T-Shirt by Darwin

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.

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.

T-Shirt by Darwin