAI 256121, S12

2. Unisex Styling & Sizing On The Rise

Hand-in-hand with the oversized trend, buyers are increasingly looking for unisex styles, especially for younger audiences. Benefits of this approach include single SKU ordering, as well as inclusivity for diverse sizes and gender expressions.

But keep company culture and the brand’s overall aesthetic in mind when considering this trend. Oversized might be great for a beverage or gaming company, but not a good fit for an accounting firm or dentist’s office aiming for a more traditional, professional look.

Go for a modern look with the Unisex Straight Leg Sweat Pant in lightweight cotton/poly blend fleece. “Bella+Canvas does such a nice job of looking at what’s trending in the retail market,” says Borst. “The trend in denim right now is the straight leg, so it makes sense that we’re starting to see the jogger also make a transition.” Available in four colors (dark gray heather shown) and unisex sizes XS-2X.

BELLA + CANVAS / PPAI 304892, S6

3. Designing For Women First

Many promo suppliers are creating fresh, retail-inspired garments specifically for women that don’t have a men’s companion piece. “What I tend to see is that with the younger side of buyers, we’re seeing the bigger skew to unisex, where with the older demographic, you tend to see a lot more women-inspired, women-specific,” says Borst.

Brandable women’s wear has come a long way, says Kelly Brown, director of marketing and operations with Michigan-based distributor Green Giftz. “There are pieces I would just wear blank without a logo on them that are very nice.”

Especially in the professional or executive space, women want something that looks good and feels good, says Borst. “I look for things that seamlessly fit into my existing wardrobe that I feel really confident in,” she adds.

The Mercer+Mettle Women’s Stretch Crepe 3/4-Sleeve Blouse offers a comfortable and stylish corporate casual silhouette different from the standard polo or button-down. Available in five colors (shown in insignia blue) and sizes XS-4X.

SanMar / PPAI 110788, S16

4. Capsule Wardrobing Allows Customization

Capsule wardrobing – curating a set of practical, coordinated garments that can be worn interchangeably – is growing in popularity, and it’s a great approach for corporate apparel programs. This way, employees can retain a uniform look while still able to express their own personal style – which helps keep those pieces in active use much longer.

Branded apparel should be practical and flexible so that the garments appeal to a broad audience and everyone can make use of them, says Kelli Denes, director of business development with Iowa-based distributor The Vernon Company.

 “What I love about the way that apparel has really changed for the promo industry is that it’s appealing, and the flexibility to have it fit everyone is great,” she says. “Customization is in every way important in this day and age, and making things personally your own, so I think having corporate apparel that can fit that need is wonderful.”

The poly/cotton Mercer+Mettle 1/4-Zip Sweater is part of a collection of mix-and-match pieces for a suite of coordinated apparel. This easy-to-layer unisex essential is designed to complement anyone’s work-life style. Available in three colors (insignia blue shown) and sizes XS-4X.

SanMar / PPAI 110788, S16

Even Burger King has resurrected its classic “Have it your way” commercials – so letting people choose the pieces they like best is a great way to fuel the desire for self-expression as well as enthusiasm for those branded garments.


Enabling people to fit in and stand out at the same time is an important employee retention strategy, says Borst. “Personal expression is on the table now more than ever,” she says, “and the more we can align the promo with that, the better.