The Extreme Appeal of Streetwear & Ideas to Sell This Category

In the printwear market, streetwear is in demand for lots of reasons. Street-style apparel is often synonymous with edgy branded clothing or merchandise that makes a statement. Fashion-forward streetwear is also comfortable and relaxed – and versatile enough to be worn for casual occasions, work in the office and even nights out. Streetwear designers also create artwork that’s exclusive and makes people feel part of a community.

“Streetwear’s identified more as life wear for people of the culture, from the culture,” says Andrew Gilliam, CEO at Crypto Boxers (@cryptoboxers). “Just like in hip hop, the wider world is catching on to the vibrant color and statements on the clothing out now.”

We asked five streetwear designers and artists to weigh in on why streetwear – a $185 billion worldwide market – has such a universal appeal right now, what styles are hot, what artwork’s resonating with wearers, and who’s buying street-style promo clothing.

 

The Streetwear of Now

Streetwear style as an apparel movement has distinctive characteristics.

 

  1. Everyday Streetwear Style: More and more, streetwear styles and influence have integrated into other clothing styles. Streetwear has created brands and styles that allow staple pieces to read fashion-forward and appropriate for all types of occasions, from casual to formal. “Haute couture has come down from its pedestal to the street,” says Roy Harper, fashion designer and graphic artist at Ade Koya (@royharper4955).
  2. Inclusive, Yet Subversive: Streetwear meets and encompasses many cultural trends and movements. These styles also allow communities to express themselves in an in-your-face way. Urban fashion also challenges, changes and tests boundaries, leading to innovative ideas like unisex clothing.

“Streetwear has become synonymous with freedom of expression,” says Chad Montgomery, CEO of Gold & Gems Clothing (@goldandgems_). “As a result, in a country that values freedom of speech, you see people using clothes as a form of expression.” Montgomery, who’s visited 39 countries, has observed fashion trends around the world. “One commonality is that people want to express themselves, and you can see it in their clothes, whether their style is outgoing or conservative,” he says.

  1. Modern Luxe: Streetwear styles have an effortless timelessness – apparel that remains modern, yet classic. When Louis Vuitton partnered with major streetwear brand Supreme, that signaled a shift in fashion, as streetwear entered the luxury apparel space. Then, Louis Vuitton made further strides by hiring the late, great Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White, as its artistic director of menswear. Abloh had the opportunity to elevate streetwear design with luxe materials, and also paved the way for young Black streetwear designers to launch elevated brands.  

“With the popularity of Off-White, the influence Virgil had at Louis Vuitton has trickled down and impacted the fashion industry in its entirety,” says Dani Diarbakerly, owner and graphic designer at King Production and KingPro (@kingproja). “We can attribute the current popularity of streetwear to what he accomplished.”

4, Practical Comfort: When you’re dressed in streetwear, you look and feel great. “Athleisure and comfort dressing were already gaining popularity as the pandemic hit,” Diarbakerly says. “With stay-at-home orders, people really embraced dressing in street-style tees, hoodies and joggers – and that’s stayed with so many of us.”

 

 

What Are the Most Popular Apparel Pieces and Accessories in Streetwear Now?

“With streetwear today, everything is marketable within different niches,” Gilliam says. Two-thirds of consumers report that streetwear products never go out or style, and they’ll spend up to five times more per month on streetwear rather than non-streetwear, according to Strategy& and Hypebeast.

Here are some of the apparel and accessories items to keep in mind when you’re pitching streetwear:

