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FITTING YOU TO A 'T'

The Baltimore Sun

This summer, top fashion magazines have declared that the T-shirt is the hot style staple to have.

In multipage fashion spreads, the style guides show T-shirts of all kinds that are in this season: bold graphic tees, attention-grabbing logo tees, edgy rock 'n' roll tees. All the shirts are versatile in ways a good T-shirt should be - they're interesting enough to wear casually dressed down, and slightly dressy enough to pair with a jacket and designer jeans for a night on the town.

But the Hollywood-endorsed tees, fabulous as they are, can be pricey. A funky pink Lyric Culture tee emblazoned with a rocked-out guitar is $90. The double-diamond design on a L.A.M.B. (by Gwen Stefani) tee at Nordstrom is going for $65.

What if you want the look of an eye-catching T-shirt but don't have designer or department store money? The answer is simple - make one yourself.

When Michael de Zayas, founder of Neighborhoodies.com, started his make-your-own T-shirt company five years ago, he mainly sold his product to New Yorkers, proud to "rep their 'hood" across their chests. The trend has caught on so fast, this summer de Zayas is opening corporate offices in Providence, R.I., and Boston and is considering a Harborplace location as a possible expansion site.

"When I started the company, I made a sweat shirt for myself that says 'Fort Greene,' which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is an awesome neighborhood," says de Zayas. "And people immediately started asking me, 'Where'd you get that?'"

Now, those who seek an original, creative or personal T-shirt don't have to wonder where to go. In addition to Neighborhoodies, there are any number of places to go on the Web to make a shirt of your own design.

There's DesignAShirt.com, CustomInk.com, Tshirtspot.com, UberPrints.com, Zazzle.com. Type in "make your own T-shirt" into the Google search bar, and dozens more do-it-yourself sites pop up.

"It's just where we are as a society right now," says Jana Eggers, U.S. CEO of Spreadshirt Inc. (spreadshirt.com), a T-shirt design site based in Pennsylvania. "People want to represent themselves and who they are. People have something they want to say. I think we're seeing that more and more. When I go out in the world, I want to show a little bit about myself. I don't want to have the same Gap khaki pants ... as everyone else."

Web sites are the most efficient way to get a T-shirt made, but

around the region, many independent-thinkers have come up with creative ways to take an old T-shirt and make it even better.

They cut, slash and tie a favorite tee, so that the design isn't just in the graphics or the text on the shirt, it's in the form itself.

"It started, like, at the beginning of this year," says Nanda Ramcoobair, 14, of Clarksville. "And now people love it."

Nanda owns three T-shirts that she or a friend have artistically slashed. The process takes about 20 to 40 minutes, she says, and "gives T-shirts a more fitted look."

"It's basically you take any T-shirt and, what they do is, they cut off the entire side, on each side, and then they cut lines going all the way up on both sides. And then you've got to tie them," the teen says. "It makes basic T-shirts look more original and more stylish."

A number of books including Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-Shirt by Megan Nicolay and Save This Shirt - Cut It. Stitch It. Wear It Now! by Hannah Rogge have been recently released that offer some fashion guidance on the hack-and-slash trend. The patterns and illustrations of the books can give the uninitiated a leg up on the process.

But all you really need, experts say, is a little imagination.

"It's just fun," says Eggers, of Spreadshirt.com. "There are private jokes, like making fun of something, inspirational messages. Sometimes commentary on everyday life. We had a woman type in the details of her divorce on a shirt. She had something to get off her chest, and she put it on her chest."

Eggers doesn't always recommend quite that much self-revelation on a shirt. But she's not advocating T-shirt censorship; she's just concerned about space constraints.

"When you go in [to the site], think through things," Eggers says. "Step back, and look at the shirt [on the screen]. Especially for women. Women have chests. ... You don't want to print all the way to the sides for them. It's going to wrap around ... and people aren't going to be able to read it."

But other than that, T-shirt design experts give very little in the advice department when it comes to making a personalized shirt.

"For the vast majority of people, it's totally random," says de Zayas, of Neighborhoodies.com. "It's weird, personal sayings ... it can be serious or very silly. Maybe it's an old Orioles uniform you can't get anywhere, but you can upload the graphic and create the garment of your dreams. Or someone might be having a wedding, and they'll make nicknames for all their bridesmaids, and that's really cute and special. Everyone has something that is meaningful to them."

Tyrone Scott, owner of Samos Clothing, sells plenty of professionally made shirts at his North Avenue stores, but he will also help design customized tees for people who want to wear something that is wholly theirs.

Scott, a graphic artist from Northeast Baltimore, has designed screen-printed and embroidered tees for family reunions, softball teams, party promoters and fashion shows.

He recommends "clarity of printing" when creating your own design, "so that people can see it." He also is a fan of lots of color.

But "there's no such thing as a bad T-shirt," he says.

Originality is the key to a successful, self-designed T-shirt, experts say, whether you are merely printing the name of your neighborhood or uploading a graphic of your own creation.

The only trick is to know thyself.

"Making your own T-shirt gives you that ability to break free of the idea that you have to buy something that is already made," says de Zayas. "You walk into the Gap and you can only buy what they tell you is cool. This turns the controls over to you to say, 'This is my piece of clothing. I'm going to design it. It's mine.'"

The result, says de Zayas, is not just a hot T-shirt; it's a fabulous piece of fabulous you.

"It becomes an act of creativity," he says. " ... It's not just a commodity anymore. It's not just a useful piece of clothing or clothing that looks good; it's a part of you."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Express yourself

So you want to make your own creative T-shirt but have a hard time matching your socks in the morning? No problem.

Experts say you only need two things when attempting to design a tee of your very own: an idea and a little imagination. Once you've found a Web site or local vendor to help make your shirt, consider these few tips to help you with the process:

DO block out some time to pick the right style, color and design features you want. Rushing through the process could result in an ugly T-shirt. And who wants that? "Go in and think through things," says Jana Eggers, U.S. CEO of Spreadshirt Inc. "We have a whole bunch of different fonts. Try a bunch of them. See which one you like best. Don't just pick the first one."

DO use spell-check. If you're using text, please check and double check your spelling. Nothing says "I'm-a-dork" better than a T-shirt that reads, "I'm Too Sexy for This SIHRT."

DO try selecting an interesting color, especially if the shirt is a gift. "There's nothing wrong with the plain white shirt," Eggers says. "But you want to think, 'Hey, do I want this to be one of their mow-the lawn shirts?' or do I want it to be something that they look in the closet and say, 'I want to wear this.'"

DON'T overload the shirt with too much text. It may be tempting to try to print on a baby tee the chapter in Jane Eyre you were supposed to read for your summer school English class, but that's just wrong.

DON'T put the date on your family reunion shirts. Everyone knows what year it is; try to make the shirt stylish enough that people will want to wear it again. "Everybody gets these shirts, and they throw them away," says Michael de Zayas, founder of Neighborhoodies.com. "And nobody's proud wearing a shirt three years from now that says, 'July 2006 Johnson Family Reunion.'"

DON'T throw out any ideas -- no matter how boring they may seem. "Are you a sports fan? Where do you live?" de Zayas says to ask yourself. "Do you want a silly shirt. Do you want a serious shirt? What are you passionate about? Think about things that interest you. Really make a message that is different from everyone else's."

Tanika White

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