As Images celebrates its 25th anniversary, we look at how the high volume promowear market has changed over the decades, and ask the leading suppliers to identify their biggest selling promowear product of last year


In some ways, the demands of high volume promowear clients haven’t changed much over the past 25 years: the choice of garments may have expanded, says Peter Joyce, MD of TOTShirts, but the 100% cotton T-shirt is still the industry staple. Likewise, black and white are still the top colours.

Mark Somerfield, director of Direct Textile Designs, comments: “Back then the garment choices were more limited with only really the Fruit Original T being used. Obviously times have changed and the number of suppliers and garments has increased significantly. The fact remains, however, that for really big volume, quick turnaround jobs there are only two garment suppliers that are able to react in terms of price and stock holding: Gildan and Fruit Of The Loom continue to be the main players in this market.”

Look a little closer, however, and you will discover some significant changes in promowear since 1992. Women’s T-shirts come as standard across all brands now: 25 years ago they simply didn’t exist. “In the old days, you bought a T-shirt and that was it,” explains Alex Sibbald, director of promotional products and corporate gift company Creative Promotions. “Whereas in the past it was just a case of ‘You take a large size? There you are, that’s it’, they’ve now expanded the fits. Nowadays you’ve got skinny fit, you’ve got ladies’ tapered ones… If you know that there’s a certain percentage going for sale or for handing out to ladies then you don’t just go ‘Give me 500 white, spread over medium, large, extra large, etcetera’, you say you want so many women’s because they appreciate that the shape may be that wee bit different.”

Fruit of the Loom: Original T

Fruit of the Loom says its Original T continues to be the promotional T-shirt of choice for many decorators and print shops: “Made to Fruit’s exacting quality, its price is perfect for promotions, while its great range of 21 colours in men’s, ladies’ and kids’ sizes means there’s an original T-shirt for every volume promotion. With a superior printing surface, it can be decorated with any logo, campaign slogan or graphics.”

Russell Europe Slim T

The Russell Europe Slim T (155M/F/B) is a promowear essential, reports the brand, which says the tee combines form and function: “It’s a win-win for everyone – a smart, good quality T-shirt that’s not a throwaway and will look good wash after wash and continue to represent the brand well month after month.” The Slim T has a contemporary cut that allows it to skim the body rather than cling to it. It’s made from 100% ringspun cotton, is available in 17 colours, and can be washed at 40°C and tumble-dried.

Stedman: Classic-T Crew Neck

“When it comes to high volume articles, no other style in Stedman’s Basics collection matches the Classic-T,” says the brand. “This is the prototypical T-shirt for the promotional industry: Made of durable, ringspun single jersey cotton, it offers good quality at a competitive price and a perfect base for all kinds of textile decoration.” It is available in a selection of 19 colours and sizes S-3XL, meaning the Classic-T (ST2000) fits almost anyone and matches a broad range of purposes, says the brand.

There was little or no choice in styles at all in the beginning, agrees Jon Birrell, marketing director of promotional merchandise BTC Group, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. “As the industry grew, companies like Mr. President stocked and ran ranges of American brands like Hanes as well as a local supply of Screen Stars, Jerzees and various UK manufactured garments. I believe the success and growth of our industry came from PenCarrie and the ‘sheds’. With this came service, choice and availability – their story can be measured in the thickness of their catalogues year-on-year. They quickly understood what was needed to turn the industry into a powerful advertising media known now as ‘promotional merchandise’.”

Cotton may still be the number one choice for promowear, but other fabrics are now getting a look in. “We have seen a huge rise in interest for tri-blend and mixed fabrics such as those produced by Bella+Canvas,” comments Sam Turner, sales director at Fire Label Merchandising. Over at Direct Textile Designs, Mark has noticed a big increase in 100% polyester performance fabrics in the running/events market thanks to its moisture wicking abilities.

Customers are also asking for more retail-quality styles, reports Alex. “If they’re buying their Next T-shirts and they’re costing them 15-20 quid, then when they start buying T-shirts at £3 printed up, they realise that these are just for wearing down the beach then being thrown away.” He concedes that it doesn’t happen a lot – when offered a choice of a £1.90 or a £2.10 shirt for an order for 500 or 1,000 shirts with two colours, the client is likely to opt for the cheaper one still, as “price matters” – but some clients are asking for heavier weight tees or a nicer finish as they want the T-shirts to better reflect what’s found in the shops.

Gordon Glenister, director general of the BPMA, adds: “We are starting to see more stylish garments enter the sector, even following some of the fashion trends in the consumer market. Recipients want to look and feel good when wearing a branded T-shirt, and corporates want to ensure their brand is well represented. BPMA research proves that they want better quality garments: the challenge is making sure they will pay more for them.”