  • Hoodies and pullovers: “People wear hoodies all year round now instead of just for a few months as in the past,” Gilliam says. The Gildan Hammer Adult Hooded Sweatshirt and Bella + Canvas FWD Fashion Unisex Raw Seam Hooded Sweatshirt are great options.
  • Joggers: We’re seeing designers pair pullovers and joggers. “We use Bella + Canvas joggers for many of the brands we serve,” Diarbakerly says. The FWD Fashion Unisex Sueded Fleece Jogger Pant and Unisex Jogger Sweatpant are two styles to check out.
  • Matching tops and shorts/bottoms: “This is a big trend for day and parties,” Montgomery says. “I’ve seen matching sets in solid colors, prints and florals. With florals, It’s always interesting the amount of variations you can make with that influence.”
  • Oversize silhouettes: “Streetwear now is oversize everything – shirts, dresses, pants, coats, hats and even shoes,” Harper says. “For instance, check out Billie Eilish.”
  • Street-style t-shirts: “The Gildan Hammer Adult T-Shirt is a keystone for my clients,” Diarbakerly says. “The fabric and fit are just perfect for the streetwear vibe.”
  • Bags: This season, bags are a staple streetwear accessory, whether it’s a backpack, duffle bag or fanny pack. Montgomery designs and sells signature backpacks and duffle bags. 

 

What Type of Artwork’s Popping on Streetwear?

“Streetwear is basically taking a standard product, like a tee, and giving it a small twist which makes it unique,” Diarbakerly says. When you’re printing, here are a few secret tricks KingPro uses to give designs that streetwear vibe: 

Diarbakerly used oversize printing on a shirt for producer Silent Addy and DJ/songwriter Diplo.
Diarbakerly used a smaller, lowercase print on this Grim shirt, the brand of recording artist Projexx.

 

  • Placement: Drop where you’d print a standard tee 1 inch for an instant streetwear vibe. 
  • Size: Make your design, including text, big or make it small. “We normally say a standard chest print is 10” wide, so if you make it 12” wide it’ll have a whole new look and feel,” Diarbakerly says.
  • Specialty Prints: Neons, puff prints, metallics and more are super easy to accomplish, but they give your client an elevated street-style look.

 

Today, many streetwear designs also show up as bold statement tees that make viewers face uncomfortable societal truths. “For example, Black Lives Matter or ‘I can’t breathe’ messages gave a clear sign on how wearers feel and what they want everyone to know,” Gilliam says. “With everything happening in the world, a human’s body has become the best billboard.”

Right now, Harper’s artwork is focused on all things Africa. The “Gye Nyame” shirt is Ghanaian and means “except for God, I fear none.” The “Natty Dread” design is a Kuba mask of the Congo and the “Benin Mask” is Nigerian.

 

New Strides in Streetwear

Some streetwear designers use urban wear for new and unique purposes. Spring Mooney, owner and creator at All Things Mooney (@onemoonmanystars), is the child of the late Paul Mooney, a comedic legend. “Streetwear seemed a logical next step in furthering my dad’s legacy,” Spring says. “As a comedy writer, his work for and with Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, and Kenan and Damon Wayans is legendary and his fan base literally spans generations, from old to young. Legacies matter and so our line is a way to keep his name, humor and wit alive.’

All Things Mooney’s street apparel offers “Royal tees,” “Legend tees,” “Woke tees” and “Race tees,” that pay homage to Paul Mooney’s famous comedic takes targeting race relations at the core of America. “We’re happily finding that people across all ages, genders and races, who had a love for Paul Mooney as one of the ‘godfathers of comedy,’ are loving and embracing our brand,” Spring says.

 

 

Like many others, Gilliam has added streetwear to his brand to keep it going and growing. Gilliam’s company has created a popular NFT of Tony Weeks, an American boxing referee who has been officiating fights since 1994. “But we’ve expanded the vision by bringing cryptocurrency and clothing together with our new NFT clothing line, which is a new, disruptive revenue source to retail,” Gilliam says. 

In today’s market, Gilliam says, it’s no longer just about the fanbase of the person in the image.  “With our NFT fashion line, we’ve been able to create new fans of the person in the image used to make the pattern,” he says. “Plus, we’re creating our own programming that takes an image and pulls the power from the photo to create a unique pattern.” 

 

 

Who’s Buying Streetwear Styles Right Now?

“Right now, streetwear has a universal appeal, with everyone from international bankers to art dealers, to yoga instructors to world travelers wearing streetwear,” Harper says. That’s good news for apparel distributors and decorators who want to pitch the trend to their existing client bases.

