As Ruslan Leyva, a Cuban artist based in Venezuela and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, once told me “Don’t be afraid to imitate another illustrator’s style while finding your own.”
As if the creative path wasn’t tough enough, on top of learning a craft, you also need to find your signature visual language. Any person can learn how to use photoshop, paint and even design a logo for a personalised t shirt, but not everyone has got that extra je nai sais quoi that can make a statement. What my teacher was trying to tell me was not to steal someone else’s work, but to gather inspiration from it.
That’s why we’ve decided to collect some of the most iconic fashion brands and try to explain their printing process. We’re not endorsing copycats, we only want you to expand on your style library and be stimulated by some of the best in the industry.
The Fashion Industry
Fashion changes every season. New collections come and go every three months (sometimes even less) and, as consumers, we buy into this system. T-shirt design, on the other hand, has a different rhythm. Though t-shirts are an important part of our everyday outfit, trends in t-shirt design often get less attention than other pieces of clothing, such as dresses, coats or even shoes. It’s okay, they are still loved from London to Shanghai and although summer is naturally the biggest season for it, being a complement for rest of the year is still good, isn’t it?
If you’re a t-shirt designer wanting to create your own clothing line, you probably don’t have access to the same resources – budget and production-wise – as a big fashion label. Therefore, it’s understandable that, even when printing in bulk (at least 100 units per t-shirt design), you won’t have much room for big expenses. Although bringing your t-shirt design to life has these financial and logistic limitations, it’s still possible to achieve a high-quality print at a reasonable price, which is important and will help you keep a good margin in the sales column and add value to your new born brand.
A couple of tips
A while ago I wrote some tips for designing & selling your t-shirts. That article focused on different things you can do to create and promote your new t-shirt design brand, such as getting good quality promotional images, creating your own online store or even how to get good t-shirt design inspiration around the web. Of course, all the advice in the world won’t do much if you don’t have a good final product to sell. It is definitely possible to achieve high-quality t-shirt printing and get the most out of unit sales in spite of a low budget. For that, a little planning and good printing advice/consultation is all you need. That, and a good graphic designer, if you’re not one yourself.
Below I’ll analyse how some fashion brands use t-shirt design and printing techniques to create their products, and hopefully, it can be of inspiration for your future custom clothing projects. Also, while reading, you need to always have in mind the three basic laws of T-shirt printing:
- The higher the quantity, the more cost-effective if will be per unit.
- Most designs require 100% vectored artwork in order to achieve a high-quality print, such as the one you get from a perfect screen printing.
- The more complex your t-shirt design is, the more costly it will be to print.
Their iconic flying tiger has recently been displayed on a large variety of custom clothing this season. On the women’s t-shirts, the fashion brand used a 4-colour screen print (black, purple, light yellow and golden yellow) onto blue to create their design. This technique picks up every detail of the design, including the distorted elements. On the men’s white version, which sells for around £80 per unit, five colours were used: black, red, yellow and two different shades of blue. On big quantities, printing in bulk gives you room to use more colours, and add more detail to the final print, which brings a unique illustration to life.
This British brand that fuses American and Japanese influences, uses bright colours in combination with excellent typography to create their hoodies, t-shirts and other printed clothing. Soft, fitted garments combined with colourful designs make their clothing stand out in the urban environment.
Their big graphics are printed with a traditional screen printing or sometimes Puff Print technique. Referred to as Puff Prints or Expantex Print, this printing technique includes an additive which is used on the ink during the screen printing process that expands as it heats creating a 3d effect. Using up to 4 colours depending on the design, these techniques make most Superdry products very cost-effective and easy to reproduce.
Dolce & Gabbana
Like the saints t-shirt below, Dolce & Gabbana sometimes use an all over print for their designs which would be very difficult for the general public or a start-up brand to replicate as it requires the fabric to be printed before manufacturing. Aside from these garments, the Italian fashion brand uses icons such as Al Pacino, James Dean and the Virgin Mary with extra soft feel garments and a clean fashion cut to design their t-shirts.
The retail price varies from 165€ to 395€ at their online store. Direct to Garment (DTG) does the job for the photographic side (Al Pacino) and that combined with some beautiful embroidery work (Virgin) completes the t-shirt design.
