When the first premium jeans went on sale a few years ago, many wondered whether anyone would be willing to pay HK$2,000 or more for a pair. As it turns out, designer denims became a craze.
Now the same question is being asked of T-shirts. These wardrobe staples are being reinvented as branded products with a price tag of up to HK$1,500. This means, essentially, that your everyday jeans-and-T-shirt combo can cost the same as a marked-down designer party frock.
But the brands say they are merely responding to consumer demand. 'When a woman falls in love with a tee and it fits her body, there is no stopping her from buying it,' says Susan Peterson, vice-president of design at Michael Stars in Los Angeles. At an invitation-only sale at the Michael Stars boutique in Santa Monica recently, women snapped up tees priced at more than US$80, taken by the brushed cotton and great fit.
The movement for luxe tees started in Los Angeles several years ago when brands such as Michael Stars, C&C California and James Perse won over LA natives with their cool, casual styles made from super soft and luxe cotton.
More designers and brands are jumping on the bandwagon and creating high-quality items with cool and edgy design details. Alexander Wang's line, T, for example, takes staples such as a classic racer back tee and transforms it with a plunging neck and a neat chest patch pocket to create a flared but fitted silhouette that's a match for spring's hot leggings and high-heeled ankle boots.
Rick Owens, dearly beloved of the avant-garde set, infuses his Lilies tees with Gothic cool, using stretch tulle and adding drapey-hooded necklines.
'There's definitely a market for premium tees,' says Eizelle Taino, founder of Indigo, a boutique in Hong Kong's Soho district that specialises in jeans and tees.
'The T-shirt industry is like the jeans industry - there are so many new brands out there.'
Taino says most of her customers are comfortable spending HK$400 to HK$500 on a basic tee.
'At the HK$700 to HK$800 range, you're talking about a fashion person, someone who is looking for something design driven, that's not just a basic T-shirt but maybe something with a twisted collar or an edgy pocket.'
At the top end of the market, the price is all in the details. Taino says lines that convey a sense of West Coast casual cool, such as Splendid and C&C California, always do a steady business.
However, for autumn she has chosen brands such as New York-based Chris Benz, who is known for his off-kilter designs. His tees cost about HK$600. Her other choices are Daftbird and Maggie Ward, whose jersey dolman-sleeved tee has been spotted on celebrities.
'Part of the appeal of these new pricier lines is in the blend, the things that add to the way it fits, the way they lie on the body, the stretch and wearability,' says Taino. 'There will always be people who can tell the difference.'
Los Angeles fashion insider Emili Vesilind, founder of fashion and culture website StyleSectionLA.com, is a fan of new LA brand Lanston, which makes soft, structured jersey knit tees which retail for less than HK$800. She also has an Alexander Wang roomy black tee that goes great with her skinny jeans.
'Simple and soft is what fashion girls are really looking for right now,' she says. 'Great shapes, solid colours - with the occasional sailor's striped-tee thrown in for variety.'
Still, Vesilind says that price should always be an issue. She defines the category's sweet spot as in the HK$650 to HK$800 range.
'Anything more than that and you're being taken,' she says. 'Tees by nature will get old, fade and develop holes. It's not a forever purchase, so it doesn't warrant a high price tag.'
The high end of the market is still growing in Hong Kong. 'People are a bit apprehensive at first,' says Kathleen Sweeney of Loft Floor, which carries the Velvet T-shirt line. 'They're not sure if they want to spend HK$900 on a T-shirt. But they buy one, love it and come back. They realise they're paying for better fabric and better fit, and that it has all the comfort of a T-shirt but looks more stylish.'
Velvet's premium line is Graham & Spencer, which makes ultra-thin knits that cost up to HK$1,500, can only be dry cleaned and are so delicate that a ring can easily get caught on a sleeve.
'There is a special customer for that, someone who won't even think about it. But for most people, a T-shirt is still a T-shirt, something you want to wash and wear.'
When choosing higher-end tees, Sweeney advises ensuring that the fabric justifies the price: Peruvian Supima cotton costs more, as do tees made from silk jersey blends, and some that have a translucent shimmer woven through them.
'They look fancier,' says Sweeney. 'They're tees, but you can wear them to work or to events. And for weekends, toss on a pair of Havaianas and some boyfriend jeans, and you're good to go.'