When it comes to marketing techniques, t-shirts have proven their worth. For decades, the humble t-shirt has remained one of the most consistently popular ways to advertise a business, brand or campaign. Marketers understand the power of the tee and its ability to appeal to end users.

Because t-shirts are increasingly recognized as an effective way to market a business, the t-shirt business is booming. Now is the time for tees.

Ultimate Fashion Statement

For more than 40 years, apparel has been the promotional products industry’s leading product category—and tees are a big part of that. According to PPAI’s 2017 Sales Volume Study, wearables represented 35.8 percent of last year’s $23.3 billion in total distributor sales. (28.8 percent was spent on apparel; seven percent on accessories.) 

While t-shirts remain a closet staple in the industry, what has changed is the prominence of t-shirts in other markets. In the world of retail, the popularity of athleisure and streetwear has stiffened the “tee-time” competition, with designer fashion labels competing with iconic brands. Today, t-shirts are produced by luxury brands like Gucci, Chanel and Fendi, taking them to new heights in the consumer market and putting them in the sweet spot for sales.

For example, in May, The Guardian ran a story about fashion house Balenciaga’s “T-shirt Shirt,” picturing a t-shirt with a button-down shirt draped on top of it. Part of the luxury retailer’s fall 2018 collection, the two-for-one tee carried a price tag of $1,290. It’s the latest proof that the adaptable tee has emerged as the ultimate fashion statement yet remains the classic go-to wardrobe staple for casual chic.

“The importance of tees in our wardrobes is not diminishing,” says Kevin Miles, director of sales operations for Norcross, Georgia-based supplier Alternative Apparel. “Our customers want higher-end fashion basics that work alone or as great layering pieces.”  

From Retail To Showroom Rack

What’s hot in promotional t-shirts is typically rooted in the latest consumer fashion trends. “Patterns are a growing trend in this market that is starting to catch up to retail,” Miles says. “Camo, stars and stripes are some of our best-selling retail styles, and they are hot in printwear now, too.”

Marcus Davis, product development manager for Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based supplier HanesBrands, sees fabric weights starting to diversify. “After years of trending toward lightweight fabrics, mid-weights and even heavyweights are growing in popularity,” Davis says. “This also goes hand in hand with the rise of unisex tees, particularly with younger consumers.”

Miles predicts the t-shirt market will trend in the coming months toward rich colors such as bright reds, deep yellows and intense blues. “Also, look for pinks in all shades—for both men and women,” he adds. “We’ve doubled down on our pink hues to meet the demand.”

Davis says the biggest macro trends influencing the apparel market are elevated fabrics, sustainability, and styles with a vintage look and feel.

“Customers want heritage styles but with modern fabrics,” he says. “Champion, for example, is adding a ring-spun option to its ringer tee and a three-quarter-sleeve baseball tee—two classic, retro styles that are as popular today as they were decades ago.” 

Given its colorful heritage and heady future, the t-shirt is both timely and timeless, making it not just an essential wardrobe staple, but an all-time favorite marketing tool.


T-Shirt Fun Facts

  • T-shirts evolved from long underwear, also called union suits, which were popular in the early 19th century
  • Taking its name from the shape of its "T" outline, the word "t-shirt" was first recorded between 1940 and 1945
  • The first promotional t-shirt was printed in 1939 for The Wizard of Oz
  • Henley tees take their name from the no-collar shirts with button plackets that were worn by rowers in Henley, England
  • In the 1950s celebrities like Marlon Brando and James Dean shocked Americans by wearing their "underwear" on the big screen
  • In the 1970s the "I [Heart] New York" t-shirt campaign was initiated to promote New York as a tourist spot
  • It takes one acre of cotton to make 1,200 tees
  • In 2011Huffington Post reported that Jason Sadler--a PPAI Expo 2012 keynote speaker--had become a millionaire simply by wearing brands' promotional t-shirts
  • International T-shirt Day is observed on June 21, the official first day of summer


In Style

Made of a unique tri-blend fabric containing polyester, ring-spun combed cotton and rayon, the District® Women’s Fitted Perfect Tri® Tee hugs 
the body for a figure-flattering silhouette. This 
form-fitting women’s tee features a rib-knit neck, tear-away label and shoulder-to-shoulder taping.

