The Rise of Fashion’s Most Outspoken Basic

Check the details: Thom Browne’s prints riff on his signature red, white, and blue ribbon.

From functional underwear to pop and youth culture icon. Not unlike its great ally, the blue jean, the t-shirt’s evolution into a totem of modernism speaks to its status as a new and emblematic uniform. Who would have thought that slicing the union suit in half would shift the cornerstones of our wardrobes?

Unlike its antecedent the button-down shirt, which needs pressing to look its best, the appeal of a t-shirt lies in its wash-and-go ease and adaptability – qualities that render it perfect for a message.

Rei Kawakubo commissioned Polish artist Filip Pagowski for the iconic Comme des Garçons PLAY emblem.

Giving classics a twist, Paul Smith channels 60s via 90s this season.

Riccardo Tisci treats the t-shirt as canvas: a showcase for each season's signature prints.

Though it can be completely anonymous in grey marl, it relishes a political role. The t-shirt is a blank canvas ideal for DIY activism and daubing statements of protest. Something Katharine Hamnett drew on for her bold text tees of the 1980s, most famously the “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” t-shirt the designer wore to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, citing a poll opposing Pershing missile bases in the UK.

As comfortable as it is speaking out, the t-shirt enjoys an inclusive role in adolescence. It’s a tool to immediately clock like-minded individuals, an enabler for getting your gang together. Enter the band t-shirt: a high school icon that shows what great taste you’ve got and how much you like to rock. Tour merch has become so fetishized it’s given birth to a class of vintage dealers who, like wine merchants, hoard the real deal and price to reflect the age of a perfectly imperfect, hole-y Iron Maiden raglan sleeve.

Raf Simons swaps teen rebel graphics for his own photo album in his most personal collection yet.

Tropical florals run throughout Yohji Yamamoto and adidas’ longterm Y-3 collaboration.

Shayne Oliver uses the Hood By Air acronym as a symbol of both unity and iconoclasm.

It’s in the tribal tradition of the rock tee that the fashion t-shirt lives today: an emblem of ideals and attitude.

Few designers exemplify this like Riccardo Tisci. From his menswear debut at Givenchy in Spring 2009, he built the t-shirt into his catwalk message with the Elmerinda, a style named after his mother with a tattoolike aesthetic evoking the fast and furious nature of a Motörhead jersey. Since then, we’ve had a menagerie of dangerous prints from sharks to creepy clowns and Rottweilers, his Colombian-fit street shapes a subject of enduring fetishization by rap’s biggest and baddest.

Your t-shirt says a lot without you saying a word. Hood by Air: a 2015 NYC beyond-gender agenda. Comme des Garçons: Rei Kawakubo’s rigorous intellect. Rick Owens: elegance with a shot of brutality, set to thumping techno or trap. Valentino: impeccably put together, whatever the time or place.

Marc by Marc Jacobs self-defines as “slightly bohemian, a little off-color.”

Until the menswear explosion of the 2000s, men’s designer fashion meant shirts, ties, and conservative shoes. There was little in the way of official recognition that men could be “off duty” outside of work. The t-shirt today symbolizes a more panoramic attitude, where menswear doesn’t just mean pinstripe suiting but recognizes a guy’s full lifestyle and needs.

“T-shirts are definitely in keeping with a brand’s ethos today,” says a studio insider at a famous house. “Look how personally designers put their stamp on what is a wardrobe classic. T-shirts have the potential to encapsulate the season’s message powerfully – it’s not acceptable for them to be a second thought on a sales rail. They’re an essential, no longer a basic.”

It might be humble, but it’s a powerful medium. So pay respect. When you check the collections, look again at the way a designer handles a t-shirt – their whole world is there in this most essential of garments.

Twisting, tying, and knotting recur in J.W.Anderson’s vision.