This year's news comes in next-generation graphics, old-school characters, and witty or powerful phrases.
"The best and most memorable graphic Ts throughout the years are the ones that capture the pulse of that time," says Tana Ward, senior vice-president and chief merchandising officer for American Eagle.
Because of the price — and frequency of wear — T-shirt trends also can move quickly because they aren't intended as long-term investment pieces.
"This is an affordable fashion change," says Seventeen fashion director Gina Kelly.
"Graphics are really, really big in the teenage market, and so is nostalgia," Kelly says. "At 16, a girl understands irony, and that makes it cool to do some things. You also have T-shirt companies borrowing from the runways like Givenchy, and that's where you'll see space prints, high-fashion prints — and photo-realism prints are definitely big, too."
It's all about image and messaging, which this generation is very comfortable with, she says. "It's about affirmation on your chest. You are making your statement, whether you are making fun of designers with a 'Celine as Celfie' shirt or saying you loved Hello Kitty when you were in kindergarten. ... It's the antithesis of a few years ago when all she wanted was the perfect Alex Wang plain-grey, perfect-weight T."
The heavily logoed look also is passe, says AE's Ward. "Today, our customer is focused on projecting a personal identity. ... Our girl is also much more aware of the artistic side of graphic design and how it adds texture and interest to her outfit."
All she needs is a circle mini skirt and a pair of printed jeans (two other popular back-to-school items this year), and she is good to go, says Kelly.
T-shirts also can be a canvas for other trends.
In the Aeropostale fall lineup, there are cartoon cameras, faded flags and collegiate stripes on the shirts. Emilia Fabricant, executive vice-president of Aeropostale, says kids and teenagers like to wear a "uniform," they just need enough variety so it doesn't look the same every day.
For younger kids, there are colorblocked sleeves, retro ringer necklines and new printing techniques. In J. Crew's Crewcuts collection there are glow-in-the-dark graphics for boys and sparkle for girls.
"We use our own children as laboratories. And definitely access our inner children," says head of design Jenny Cooper.
Statement T-shirts, with words, embellishment or images, are expressive but are not fashion risks, says Betsy Zanjani, senior vice-president of design products for Forever 21. "To say 'graphic T' as a trend is a broad, brush-stroke characterization, but what the T-shirt is has become very specific, with multiple things driving it."
Zanjani ticks off the comics craze — taking note of the pop culture phenomenon that Comic-Con has become — as one of the strongest influences. Forever 21 has opened in-store Marvel Comics shops as the retailer noted "an almost cult following of old-school comic strips and vintage action figures," she says. "Things that are vintage and retro are really strong in both our male and female businesses."
The surprise might be the strong sales of "Boom! Pow! Bam!" with young women, but Susan Fields, vice-president of product merchandising for Marvel Entertainment, says a good character transcends gender. Still, there has to be the right fit and fabric, and that's why Marvel partnered with Forever 21. "We needed to walk away from the boys' boxy T-shirt."
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