It’s hard to think of a fashion item that’s been more commoditized than the T-shirt. Over the last century it’s evolved from a versatile work garment for miners, sailors, and farmers into a nearly universal piece of topwear for students, athletes, and startup employees. It’s also become a form of wearable advertising—a way to display one’s philosophy or affiliations or sense of humor to the world.
But amidst this rush to make the medium into the message, it seems like nobody pays much attention anymore to little things that matter for other articles of clothing—like fit, fabric quality, and durability.
Well, almost nobody. With support from venture and angel investors, several new groups of Internet entrepreneurs have set out to reinvent the way T-shirts are designed, manufactured, and sold.
|The Net’s Top Stops for T-Shirts|
|Pickwick & Weller||www.pickwickweller.com|
They’re bringing different philosophies to the table—Pickwick & Weller, for example, has high-profile investors like Ashton Kutcher and Andreessen Horowitz and wants to be “accepted first and foremost by the fashion world,” while Pistol Lake bootstrapped operations via Kickstarter and sees itself as a group of “makers and craftsmen” rather than as a fashion company.
But there’s a common emphasis at these companies on making great shirts that fit well; on manufacturing the shirts in the U.S., rather than offshoring the work; and on using the Internet to connect directly with customers and turn them into fans.
“The T-shirt is the uniform of the creative worker,” says Ryan Donahue, co-founder and CEO of Pickwick & Weller. But people shopping for casual workplace garb shouldn’t have to pay designer prices, Donahue argues. The 10-employee startup, which has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, makes men’s and women’s crew-neck, V-neck, and tank-top shirts at prices ranging from $26 for a classic men’s crew to $79 for a women’s cashmere-blend tee.
There’s something for everyone at Pickwick & Weller. Each item in its line is available not only in the standard extra-small, small, medium, and large sizes but often in variations that the company calls the “classic,” “slim,” “modern,” “long,” and “relaxed” fits. (For the women’s line, there’s also a “boyfriend” fit; I confess I didn’t ask what that means, nor did I ask why the men’s tees don’t offer a “girlfriend” fit. [Update: A female colleague explains to me that “The boyfriend fit is a fairly common fit in women’s clothing—both shirts and pants—that fits a bit looser than a normal piece of women’s clothing. It’s supposed to mimic the feel of stealing your boyfriend’s clothes to cuddle up in, but with a bit more structure.” Okay then.])
“We identified early on that fit was something we really wanted to excel at,” Donahue says. “We offer a multitude of fits across our styles so that everyone can find something they look and feel great in.”
Pistol Lake, based in Los Angeles, also emphasizes fit and price, seeing an opportunity to compete on those factors with the plethora of low- and high-end brands.
“How a shirt fits is incredibly important and difficult to get right,” says founder William Sulinski. “Evidence of how difficult it can be is the vast number of poorly fitting T-shirts available on the market.”
Pistol Lake raised $51,000 on Kickstarter last winter and is working on a men’s V-neck tee (modeled by Sulinski in the photo at the top of this story), a crew-neck tee, a hoodie, and a polo shirt. All are available for pre-order, and full-scale production began early this month. Prices range from $22.50 for the crew tee to $65 for the hoodie.
Pickwick & Weller and Pistol Lake have one more thing in common: they’re pure e-commerce companies, opting to go around both bricks-and-mortar stores and large e-retailers by selling directly from their websites. That lets the companies avoid retail markups, retain control of their brands, and build a direct fan base.
“By not selling through retailers we can keep our prices much lower and offer a boutique-quality product at a price you can’t find anywhere else,” says Donahue. On top of that, “we can own the relationship with our customers…We want to change the experience around buying one’s wardrobe basics.” He adds that the company pays careful attention to all the customer “touch points,” including its website, packaging, and the way customers are treated over the phone.
Sulinski, formerly the founder of Maine startup AccelGolf, makes a similar point. On the Internet, he says, “companies can build meaningful relationships with people who share their values.” This way, there’s a better chance of turning customers into lifelong supporters who can offer the company feedback about designs and manufacturing quality, he says.
But on at least one point, the two startups are different. Pickwick & Weller packages itself as a fashion company and wants to be judged “on the merits of products/designs alone,” says Donahue, who was one of the original user-interface designers at PayPal. He recruited actor Kutcher as a co-founder, evangelist, and investor. To scale up quickly, the company has raised additional funds (it hasn’t disclosed how much) from Andreessen Horowitz, Baseline Ventures, Felicis Ventures, Forerunner Ventures, and Ron Conway’s SV Angel, as well as Warby Parker founder Dave Gilboa and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.
Pistol Lake, by contrast, steers away from the fashion industry’s limelight. “While we’re operating somewhat close to the fashion industry, we really don’t consider ourselves fashion designers or a fashion company,” Sulinski says. “We are makers and craftsmen, and our goal is building the best product possible. Fashion companies and lifestyle brands have employed tactics of brand building that play on exclusivity, but that just isn’t something we’re interested in.”
Of course, T-shirts have been a staple of online commerce for years, so neither company is breaking ground in that sense. Companies like Threadless, Spreadshirt, CafePress, and Zazzle make it easy to order T-shirts with custom designs. For $15 a month, New York-based Startup Threads will send you a bag containing a startup T-shirt and other assorted swag. And for some consumer Internet companies like CollegeHumor.com, having a T-shirt line is almost a business requirement (that site spun off BustedTees in 2004).
Even famed Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator is getting into the T-shirt business: one of the companies in its Winter 2013 class was Teespring, which has built a Kickstarter-like site where anyone with an idea for a custom T-shirt design can collect the pledges they need to finance the project. If a project meets its goal, Teespring prints and ships the shirts, keeping a flat fee per shirt.
But what’s new and different about Pickwick & Weller and Pistol Lake is that they’re about image, style, and aspirations, not just e-commerce or cool silkscreen designs. Like Warby Parker, Fab, Houzz, and other style-centric Internet brands, they’re attempting to build new businesses by repositioning old standards for the Facebook generation and its dreams. Says Donahue: “The next billion-dollar company will be started by someone wearing a T-shirt, not a suit.”
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