Today, Tee Jays is a quintessential modern, sophisticated Scandinavian clothing brand, yet it’s origins lie in the heart of US cotton country, as Images discovers
Mention clean, simple, Scandinavian design, retail quality and ‘want-to-wear’ appeal and there’s one garment brand that is certain to spring to mind – Tee Jays. What many printers and embroiderers may be unaware of, however, is that this modern Nordic company was born on the other side of the Atlantic and boasts a rich heritage rooted in the very heart of US cotton country.
Tee Jays is a business that was founded over four decades ago in the cotton district of Alabama, USA by two friends – Terry Wylie and Jim Morris. The company’s current owner, Peter Høfler, picks up the story of how Tee Jays first took root and subsequently blossomed into an international brand.
“Terry and Jim – that’s where the ‘Tee’ and the ‘Jay’ come from – started in 1976 making quality T-shirts. They were focused on making longlasting garments that were, at that point, pure US-made. In just over ten years, Terry built up a vertical factory with almost 4,000 employees and 19 production plants. Terry kept a focus on basics – we still do that today, only doing what we’re good at – and they did a lot of custom production for high profile brands.”
In 1979, Peter’s father George, a Danish school teacher with a strong entrepreneurial streak, visited a trade show in California where Terry was exhibiting. Terry complimented George on the pipe he was smoking and from this seemingly innocuous beginning there stemmed a long friendship and successful working relationship.
That same year George set up the distribution company LG Sportswear in Denmark and began importing garments from Tee Jays and other companies, selling them to retail companies in Europe. He also became the European sales director for Tee Jays, a position he held for almost 20 years.
When Peter, George’s youngest son, turned 18 in 1990, he jetted over to America for two years to work at Tee Jays and learn the ropes. “I worked in all the departments, from yarn receiving to knitting, to sewing, to screen printing, to sales – I can actually sew! I’m one of the few in this industry that can sew.”
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. “It took some of the fun out of the American textile industry,” says Peter. “It’s one of the reasons that Terry decided to sell his life’s work – he didn’t believe that there was a future in producing on American soil.” With Jim having already departed the company in the early years, Terry sold the entire operations in 2002. The following year, George and Peter bought all the licences, brands and sub brands from the new owners of Tee Jays.
“It was a totally fresh beginning, we had the opportunity to do whatever we wanted to do. Our vision was to bring a Scandinavian-designed, quality brand to this industry. We saw a big gap in the industry – people were selling cheap blanks without any history. We wanted to make a profiled, retail collection for the B2B market with a focus on quality, a focus on design, a focus on Scandinavian simplicity.”
They decided to wind down their distribution company, closing it completely in 2007, and focus solely on Tee Jays. “I believe if you do something, you have to do it 110%,” says Peter. “If we do a polo, we want to do the best. If we do an interlock T-shirt, we want to do the best interlock T-shirt on the market. There’s a drive and a goal every time we design a product: we go for the quality of the garment and for the design. There are not a lot of details because for us, it’s the garment itself that is important, the fitting and so on. What we have here is Scandinavian design: high quality, retail products.”
The company is known “for having the best T-shirts, sweatshirts and polos in the market”, Peter advises. “It’s our basics that are the backbone and the reason for the continuous growth of our company,” he adds, emphasising that styles such as the new Pima Cotton Polo and the Crossover Jackets are all heavily influenced by retail.
The high quality of the garments is down to the fabrics Tee Jays uses, believes Peter. “The raw material we use is a lot more expensive than what we see in the industry. It’s like Danish furniture: it’s only a piece of wood and a piece of leather, but people keep buying it and have done for 50 years.”
He is, however, quick to point out that the use of expensive yarns doesn’t price Tee Jays out of the printwear market, far from it – the company always keeps the cost to the decorator in mind. “We have a very lean organisation. We have managed to create a premium collection with very sharp pricing that gives value for money, so we are very much in the volume market. We are very competitive.”
Tee Jays’ manufacturing has migrated from the cotton fields of Alabama via the unspoiled heathlands of Denmark to the modern Asian factories that make the company’s garments today. These factories pride themselves on being state of the art and are constantly improving their techniques and technology to maintain the highest quality while still servicing the volume market. It’s a work ethic that Tee Jays rewards by staying loyal to them.
Since 2003, the company’s team of five staff has grown to 35 employees in Denmark. These days, Peter still does the garment designing himself, together with his team of designers, and employs a number of people working for Tee Jays across the globe.
Despite the company’s growth, however, Tee Jays is still very much a family business that’s in touch with its roots. Peter’s father, George, now 72, still comes to work every day. The Tee Jays logo remains the one that George commissioned from a Danish artist to give to Terry Wylie in the 1980s to replace the “old ‘TJ’ logo; although today it would be seen as being very kitsch, quite retro”, says Peter. “Now the brand is in Denmark and being developed in a new modern direction by us. It’s a Tee Jays story. It’s a story of friendship and business across the Atlantic, and still is today between the Wylie and Høfler family.”
Peter is now the sole owner of Tee Jays, having bought the final 20% two years ago. Last September saw the opening of a new distribution centre in Svenstrup, Denmark – an entirely fitting way to mark Peter’s 25 years in the business. It’s designed to cope with his ambition to double the company’s turnover between 2015 and 2020. He may be reluctant to divulge the details of how he will achieve such growth, but given that he tripled company turnover between 2010 and 2015, it would be a brave person that bets against him achieving this latest target.