Part of that universal appeal, Montgomery says, is because streetwear has transitioned from “aggressive and graffiti influenced” to more laidback. “Now, we see clients pulling out all the stops at work, events and parties,” he says. “Instead of being ‘overdressed,’ people lean on streetwear brands that are more laid back for common mediums. This creates a fun, casual environment.”

For example, merch and uniforms can take on an urban feel to appeal to certain demographics. 

“The merch sector is all about streetwear and coming up with new takes to make products look unique,” Diarbakerly says. “We have several restaurant clients who also want to do streetwear-inspired looks to help them sell more retail tees.”

 

 

Diarbakerly created these stylish shirts for King Patty’s restaurant staff – and to sell as retail tees for patrons.

Gilliam points out that you can pitch streetwear apparel and accessories to every client, from  entertainers to corporate offices. “It’s about the right fit for the project. “Vegan burger chain Slutty Vegan, which started as a food truck, got a shoe deal, so that shows anything is possible.”

Finally, Diarbakerly points to live printing as a huge opportunity in the streetwear space. “The artform itself lends itself to great content for social media as well,” she says.

 

Insider Tips for Printing Light Designs on Dark Shirts

Whether you’re an experienced screen printer or a newbie, learning the art and process of white prints on dark shirts has a learning curve. However, if you take the time to become an expert in turning out bright white (or lighter-hued) prints on black shirts, your happy customers will thank you. We asked five seasoned printers to show off their light-on-dark chops. Plus: insider tips for getting great results.

 

This White Print’s Definitely With the Band

Being a touring musician is tough enough, but when you add in the responsibility of selling custom band merchandise, it can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Chicago Signs and Screens team was able to help out the Been Stellar band when the crew came through Chicago. “We turned around their shirts the next day and kept them stocked up for the rest of their tour,” says Mike Kupfer, co-founder. “Additionally, we used a halftone print process and recreated photos with rich halftone textures for Been Stellar’s print. It’s safe to say they were highly satisfied with our ability to deliver promptly and keep their merch table stocked!”

 

 

It’s Always a Beautiful Day With Pink Designs

Misti Money, owner and designer at 6Money’s Creations, created this pink-on-navy blue design for her T-Shirt of the Month Club that sends women across the country freshly designed t-shirts 12 times a year. “This ‘Make Today Beautiful’ t-shirt is exclusive to our club members,” she says. “Our members loved that the design wasn’t solid, and offered an updated look to what could have been a traditional, boxy design.”

Money chose a solid navy short-sleeve t-shirt to pair with the design’s lighter pink shade. She used her white toner printer for this design since it helped her achieve the exact pink tone she wanted. “The printer places a base of white toner on the designs, which helps us not have to worry about dye mitigation or fear of the dark color showing through on the lighter-colored design,” she says. “Using this equipment also saved us time and labor costs, since we only had to print and marry the designs.”

Pro tip: When you’re creating a white or light-colored design, think of ways to add interest and different elements to a design. “It’s a great way to get an edge over your competition,” Money says. “We can increase the perceived value of an ordinary t-shirt with a retail design.”

 

 

The Profit’s in the Details

Eric Solomon, owner at Night Owls Print Shop, shows off two examples of a white discharge ink print on 100% cotton t-shirts. “Discharge ink works by replacing the dye of the garment with specifically formulated ink,” he says. “For these two customers, we used a white discharge ink to get a very bright, and soft white print.”

Pro tip: You can get very detailed prints using a 157, 200 or even 230 thin thread screen with a white or light discharge ink.

 

These White Prints Stand Out From the Pack

 

LaTonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas and Lady Print Boss Consulting, turns out fantastic white prints on black shirts that her diverse client base loves.

Here’s a rundown of four recent white prints her team produced:

  • Roberson’s team printed the “Cruising through life one port at a time” message using a 156 mesh screen on basic black t-shirts. “When you add a grunge effect to a white design, it gives the shirt a lot of character,” she says.
  • The “Warrior Vision Walk 2019” license plate design used the shirt color as the lettering. “We printed the white ink with two passes of a 156 mesh screen to give it a nice bright white,” she says.
  • Roberson’s team added a small amount of puff ink to the “Vibe City Church Logo” design so that it appears raised on a premium Next Level Unisex Cotton T-Shirt. “We printed it on a Workhorse automatic press using a 110 mesh screen,” she says. 
  • T-Shirt Shop Dallas turned the “1900” design into a vintage-looking white print from a customer’s pencil drawing. “We converted the drawing to digital art, and defined a few of the lines so we could get the details to print,” Roberson says. The team converted the design to a one-color halftone and ripped it at 45 degrees. Then, they manually screen printed the shirts with a 230 mesh screen.

