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T-Shirt by Darwin

J.Crew has a newly expanded line of T-shirts that uses twisted threads; this is called “jaspé,” and it lends dimension to the surface of a shirt, almost like a sweater. The intention, however, is the same as with the other techniques—to make a new shirt look and feel like an instant heirloom. When J.Crew uses graphics, they’re “faded, barely visible, like you’ve been owning and washing your T-shirt for ages,” said Frank Muytjens, the company’s chief men’s designer. “Also love an overdyed graphic tee for a more tonal effect, to make the graphic almost disappear. Love a handcrafted, homespun graphic that looks like it’s by someone at home with a Sharpie.”

In other words, we’re now buying things that look like we made them ourselves.

In all of this, the line between new and vintage gets increasingly trampled. Some companies even take it to the next logical step—if you’re going to that much trouble to make a T-shirt old, why not just start with an old one? Rogues Gallery, based in Portland, Maine, “rag-picks” all its T-shirts from heaps of disposed clothes, then dyes them and prints them with various nautical-themed graphics drawn from the history of the Northeastern seaboard. Unis, on Elizabeth Street in Nolita, offers both a popular line of new slub-knit T-shirts and a revolving collection of vintage finds, some of which are doctored considerably. Unis’s Johnny Misheff shows me a soft sleeveless shirt that had been dip-dyed a muted violet-gray and then splashed with bleach. “It doesn’t get any more one-of-a-kind than this,” he says proudly.

Fashion designers like T-shirts because they’re a relatively cheap form to experiment with, and even in a down economy, a good idea will sell. Conversely, the barrier to enter the field is so low that the market is saturated with inspired amateurs. Quist Industries in Red Hook handles custom printing for fashion houses (and other clients, too, like hardware stores), and owners Paul and Becca Steinman say they have to spend a fair amount of time talking dreamy designers out of doing things. “It’s an unrelenting business,” Paul says. “There are people already doing almost anything you can imagine. And as soon as somebody does something cool or successful, it goes right up the chain. They’re already selling slub-knit shirts at Target.”

Paul has noticed evidence of a turn back to bold, and even neon colors. “I think people might want a little flair again,” he says. As much as fashion designers love foraging in the past, there are others in the T-shirt world seeking to distinguish themselves by venturing into the unknown. Sahadeva Hammari, who runs a site called Rumplo that has indexed more than 13,000 T-shirt designs, reels off a list of promising futuristic techniques, like glow-in-the-dark inks, heat-sensitive fabrics, improved laser-printing that makes photographs clear and sharper, foil printing that incorporates reflective elements, and all-over printing that uses the entire T-shirt as a canvas. “These technologies offer much more exciting possibilities for artists than just making a T-shirt look old,” Hammari says. It is one thing, after all, to make new things look distressed in a boom economy; but in an environment of actual distress, does this approach hold up?

Even the basic shape of a T-shirt is being toyed with. “Though you might find it hard to believe, scoop necks, oversize tees, and even tank tops with low-cut sides are all the rage in men’s fashion tees,” says Jennifer Mankins, the proprietor of the Bird mini retail empire. “Robert Geller has a new T-shirt line called Seconds, which are all sightly oversized, more organic shapes made from a supersoft slub jersey, and Alexander Wang just launched his line of men’s tees this week—oversized scoop necks, tanks, and striped, slouchy rayon jerseys.”

And for those with a taste for neither the future nor the past, there is the crazy zone. For the Soho store Opening Ceremony, the artist Terence Koh came up with a series of T-shirts that included one with a real bullet hole (it looks like a harmless little tear) and another that is encrusted with crushed fake pearls. At $500, it’s a decorative objet, nothing you can really wear. And in that regard, Koh’s gloriously absurd creation blows away the singular virtue that has defined the T-shirt all the way through all its ups and downs—utility. With that gone, there is officially no limit on where it can go.