We Found the Perfect T-Shirt
Has Tony Melillo has created the perfect T-shirt? For the 52-year-old designer’s loyal customers, the answer is not yes but rather: Which one?
On Melillo's men’s rack, we find an $80 short-sleeved T-shirt made of heathery slub cotton in a summery mood, another in a robust pima cotton, plus a slinky number made of modal, a rayon made from tree bark and arranged to drape with an under-the-radar sophistication.
“It’s supposed to mold to the body but not make you look overtly sexy,” Melillo said earlier this week, as he gave a pre-opening tour of his first stand-alone store on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. “We make cozy clothes,” he added, then repeated his creative mantra: “Fit, feel, relaxed elegance.” It could have served as a mission statement for the T-shirt at large and as a checklist for anyone in the market to buy one.
Melillo’s twin reputations for excellence and obsession in this arena date to the 1990s, when he founded the menswear line Nova USA and became a cult hero to a constituency bewitched by the softness and suavity of his tees. They were cemented in 2012 when, after nine months of work to design platonic ideals of the tee, he launched ATM by Anthony Thomas Melillo as an exclusive offering of Barneys New York.
The quest for excellence necessitated opening a manufacturing center in Peru, where artisans were spinning some of the world’s most-enviable cotton before the Incan Empire. “It’s the water quality,” Melillo said. “It’s a much harder water that makes a much softer cotton.”
Buoyed by rave reviews during two and half years at Barneys, Melillo expanded his line to include a range of casual wear and widened his market to such shops as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. His ambitions now include designing all the furniture in both the new Bleecker Street shop and an East Hampton, N.Y., shop due to open by Memorial Day.
Curiously, it’s more difficult to to make a solid, basic tee than it is to design a garment loaded with fancy distractions. Because the distance between interior structure and external adornment is a difference of millimeters, anyone trying his hand at this iconic garment quickly comes to realize that doing so is “actually more complicated than a bunch of ornament.” Melillo’s trick is to make things look easy. “The internal building,” he said, “is the drape, the hand-feel, the length, the right neckline.”
He is a stickler, for instance, regarding a hemline that hits about an inch below the belt—the Goldilocks Zone between the short-waisted, high-fashion tees of yore (“Gucci used to do them right at the belt”) and the Rick Owens flow of hip streetwear (“which is fine”).
Likewise, arriving at his ideal neckline was a matter of making contemporary calibration: “In a casual world, I don’t want a tight neck.” For an example of Melillo’s commitment to delivering a consistently excellent feel, consider this: There are, in all Peru, six of the old machines capable of making the ribbed micromodal fabric used in some of ATM’s women’s garments. Melillo bought them all.
He is reasserting his presence in what happens to be a time of T-shirt tumult. The semi-obsessive T-shirt consumer has been losing sleep recently with the acquisition of American Apparel’s brand and manufacturing equipment (though not its stores) by Canadian company Gildan. More of than a few of us grew to rely on American Apparel’s wares, made since 1997 at a decent price in Los Angeles. Some are stockpiling these consummate, everyday basics (Happy hoarding to you!) Others find that the sturdy snuggliness of Uniqlo’s Supima crewneck delivers good comfort for value.
Others may have decided that these uncertain times call for sure-thing tees. If ATM doesn’t ring your bell, one of these alternatives will.
Made in Peru, this slub-knit crew neck is superbly sleek and nonetheless substantial. $65 at bloomingdales.com
While the model called the Jimmy boasts the same safe-but-cool body length as Melillo’s shirt, it is cut to feature, not immodestly, an additional inch of bicep. $95 for this flecked grey number at A.P.C. stores
The lightweight jersey crew neck boasts a creamy texture and a roomy fit. Our sales assistant advised that it stretches, too, so consider sizing down. $60 at jamesperse.com
Rag & Bone
Pushing a Melillo-esque standard for rigorous minimalism to the edge of decoration, the Owen pocket tee in heathered jersey features contrast stitching at the side seams and a further seam at the spine. $135 at eastdane.com