 

A Next-Level Design for Next-Level Firefighters

The 45,000-member-strong Firefighters Association of the State of New York relies on Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images, and his staff to create standout t-shirts for their members. The team used the shirt’s background in the “Red Line of Courage” artwork to bring the design to life. That’s the amazing part of halftoning a photo to screen print it,” Potter says. “Then, we used the red to symbolize the firemen, and to draw your eye in.”

A&P Master Images started working with FASNY about a year ago. “They’re really great people, which makes us want to go over the top for every design they need done,” Potter says. “They want designs that take it to the next level to inspire their members and the community.”

Pro tip: Use Adobe Photoshop to create your halftone dot matrix, and use no less than a 230 mesh screen. “The higher the mesh, the finer the detail you can pull from the dot matrix of the image to give it a cleaner look,” Potter says.

 

 

Tractor Supply Gets Dimensional

The A&P Master Images team created this white-on-black print for a Tractor Supply distribution center in Kentucky to give to people throughout the state. “The white technique I used on this was a complete halftone design,” says PJ Loomis, design manager at A&P Master Images. “We used one screen for the border of the state. Then, we needed another screen for all of the white detailed images. Lastly, we used one red screen for the color splash.” 


To create a highly detailed halftone screen print, remember that the imprint always looks best digitally on screen, even after it’s been separated and rendered. “The real trick is before making the dot matrix, right before you bitmap the design to create the points, you must burn and dodge the areas of high detail, with it in grayscale,” Loomis says. The goal is to get a high contrast with the details so the image pops out, and doesn’t look “muddied” when printed. “Sometimes, you need to overcompensate the details in a halftone design to achieve the correct look,” he says.

Pro tip: Loomis used the state border outline by itself to make it a brighter, more solid print than the rest. “This technique produces the effect of a 3-D border for better depth and dimension in the design,” he says. “If you keep the high details more faded than the border, you can achieve this look!”

 

 

Light-on-Dark Tips to Keep in Mind

If you’re new to white prints on dark shirts, here are a few tactics to remember. Of course, as you develop your own skills, you’ll figure out what process works best for you and different jobs.

1. Use a lower mesh count. Try well-tensioned screens between 110 and 195. The higher the mesh count, the less ink you’ll waste.

  1. Choose specific emulsion and white ink. Try using an emulsion with a high solids build. Pick a white ink that’s opaque and easy to work with, so that it’s not so thick. Stir it well when you’re ready to use it. Otherwise, store your ink container at room temperature.
  2. Build up your ink layers. On your first pass, your white ink may not completely cover your dark shirt. On your next pass, after you flash your first print, you’ll add another layer to create the top layer or overprint. This step takes practice, so build in time to learn white-on-dark printing before you start offering it to clients.
  3. Keep on printing! Don’t be shy about asking other screen printers for pointers on white prints on dark shirts. That way, you’ll be ready to offer your customers this great option sooner, rather than later.

Here’s What Separates Amazing Band Merch From the Rest

It’s a regular occurrence for Rich Santo, CEO of Culture Studio, to watch his team take an order of hundreds of thousands of printed shirts for a huge music artist like the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish or the Foo Fighters. It’s also the norm for his team to print these massive orders and ship them to a concert venue within 48 to 72 hours.

Culture Studio annually turns out 10 million printed garments, a huge portion for major bands in all genres from rock to pop to hip-hop. “We understand the music business and are built for speed,” Santo says. “Everything’s super-fast turn, and frankly, a little insane.”

Breaking into the music merch business isn’t for the faint of heart, and requires special skills to excel in this market. However, if you want to know the ins and outs of working with bands, we asked experienced shop owners to share insider tips on how they’ve become the go-to shops for some of the biggest music artists around.