White T-shirts continue to be the first choice on very large runs thanks to cost. “It’s cheaper for us to buy and cheaper to print so we can offer much more competitive pricing to our customers that are trying to make their budgets go as far as possible,” explains Sam. However, colour choice is not (dare we say it) as black and white as it might at first appear. “Where colours are concerned we have noticed an increase in our customers buying a wider variety of colours instead of just the bog standard black T-shirt, which used to be the norm,” continues Sam. “Part of the reason for this could be the vast selection that the brands are now offering. Our customers have the opportunity to pick the colours that work with their promo event and know they can usually get the stock that’s required. This used to be much harder.”

Sol’s: Imperial

Sol’s bestseller is the Imperial (11500), a unisex T-shirt in 190 gsm, semi-combed cotton jersey, which comes in a range of 41 colours and in sizes XS- 5XL. It has been designed for all types of markets and many decoration techniques. “In addition to having a perfect fit, all the Imperial garments are also extremely comfortable to wear thanks to their ringspun cotton material,” says Sol’s.

Result Headwear: Boston Printers Cap

Result says its Boston Printers Cap (RC084X) is perfect for the promotional market. This 260 gsm, 65% polyester/35% cotton, five-panel cap with a seamless and stiffened front panel outsold all the other cap styles in 2016. “A key attraction of the cap is its fantastic Result ‘Core’ price point with massive stock availability,” explains the brand. “It also offers eye-catching marketing in a brilliant colour range with the all-important tearaway label.” It comes in a choice of 16 colours and is suitable for embroidery and transfer printing.

Alex agrees that colour choice has rapidly expanded since he started Creative Promotions in 1974: “Some of the ranges now have 30, 40 different colours: fuchsia, salmon pink, things that you could call modern – they just didn’t exist years ago. Men wouldn’t be seen to be wearing pink T-shirt or pale blue or lemon [back then]. Nowadays it’s totally different, the colour ranges that are available are absolutely huge.” White is still the best-selling colour at Creative Promotions, he confirms, due in large part to the fact that corporate clients can have white T-shirts decorated with Pantone-matched colours.

While white and black continue to be the big sellers at Direct Textile Designs as well, colour is making an impact there too: “Red, navy and sunflower are also big movers for promotions,” says Mark. “Retailers use a lot of red garments for in-store sale promotions and at certain times of the year our factory is often a sea of red garments.”

Other advances affecting promowear include the development of discharge inks, and the demand for a softer ‘hand’, reports Peter. As ink has evolved, so has the printing technology, with DTG both causing and responding to a change in what customers demand. “Direct-to-garment has enabled cost effective, reduced orders and the ability to market printed merchandise without holding stock and produce it on an order-by-order basis,” says Peter. He notes that the volume of individual promowear orders is now smaller and orders are repeated more often instead.

Price was, is and probably always will be a key factor for those buying bulk promowear, although Jon comments: “25 years ago it was more a problem of supply than price – supply of the shirts because they just didn’t exist, or because printers were slow due to manual carousels.”

In today’s market, however, there is increased buyer awareness and expectations thanks in a large part to the internet, which Sam believes has been the biggest game changer for the industry. “It is so easy for anyone to access information on pricing, print methods, quality etcetera and receive quotes from competitors, that you have to make sure you are always on the ball and the best you can be. I think the modern, internet generation expects speed, efficiency and quality as standard.” “Nowadays the expectation is incredibly high: quality, supply, range of garments, colour and printing ability are all equally important,” adds Jon. “There’s no time to stand still – our customers expect the latest thing in fashion available in the promo world, so we need to adapt with the trends.” He adds that today’s customers focus on style, fabric and colour plus new and exciting ways of branding using different decoration processes.

James & Nicholson: Promo Jacket

James & Nicholson’s top promowear item is the Promo Jacket. This 100% polyester jacket is wind- and water-repellent, has a hood with cord integrated in the collar, elastic sleeve bands and two side hems. It can be easily stowed away in the side pocket and is ideal for promotions.

Modern tech, such as emails and instant artwork transfer, has also led to reduced lead times, says Peter, with same day turnaround becoming the norm. “Software advances have given us the ability to react to these customer requirements,” he explains.

Suppliers are also now expected to have all the relevant accreditations, points out Mark: “ISO, Sedex etcetera are all now a necessity. Direct Textiles has just been awarded Pillar 4 Sedex, which is a fantastic achievement and does give us a USP over some of our competitors.” And that’s not all: He says: “Customers also expect the correct packaging, individual bagging, barcoding, pallets to the correct specification to a certain height and dimensions and so on. The ability to move multiple pallets across Europe quickly is also vital.”

While each promotion is different, Mark believes that customers are now more intent than ever on getting the most from their investment. “There will always be the one-off promotion but I would suggest multiple wear is now more common. The brewery market is massive for promotional T-shirts and I often see garments that we produced months ago still in use.”