Abercrombie & Fitch
This American clothing giant mixes traditional screen printing (with platisol), water based screen printing and embroidery to achieve their t-shirt design quality. Some of the vintage designs can also be reproduced with Direct to Garment printing, like the one with the beer jar and the red cup. Most of their designs are very simple and use typography with bright colours to make them easily to identifiable with the brand, like Superdry does.
With big photographs & graphics, the brand makes the most out of great screen printing to reproduce their t-shirt printing designs. They use a technology called Power Wash, which features an enzyme wash treatment that simulates 40 typical laundry cycles and gives the garment a unique, super soft feel. Though this technology is not available for regular customers, it can be reproduced with naturally soft garments and Direct to Garment.
This printing technique produces the softest feel possible for photographic & full colour images. We can also see some one-colour designs with puff prints, similar to those from Superdry, which seem to be very popular at the time of writing.
This Italian brand is known for being laud. Everything Versace is bold, with bright colours and highly decorated. You think the look is too hard to replicate at a reasonable price? Think again. Versace did a collection for H&M back in 2011 and it flew off the shelves.
In order to get a fresh-of-a-Milanese-runway look, all you need to do is dye your hair platinum blond and tan your skin until you look like the odd lovechild of an Oompa-Loompa and a Pamela Anderson. Kidding! The Versace style while convoluted, is not as hard to pull off as many would think. All you need is some high quality images (something along the lines of animal prints and ancient Greek statues) and a trustworthy printer. As for printing techniques, DTG would be the only suitable one capable enough to replicate the details Versace requires.
Do you like abstract patterns? Nostalgic 70’s and 60’s prints? Then you and Emilio should meet. Emilio Pucci first started his career designing skiwear back in the 40’s. But soon enough, thanks to his knowledge in stretch fabrics, he went on to design swimsuits, followed by scarfs and eventually a complete collection. Fans of his bright colours and swirly patterns include celebrities like Alexa Chung and Kylie Minogue.
Since the designs can be replicated by almost any technique, more time should be spent on the composition rather than the right process. Get inspiration from earlier decades and the colours, while bright, should be kept between three and five – while Pucci is flashy like Versace it is nowhere near as baroque. If you’re looking into printing anything larger than an A3, like most Pucci design are, then I’d suggest looking into all-over printing.
Comme Des Garçons
The line led by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, is mostly known for its deconstructive and minimal apparel. While loved by some and hated by others, it is impossible to deny the influence the brand has had as one of the first “big” high fashion labels from Japan. One of the reasons it stands out is because, unlike brands like Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, it has managed to permeate the urban market without losing its soul.
The success of Play, Comme des Garçons streetwear line, is a perfect example of how a small detail can add value to a piece. An otherwise boring t-shirt, suddenly becomes a must-have item when we add a cute symbol. In this case, it would be the brand’s logo, the iconic big-eyed heart designed by Filip Pagowski.
If you would like to emulate this idea (please, don’t infringe copyright, all right?) you’ll have to find a symbol that represents you or your brand and turn it into something marketable. This might be simplifying it, turning it into an adorable drawing or making something unexpected. It is a process and it might take time, but trust me, finding that small feature that differences your line from all others will be worth it.
The king of urban fashion. This California based company started selling surf-inspired garments in the early 80’s, but quickly adopted an urban and hip-hop aesthetic as it was embraced by these subcultures. While some Stüssy t-shirts do feature some hyperrealistic photographs, the brand is mostly known for simple flat images composed of one or two tones.
To achieve this look, you may use either the screen printing, transfer printing, or cad cut vinyl techniques. As for garment colours, Stüssy is mostly known for black, white and grey, but some pastels and the odd fucsia have managed to sneak into their latest collection.
Starting your own t-shirt line is not unlike finding an artistic path. Both artist and designer must find a unique voice and carve their way through the crowd if they want to stand above the rest. So go ahead, take some of the ideas we’ve shared with you and lay down the first stepping stone of your stairway to success.
Are there any other brands you’d like us to cover? Then let us know! We always love to hear from you. Drop us a message below or contact us via any of our social media networks. And for more awesome content, don’t forget to keep reading the Printsome Blog
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