The T-shirt that changed my mind about T-shirts might not impress you much at first glance. But that’s because you’re not wearing it. Sure, it’s plain heather gray, and maybe you do have some treasured rag in your drawer that looks a bit similar. But trust me, you don’t have anything in there that remotely feels like it.
This shirt, if you’ll excuse me for sounding ridiculous, may be the most perfect garment I own. The fabric is thin to the point of almost being sheer, made of high-gauge long-fiber Sea Island cotton that is difficult to describe without resorting to clichés: soft as a buttered, cashmere baby’s bottom? Yes, that soft! I’ve sampled some of the comfiest shirts out there, like the popular line by James Perse. But this takes it to another level. Designed by a New York fashion company called Loden Dager, the T-shirt is loose though not baggy, with shorter-than-usual sleeves, and it hangs just below the belt line. “It is a basic tee done in the most luxurious way we currently know how,” says Loden Dager designer Paul Marlow, who added that “we will keep exploring that limit and hopefully come up with something even better.”
Such perfection comes with what many will regard as an unconscionable price tag—$125. I can’t defend it, except to say that at least you’re not paying for a label or logo-infested status symbol. This shirt is made expressly to please the person wearing it, and nobody else. Its value is not projected outward to the world. It’s directed inward. And that ideal, it turns out, is what defines the men’s fashion–T-shirt movement these days.
In Paleolithic times, the T-shirt was a humble tool, worn beneath a shirt, to absorb perspiration. But ever since James Dean started wearing one without anything on top, it morphed into a form of personal advertising, a movable billboard. Even Dean’s plain white shirt conveyed a powerful message, which was, You can’t tell me who to be, a declaration that has never gone out of style. From the hippies in their tie-dyes to the disaffected metal kid I just saw in Washington Square Park wearing a gothic-stenciled Goatwhore T-shirt, the primary social function of a T-shirt has stayed the same. But it’s become a meager form of self-expression—people don’t pay much attention anymore. Nobody gave so much as a second glance at the Goatwhore kid. His shirt was howling into the void.
The greatest breakthrough of the last decade was when American Apparel, under the direction of its free-loving founder Dov Charney, turned the fit of a T-shirt into a message. Never mind the graphics or slogans. The message was you—your body thrust out there into the world, shrink-wrapped in every conceivable color. American Apparel remains powerful and ubiquitous in the T-shirt world, but the trends have gotten subtler and more introverted. In the same way that various art movements become hermetic and end up addressing the nature of art itself, today’s cutting-edge T-shirt is all about the T-shirt. Comfort, as in the Loden Dager shirt, is the golden principle, but it gets way more complicated than that. Because comfort isn’t simply a matter of how a shirt feels; it is also a matter of how you feel about the shirt. And designers are constantly trying to figure out how to game that relationship with science and technology. Just as denim designers have been doing for years, T-shirt makers are introducing artful imperfections in an effort to turn a commodity into something personal and familiar.
How does a new T-shirt feel instantly familiar? The patina of age is a good start. It not only softens shirts and makes them comfortable, it lends them the aura of uniqueness. This has been well understood for a long time — the sophisticated mainstream giant J.Crew has for years offered all kinds of stone-washing, garment-dying, faux-fading techniques. But designers keep coming up with ever more advanced ways to simulate the aging process and make it more nuanced, more authentic-looking. One newly popular material is called “slub knit,” a fabric made from threads that are not uniform. Held up to the light, the material looks clotted—denser chunks here, lighter chunks there, sort of like that old gym shirt of yours from college. A cooler name for the same general idea, introduced to me by a salesman at the men’s store Odin on Lafayette Street as we examined a Rag & Bone T-shirt, is “fire knit.” This style, funnily enough, is inspired by the irregular yarn that was produced before technology made smooth yarn the norm. Then there’s “burnout,” a more extreme, irregular effect achieved by taking a cotton-polyester-blend fabric and treating it with a chemical that both destroys cellulose-based threads (the cotton) and softens the polyester. Often, it leaves a shirt light, delicate, and basically see-through, which first proved popular with women and is now, improbably, becoming a hit with men. It is also possible to use burnout in particular sections of the garment, so you can make an embedded design from the difference in texture between treated and untreated sections.