SanMar   /   PPAI 110788   /   www.sanmar.com


Made of 100 percent ring-spun cotton jersey for cozy comfort, the Hanes Just My Size Women’s Long Sleeve Tee features figure-flattering side-seam shaping and a self-fabric back neck display. The tee’s stylish shirttail hem is longer in length, covering the tops of the thighs for a slimming effect. Comes in sizes 1X-5X.

Heritage Sportswear   /   PPAI 177353   /   www.heritagesportswear.com


Kids can layer up for those cool morning walks to the bus in the Keeper Vintage Jersey Crew Youth T-Shirt, made of super-soft cotton/polyester vintage jersey. A key style from Alternative Apparel’s new Alternative Youth collection, this unisex tee features stylish details like a bound collar and blind stitching on the sleeve and hem, plus a tearaway tag for comfort.

Alternative Apparel   /   PPAI 217134   /   www.alternativeapparel.com


This updated essential fits like a well-loved favorite. It features a retail fit with short sleeves and shoulder taping, and is crafted of superior Airlume combed and ring-spun cotton—the best blank canvas for printing. Offered in a variety of solid and heather colors and in unisex sizes XS - 4XL.

Bella + Canvas   /   PPAI 304892   /   www.bella.com


Made of pure, ring-spun cotton for all-day comfort and lasting wear, the Nike Core Cotton Tee is the perfect t-shirt for sports and athleisure wear. Featuring double-knit stitching throughout and a durable rib-knit crewneck with taping, this t-shirt features a contrast-colored heat-transfer Nike swoosh trademark design on the left sleeve. Plus, it has a heat-transfer label for itch-free comfort.

Transfer Express   /   PPAI 690341www.transferexpress.com


Get your groove on wearing the Hi-Def T-Shirt, a lightweight cotton jersey tee with multi-color, high-definition graphic prints. The designs are digitally printed with eco-friendly, water-based inks and there is no limit to the number of colors that can be used. This tee can be ordered starting with just one piece, making it great for drop-ships and small order customization. Available in a range of colors and in sizes S-3XL.

Vantage Apparel   /   PPAI 113235   /   www.vantageapparel.com


Featuring a semi-fitted, contoured silhouette, the Gildan Performance® Ladies’ T-Shirt has details that flatter, including cap sleeves, a seamed half-inch collar, and double-needle sleeve and bottom hems. The snag-resistant, 100-percent polyester jersey knit fabric is antimicrobial and moisture-wicking to keep users cool. It’s also machine washable for easy care.

Gildan Activewear   /   PPAI 250187www.mygildan.com


Featuring high-density fabric for exceptional imprint clarity, the Fruit of the Loom HD Cotton Long Sleeve T-Shirt is made of a cotton/polyester blend for comfort and easy care. During the production process, this men’s tee is quarter-turned, so the crease is moved to the side of the shirt under the arm, rather than down the center front and back of the shirt, resulting in a smoother surface for printing. Stylish accents include rib cuffs, shoulder-to-shoulder taping and double-needle stitching.

S & S Activewear   /   PPAI 256121   /   www.ssactivewear.com


Leveraging the consumer demand for clothing made of natural fibers, the Prim + Preux Women’s Pima Pique Top is fabricated with 100 percent pima cotton for luxurious comfort. Styled with a flattering modern-classic fit, this short-sleeved statement tee features a funnel neck with slit, side seams and double-needle hems.

S & S Activewear   /   PPAI 256121www.ssactivewear.com


Designed for the ultra-cool end user, the T-Shirt & Sunglasses Kit packages two promotional products in one, leveraging a bundling strategy to add value to your promotion. Each kit includes a Hanes Nano t-shirt made of 100 percent ring-spun cotton for casual comfort, plus a pair of UV400 retro sunglasses with polycarbonate frame and lens. Tees come in unisex sizing with 27 color options; sunglasses are available in 10 colors.

Eyevertising    /   PPAI 536045 www.eyevertising.com


Brittany Glenn is a Dallas, Texas-based writer and a former associate editor of PPB.