 

5 Ways to Wow Your Music Artist Clients

So what does it take to be the print shop that’s with all the bands? We run down five tactics, from choosing the right apparel, to the right on-trend decoration, to being able to function at warp speed.

1. Start with the right apparel.

First, you need to have an understanding of the band and their fans. The demographics for each music genre and band are different, and chances are, you’ll work with bands in more than one genre. If you’re marketing to a rap star’s followers versus a country-gospel group’s fans, you’ll find it’s much more than just the artwork design that goes on the merchandise that’s important. The merchandise itself matters a lot. 

First, depending on the fans’ age and style of music, you’ll choose different types of apparel that will fly off the shelves. Older metal fans will appreciate wearing a regular-fit T-shirt that’s a bit oversize, or a zip-up fleece or a dad cap. Younger fans of musicians like Ariana Grande likely want cropped hoodies, crop tops, tanks and other “younger” styles. 

“Punk and hardcore still like boxier-cut tees, and new age or indie rock want softer, fashion cuts,” says Dylan Gilligan, owner of Upstate Merch (@upstatemerch), which has been serving bands, from hardcore and metal, to hip-hop and Christian rock, for nearly 15 years. (Notable clients include Stray From The Path, Steven Page, Mott The Hoople, Fuel, Icon for Hire and Ryan Sickler.) “You need to understand the markets so you can recommend the right t-shirts.”

Let’s face it—one of the best ads for a band is the fan who still wears that iconic tour t-shirt from 10 years ago. But if the shirt won’t last the test of time, or feels rough and scratchy from the first wear, it’ll get shoved to the back of a drawer. “Bands used to say, ‘Give us the cheapest shirt,’” Gilligan says. “Now they want clothing people will wear over and over. They want a better-quality, fashionable, soft ringspun cotton shirt with a custom neck tag. It’s a whole branding experience. They monetize the shirts that continue to advertise their band for years.”

Santo agrees that bands want to be involved in the creative conversation from the get-go. “They’re going to make money on this merch, so it’s our job to give them fresh ideas,” he says. “We give them cool custom ideas, like a cut-and-sew piece we launched, or we show them a new t-shirt silhouette.” 

Culture Studio has built sophisticated in-house software (also available to other decorators at Stokkup.com) where they’ve aggregated national inventory from most apparel suppliers and mills into one location. “If someone wants a specific Gildan shirt, even in the tens of thousands, we can instantly see what’s available,” Santo says.

 

 

2. Choose wow-worthy artwork and imprinting methods.

If you score a license or contract to print shirts for a major label band, they’ll likely give you the images to print on the merch. But, if you’re working with a newer, smaller band, then they’re more likely to rely on you to do the legwork. You’ll have to flex your creative muscles to give them eye-catching artwork that fits the band and their fans. 

For inspo, look at what other bands in the same genre are doing with their merchandise. These designs may include:

  • Headshots of band members
  • In-concert shots of the band on stage
  • Lyrics/song titles or the band logo
  • Full-color images like album covers or images that evoke the band aesthetic
  • White or color prints on white or black shirts.

Both Culture Studio and Upstate Merch usually receive the artwork they need to decorate the merchandise. “Many top-tier artists have an extensive creative department with the band or label,” Santo says. “They provide a line sheet of artwork and creative direction on the apparel to bring together a collection for their tour or a retail store.” 

However, about 15% to 20% of the time, bands ask Upstate Merch to create artwork. “It’s a good idea to know what’s trending out there,” Gilligan says. “Bands need new and exciting designs to sell merchandise. Otherwise, they won’t make money off it.”

Beyond great apparel and artwork, bands look to your print shop for innovative decorating methods. “We’re doing a lot of foil applications,” Santo says. “Also, loads of mixed media, and hybrid prints where we pair digital and screen printing. In the past, everyone wanted softer discharge and water-based prints, and now we’re shifting to a significant amount of heat transfers. We also do a lot of custom dyes and washes so bands have something unique.”

