When Shawn Stussy first started printing T-shirts to promote his surfboard business in 1980, he was unwittingly creating a template for the future of fashion. His designs formed the foundation of what would come to be known as ‘streetwear’, with the graphic tee becoming a core component of the look.
Fast forward to the present day and the style Stussy brought into existence has been fully co-opted by high fashion. Streetwear and haute couture are now largely indistinguishable from one another. Rappers sit in the front row at Paris Fashion Week, skate brands collaborate with Italian fashion houses, and streetwear designers are hoovered up for creative director roles at the biggest labels on earth.
Whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying the graphic T-shirt’s significance in contemporary fashion. They’re some of the best-selling items for high-fashion designers and streetwear labels alike, and whatever you might think of the frankly ludicrous markups some of them demand, they can still be a good way to punch up outfits by adding some colour, and to let others know where your brand loyalties lie.
Graphic T-Shirt Styling Tips
The golden rule when it comes to styling graphic tees is not to wear them with other logo-laden pieces. The last thing you want is to wind up looking like a walking billboard. It’s a sartorial error we see all too often, and it’s so easy to avoid.
Instead, wear a graphic T-shirt with pieces that are free from excessive detail or branding. That way the print isn’t fighting anything else for attention, and has the opportunity to be the focal point of the look.
It’s also worth remembering that having a high-end designer logo slapped across your chest is no substitute for good style. You still need to put thought into your outfits and use techniques like layering, and matching textures and colours to your advantage. Don’t let a logo make you lazy.
Fit is always important, but particularly so where T-shirts are concerned. These are garments that sit directly next to the body with no layers underneath to mask a sloppy fit, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure it’s just right.
First and foremost, a T-shirt needs to fit well in the shoulders and chest. The best way to get this right is to find a tee you own that fits well and measure it from pit to pit. You can then use this measurement to compare to product size charts online.
What makes a good fit is a bit subjective. Some people like a slim fit while others prefer their T-shirts oversized, so using this method is a surefire way to make sure you end up with what’s right for you.
Price is our biggest bugbear when it comes to designer T-shirts. It’s important to remember you’re just paying for a label. Even the most respected high-fashion brands print their graphics and logos on relatively inexpensive ‘blanks’, and it’s not uncommon to see markups of £200 or £300.
Of course, there are some labels that print onto premium-quality T-shirts, but with a piece of clothing this simple there’s always going to be a point of diminishing returns… unless it’s literally woven from gold thread or encrusted with diamonds. Only you can decide whether or not you’re prepared to pay the premium.
The Best Designer Graphic T-Shirt Brands
Arguably the hottest label on the face of the earth, Gucci has been knocking out eye-catching graphic tees for some time now. Most feature the brand name and/or logo, and can fetch anywhere up to £1,000.
The brand has also been involved in a number of high-profile collabs that have featured various graphic T-shirts, including The North Face and, most recently, Palace.
Polo Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren has had a number of iconic graphic T-shirt designs over the years. The ones that immediately come to mind are the ‘Polo Bear’ tees featuring the brand’s furry mascot, and the retro Polo Sport logo T-shirts that vintage connoisseurs go crazy for.
Graphic T-shirts have been a core element in Belgian designer Raf Simons’ collections since the very beginning. They often feature off-kilter imagery, text and iconography, and in a variety of unusual cuts and fits.
One of the original streetwear-fashion crossover labels, Off-White’s diagonal-stripe and arrow logos feature heavily on the brand’s graphic T-shirts. In addition to logos, you’ll also find designs with playful imagery, all-over prints and tongue-in-cheek cultural references.
Balenciaga is a prime example of a brand that really took the graphic T-shirt concept and ran with it. The label is known for borrowing designs from the corporate and political worlds, and repurposing them.
First there were the infamous DHL T-shirts that retailed for around £200, then the Bernie Sanders tees, which reworked the politician’s campaign logo to incorporate the brand’s name.
Stüssy is the original graphic T-shirt brand and has released thousands of designs over the years. Today, the label has an entire range of fashion-forward, streetwear-infused garments, but logo tees are still probably the biggest and best-known part of its output.
London’s Story MFG combines sustainable fabrics and manufacture with workwear and outdoor influences, and filters it all through a distinctly hippy lens. The result is a range of colourful, earthy, loose-fitting clothing, including graphic T-shirts that often feature spiritual imagery, wholesome slogans, tie-dye colours and flowery (or mushroomy) patterns.
Milan-born Francesco Ragazzi started Palm Angels in 2011 as a photographic documentation of LA’s skate culture, so you know the brand’s graphic tee collection is going to be legit. Riding the luxury streetwear wave to new heights, Palm Angles has quickly expanded from its humble roots, now offering a full ready-to-wear menswear line at price points that are now long out of reach of the skaters that were the inspiration for the label.
However, there’s no denying the prints are some of the best on the market, and the brand cachet is undeniable for those in the know.