Get creative and always consider the end user is the secret to running a successful garment decoration business, advises Marty Lott of US giant SanMar

SanMar’s Dallas DC – one of the eight national distribution centres that between them provide more than four million square feet of inventory space

SanMar may not be a familiar name in the UK, although we’re willing to wager many of you reading this will have heard of the company, such is its global reputation. In the US, however, the name SanMar is as familiar to every garment decorator as Gildan or Fruit of the Loom.

Described as being “the largest supplier of apparel to the imprinted sportswear and corporate identity markets in the United States”, SanMar was founded 45 years ago by Marty Lott, who began distributing T-shirts for a college project. The company has gone on to win numerous awards, now employs 4,000 people and has eight national distribution centres with more than four million square feet of inventory space. Marty is an acknowledged industry expert, having, amongst other accolades, been ranked no. 1 in the ASI Power 50 list of the industry’s most influential leaders. His UK appearance in September at the BPMA’s Education Day in Silverstone was something of a coup for the association.

Before his ‘Successfully Selling Apparel’ talk for the BPMA, Marty spoke to Images to share his observations of the UK market, thoughts on the differences between the US and UK decoration industries, and advice on how UK garment decorators could become more successful.

“I’ve spent some time over in England and Germany talking to my counterparts, and I know there is a huge difference in the promotional market across the continent, from north to south,” he says. “I think the US market is 10-15 years ahead of the continental European market, and seven to eight years ahead of the UK market.

“We have an expression: “Make ‘have to’ wear, ‘want to’ wear. I think in America we have moved ahead further ahead with the creativity involved in decorating a garment, and so our garments are ‘want to wear’.”

Creating a sense of belonging

Marty continues: “People want to be part of a group. If you went to Switzerland to ski and bought a top with the mountain’s name on, when you’re home and wearing the top and someone says, ‘Hey, I’ve been there too!’, suddenly you’re not a stranger, you’ve become part of a group.”
He concedes that there are cultural differences between the UK and the US to take into consideration when making any assessment of the two markets. For example, go to any small US town on a Saturday during the football or baseball season and a vast majority of the town’s population will be wearing the local’s sports team’s shirts. It’s hard to imagine a similar situation in the UK, yet Marty points out that it’s not just cultural – partly the wearing of a logo, whether that of a brand or a team, is how it has been brought to market.

“Some time ago I was in Spain and I saw a T-shirt for a local car dealership that had the name, phone number and address on it – and that was it. That was the whole print! Who would want to wear that?”

Corporate event team hoodies: This basic single-colour chest screen print (left) has been upgraded with a three-colour chest screen print, custom hood liner and elbow patches

The key to creating promotional apparel that people are going to keep wearing, rather than throwing it away after one wear, is to design for the person who is going to wear it, not the company who is ordering it, explains Marty. “Create the art for the wearer, because then they’ll want to wear the garment. For example, perhaps the logo should be only three inches instead of the 10 inches the company asked for in order for the end user to want to carry on wearing it and advertising the company’s name.”

The same reasoning should be applied to uniforms, he adds. “When I was in New York recently my waiter was wearing a shirt that we sell. I asked him if he knew what the label was in his shirt and instantly he said ‘Port Authority’. This was on Madison Avenue, one of the swankiest streets in the world, and they’re wearing a uniform and they knew who had made it. We put a lot of effort into making people want to wear their clothes. His boss had on the same shirt, but was wearing a tie with it. He had dressed it up, but he could still be identified as being part of the same group.”

Executive team shirts: This basic chest logo embroidery (left) has been upgraded to a tonal left chest embroidery for a more sophisticated image

Marty says the ideal for a branded uniform is for the wearer to be able to leave work and go to a pub or a restaurant in the same clothes without feeling they need to change. If the clothes have been designed with them in mind, then it’s likely they’ll wear them for longer, and the branding will be seen by more people, he explains.

A noticeable aspect of the garment decoration industry in the US is the degree to which knowledge is now freely shared between suppliers, decorators and manufacturers. SanMar has a decorator relations team that works closely with decorators and equipment manufacturers (both ink and machinery) in order to understand techniques, their impact on fabrics, the benefits of new and changing technology, and many other aspects of the trade. Marty suggests that this mindset has benefited the entire marketplace by raising the profile, and perception, of branded garments in the US.

Maintenance team polos: This basic breast embroidery (left) has been upgraded with the addition of an icon screen print at the bottom side seam

“This feedback and collaboration is crucial to us as we develop apparel, and we can educate our customers on the best methods and techniques for the apparel they purchase,” says Marty. “The collaboration between the distributor, the decorator and the equipment manufacturer is a win for everyone.”

Marty’s top tips

Presenting the options

A garment not worn, poorly cared for, or left on the sideline is a bad investment. Forget ‘Have to wear’, make ‘Want to wear’!

• Provide options: good, better and best
• Fit the budget: garments and care
• Define sizing: adult and companion pieces
• Decorate: add the client’s logo, be creative
• Discuss: construction technique and decoration capabilities

Be knowledgeable

There will always be new fabrics on the market and changing technology. Understanding material, fit, colour and decoration differentiates you from others.

• Subscribe to trade publications
• Attend educational seminars and trade shows
• Tour decoration facilitiesUtilise your supplier’s sales teamWear the product!


We know not all apparel is created equal…and neither is artwork. A logo can be interpreted uniquely for a specific end use while maintaining brand integrity.


• What is the end user trying to achieve – unity, familiarity, awareness?
• Who is wearing the garment – executives, customer service, hospitality workers?


• Look at what potential there is to upgrade a design to maximise the effectiveness of a logo and ensure it suits its intended purpose [see the garment examples shown above for inspiration].