3. Have a way to work with new bands or artists.

“While some bands will pay upfront, others will be short on cash,” Gilligan says. “That can be challenging for your shop if you’re a fan of the band and want to work with them.”

That’s why Upstate Merch created a blueprint for new “garage” bands getting merch for the first time. The first tier is a less-expensive shirt with a one-color print for an investment starting at $150. “Then we scale them to two designs on a better quality shirt,” Gilligan says. “We step the band up levels because if we help them at the beginning, they’ll stick with us for the longer term, with larger and larger orders.” 

Pro tip: If you’re wading into the band world, it’s a good idea to balance those accounts with corporate or educational clients so you keep your cash flow intact.

 

 

4. Be ready for tight, tight, tight turns.

Santo and Gilligan agree that one of the most important pieces of the band puzzle is getting the merch the band needs to the venue on time. With huge orders and tight deadlines, that’s no easy feat, especially if you’re serving multiple band clients.

Founded in 2008, Culture Studio considers itself a technology and logistics company first, since the team has built an enviable system that lets them say “yes” to a 600,000-shirt order that needs to be turned around in 48 hours. When the team receives an order, they can first check for that level of inventory via their software. Then, once a team member has inputted all of the pertinent information (including how many units, number of imprints, where they need to be and when), the software determines how to allocate the jobs. 

Culture Studio has 135,000 square feet of production space located across the country, including in Florida, Illinois and Texas, so the program can assign a number of shirts to a specific press in a certain location. The shop offers additional services, like adding an inside tag, a hangtag, folding and polybagging, which Stokkup takes into account to get the merchandise to the right location on time.

“We’re moving products at a huge scale across the country,” Santo says. “What shines through is our capacity and inventory to satisfy our clients so they make money on merchandise.”

While Upstate Merch caters to new or smaller bands, they still work on tight turn times. For that reason, Gilligan keeps 5,000 black t-shirts in stock. “We can make the screen, print and ship the shirts the same day,” he says. “It’s a huge win for us and the band.”

Here are three tips from Upstate Merch on getting merch where it needs to go on time:

  • Get the shirts there as early as possible. “We aim to get the shirts to the venue two to three days early,” Gilligan says. “Build in time for the weather and carrier delays. The band might be paying you $1,500 for the order, but if it’s late, that can mean a $6,000 loss for them.”
  • Consider delivering to a UPS store near the venue. If you’re delivering a smaller order, send it to a nearby UPS location. “A rep for the band can show their ID and get the merch,” Gilligan says. “That way, there’s no chance of the boxes getting lost at the venue.”
  • Label the boxes well. Gilligan serves artist John Mulaney, who needed merch for 60 concert dates. “We printed the shirts upfront and then packed each box, with the shipping date, concert date, venue and what’s in the box,” he says. “We make sure the band merch person knows how many boxes they’ll be getting and what’s in each.”

 

 

5. Decide whether you’ll offer online merch stores.

Online merch stores were a bigger thing for music artists during the pandemic, when people couldn’t attend concerts in person. “We’ve seen a significant decline on the e-retail side since the pandemic,” Santo says. “Now, fans want to be at concerts and in stores to buy merch.” 

Upstate Merch fulfills some online stores for music artists. “The name of the game is warehouse space,” says Gilligan, who uses the “fundraiser method”: setting up the store for free for the artists, stocking shelves with designs and promoting the store. “We make $15 per shirt and the band gets $10 per shirt, since we don’t require bands to buy the merchandise. The band gets $10 per shirt. We also require them to buy back the stock back at wholesale if it doesn’t sell. With a store, you’re taking a chance on a band.”

Your Takeaway

Ultimately, only you know whether or not your shop has the chops to work with bands. Gilligan and Santo both had roots in the music industry before opening their shops, so they knew what to expect from the scene. “This isn’t entirely tongue in cheek: Be ready for a little insanity,” Santo quips. “Everything is last minute, under pressure and at extensive volume. Unlike corporate or retail, everything’s based on an event date. Many buyers will contact you 48 to 72 hours before a huge show with an order for tens or hundreds of thousands of shirts. You need to be prepared for that kind of turn.”