Level Up Your Apparel Offerings
The one thing about trends: They’re constantly changing. While the wholesale apparel market trails behind what’s happening in retail, it’s “much closer than we’ve ever been,” falling about one year behind retail trends, says Vicki Ostrom, trend analyst/futurist for SanMar, Issaquah, Washington. While not everything in retail transfers to the promo apparel industry, there are some standout styles to consider. Apparel experts provided us with some input on what promo products distributors can offer their clients this year, especially as corporate apparel continues to shift.
T-shirts and Hoodies
It’s no lie that comfort and casual apparel continue to take up space in people’s closets. As we continue to shift the way we work and play, casual apparel, such as T-shirts and hoodies, is here to stay.
One trend that transferred from retail to wholesale is the oversized look and unisex fit. While there’s always a place for men’s and women’s cuts and form-fitting styles, experts agree the baggier look continues to trend.
“Having those extended sizes, I think, is important,” says Rachel Hoskins, sales manager for Threadfast Apparel, New York. Ostrom feels similarly, noting sales for women-specific T-shirt shapes have dropped. Eric Simsolo, vice president of business development for Next Level Apparel (NLA), Torrance, California, echoes these opinions, saying heavier-weight T-shirts will “reign supreme.”
A style that likes to swing in and out of trend is the crop cut. What once was super short has now morphed into a longer, more “modest” crop, says Christina Marcantelli, business development specialist for S&S Activewear, Bolingbrook, Illinois. Even when the shorter-cropped hoodies appear, Ostrom says the overall fit is still looser and baggier. Whether it’s a hoodie or a tee, cropped styles are great for band and tour merch needs, and Hoskins says some creatives buy the oversized, unisex styles and opt to crop the garments themselves post-production for a unique look.
With that oversized fit comes the 100% cotton T-shirt, which Hoskins says will always be in demand. For a company that was heavily focused on blends, this fabric trend forced Threadfast to launch a 100% cotton option. While there has been an increase in the price of tri-blends — steering some to 100% cotton — Threadfast has continued to see year-over-year growth in the category.
No matter the style or cut, sustainability continues to be on everyone’s minds. “The younger generation is going into these buying positions; they want something new and different,” Hoskins explains. “That’s not only created this huge boost in sustainable offerings and sustainable products over the past year, but it’s finding new innovation, and we’ve seen a lot of that innovation of hard goods, but we haven’t seen a lot of that in apparel.”
That’s where near field communication (NFC) chips and QR codes come into play, allowing wearers to interact with the T-shirt beyond the initial purchase. NFC chips and QR codes can be programmed to launch a website, video, or app from any smartphone, creating a user experience and rethinking marketing. “We are selling marketing solutions. We’re not just selling tchotchkes,” Hoskins affirms. “Now, it’s a T-shirt that they’re going to keep because it interacts with them over the lifespan of the garment.”
Although T-shirts continue to be mainstays in any wardrobe, styles in the athleisure category stay on-trend. The wearability of these garment types — going from work to the gym to home — continues to drive their popularity.
“We’re wearing some version of it every day,” Hoskins notes. Whether it’s yoga pants at the gym or joggers paired with a bomber jacket and some sneakers in the office, casual attire has become somewhat of a new standard.
Distributors looking for items to offer their clients in the athleisure category should consider leggings, tanks, joggers, sport polos, and raglan T-shirts in blended fabrics like cotton, rayon, polyester, and spandex. As office attire continues to shift and workleisure becomes more prominent, shorts will be popular, Ostrom says. The quarter-zip is another style gaining traction, according to Simsolo, which works well in the workleisure category. Quarter zips are great for layering on top of a button-down or polo shirt for a corporate look, or they can be paired with a T-shirt and sweats for a relaxed, weekend outfit.
In the loungewear segment, sweatpants and sweatshirts are the go-to pieces, and because they see a lot of day-to-day wear, quality fabrics that don’t pill are essential. Specifically, hooded pullovers and crewneck sweatshirts continue to make a splash.
“It seems like that old, vintage university-style sweatshirt is going nowhere, and we’re seeing that uptick,” Hoskins says. “Zip-ups will never go away, but the hoodie remains king.” Additionally, Marcantelli says matching sets have consistent popularity in this category, including shorts, sweatpants, and joggers paired with a crewneck or hoodie in muted tie-dyed and pigment-dyed colors. “You see dyed-to-match being important,” Simsolo says. Also, having a good color story is essential across an entire line of merch or promo apparel.
Softer knits like open-front cardigans and “shackets” (shirt jackets) have great wearability with the option to lounge at home or elevate the look for work with a nice pair of pants and a T-shirt. With all these leisurewear garments, there’s a clear theme. “People want to be smarter about what’s the use case,” Simsolo affirms. “Everything comes down to the cost per use. If you can see yourselves using it more than once, it already becomes that much more interesting.”
In the outerwear category, bomber jackets, denim, and vests are three pieces distributors should consider offering clients this year. These lightweight layering pieces have the benefit of working cross-seasonally for those chilly spring days and summer evenings. They pair well with wovens, which are making a reappearance in the office, for a functional yet dressed up look, Marcantelli says.
“Vests are becoming a real go-to for people, whether it’s a polar fleece that you’re wearing for a real traditional technical outdoors kind of thing, but you’re also seeing a lot of puffy vests coming into play that are just cozy,” Ostrom explains. The vest is now an at-home, core-layer piece, but can also be worn to the office for an upscale look. Manufacturers are even adding little details for this very reason, like jackets and vests with two-way zippers for ultimate comfort when sitting at a desk.
Headwear and Accessories
Court sports are huge right now (tennis, pickleball, racquetball), says Ostrom, so items like visors and ponytail caps are great options. Outside of the sports realm, headwear incorporating more vintage looks is trending, like corduroy baseball hats and caps with genuine leather backstraps. “That’s something that’s a little different in our industry,” Ostrom says. “It’s traditionally been either your cotton twill or a technical nylon or something very sport oriented.”
Additionally, five-panel “camper caps” are still big, offering a client a little more “character” and “personality,” which Ostrom says is a trend on its own. People want to be unique and not look like every other passerby, which is also where decoration and branding come into play.
For distributors looking for something a little different, Marcantelli says straw hats, sun hats, and bucket hats are good options for clients seeking to add more fun to their corporate stores. Like the sustainability wave happening in apparel, more eco-friendly headwear options are becoming available, featuring BCI cotton and recycled polyester.
Level Up Your Offerings
2023 is where fashion and functionality meet — it’s about answering the question: What can people wear to work, go to the gym in, and relax in at home? Cross-functional, layerable pieces will continue to see popularity, which leaves distributors with great options for upselling complementary pieces (e.g., hoodies with sweatpants, joggers with polos, hats with shirts).
Ostrom tells distributors to take risks and explore newer styles, shapes, and patterns. Keeping your finger on the pulse of trends is important for positioning yourself as an expert, and along with that comes service, reliability, and efficiency, she adds.
Simsolo says “everything is available everywhere,” and while product selection is important, “for every Coke there’s a Pepsi.” While products can be replicated, he says customer service and relationships cannot. “People want to work with people they can rely on.”