Pokémon Shirts are shirts covered in Pokémon. But don’t get confused; most shirts covered in Pokémon are not Pokémon Shirts.
No, in order to create a Pokémon Shirt — proper noun — there’s a process. First, it’s best if you have some sort of formal event upcoming. As is often the case these days, maybe you want to look sharp for a business meeting over Zoom. Sit up straight and find a friend, because next you’re going to need the exact measurements of your arms, neck, chest, and waist. Armed with that information, now you can hone in on the shape of the shirt. Do you want short or long sleeves? Collar or no collar? A dress shirt always works, but maybe something looser-fitting might look good on you.
Once that’s sorted, you’re still not done. Next comes the most important step. You have over 300 different fabrics to consider. Pokémon Shirts offer fabric patterns representing every single Pokémon from the Kanto and Johto regions of the games, and a few from the Galar region sprinkled in, too. When your styling is all said and done, the final product will likely set you back over $100.
But that’s fine with you, because you are exactly the demographic The Pokémon Company has been breeding all these years. Take a bow in your gorgeous new shirt.
Produced by upscale shirt tailor Original Stitch, Pokémon Shirts are entering their third year of operation, putting an appreciable distance between being many one-and-done licensing agreements. And their sustained success coincides with the rise of a new customer demographic in the Pokémon marketing world.
Original Stitch was founded in San Francisco back in 2012 by Jin Koh, a businessman who had been seeking sophisticated, custom-tailored shirts. The problem he kept running up against was time; he didn’t have enough of it to tailor his wardrobe. In an attempt to solve the same problem for others, he created Original Stitch as an online store offering custom, high-quality shirts, at the time marketed to busy tech workers.
Other online styling companies like Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, and Wantable typically match you with a stylist and a curated clothing catalog; Original Stitch cuts out the middleman, handing you metaphorical control of the sewing machine.
“If you go to a large chain store, and if you’re a [size large], then you’re supposed to fit in ‘large.’ And if you don’t, the silent message is that you should fit into the brand, not vice versa,” says Yasuhiro Hayashi, CEO of Original Stitch.
This approach kept Original Stitch in business for a handful of years. And in 2019, an unlikely suitor came knocking: The Pokémon Company, which wanted to make something one of a kind. Or in this case, one of every kind.
Department store Kohl’s offers several pages of Pokémon t-shirts online. You can get most of them for about $24.99, though many are on clearance for single digit dollars. Walmart and Target have pages of mass-produced Pokémon shirts as well, all for similar prices. If you buy a couple of them, you may even qualify for free shipping.
Meanwhile, the lowest cost Pokémon Shirt begins at $85. Most shirt types total north of $100 before customization begins. These prices have not wavered since launch, and the sticker shock has run through the Pokémon fan community. A clip on YouTube titled “Everything Wrong With Pokémon Shirts” by Austin Lockwood racked up more than 340,000 views, putting every piece of fabric under scrutiny and highlighting the high prices in the process. Another YouTube video on the same topic by popular Michael Dualey comes with a caption that reads, “This is the most ridiculous Pokémon purchase I have EVER made.”
These creators are among the most followed and bolstered Pokémon community members online, and the viral support of their reactions have led to strong reactions from other fans. It’s not the first time Pokémon goods have frustrated fans due to their high prices, either. Vintage Pokémon cards are being sold second-hand for astronomical prices; and licensing opportunities for companies with older demographics have kept popping up.
Over the last few years alone, there have been fashion lines released by Levi’s, Black Milk, adidas, and more. Each has catered to slightly different demographics, but all have sold at premium prices.
“It’s a different demo,” says Hayashi.
“Pokémon Shirts [are] not cheap. [...] You don’t have to be, but you probably are a core fan to spend $100 or more [on] a shirt,” he adds.
This “core fan” The Pokémon Company, Original Stitch and others have identified has come about in part due to the age of the franchise.
“It’s also important to recognize that kids who grew up with Pokémon are becoming parents themselves,” says Amy Sachtleben, director of licensing at The Pokémon Company International. “They want to share something they loved from their childhoods with their own children.”
Today, there is an effort taking place to not just expose the world to Pikachu, but to find the right spending outlet for the Metapod and Weepinbell fans of the world. But there is one major, self-imposed caveat to this plan. As Hayashi says, any company seeking to license a group of Pokémon characters, big or small, can not purposefully do anything to overvalue any one character over another. In The Pokémon Company’s eyes, every Pokémon has to be treated equally — a monumental task if you’re aiming to license every single character.
On this arrangement, says Hayashi, “The mutual trust within each other with Pokémon is that we will treat all [Pokémon equally, whether they are the least popular or] the most popular — which is not Pikachu, by the way. [...] And that is the key differentiator that has given us the edge to the other chain retailers.” In other words, Kakuna fans are probably not finding much value at Kohl’s.
As per their licensing agreement, Original Stitch has agreed not to elaborate on sales of any individual fabric, nor market any of its Pokémon products by popularity. Team members can’t even tell us their favorite designs. The extent to which Pokémon Company takes this seriously gets down to even the granular details of the company’s web design.
Hayashi says that The Pokémon Company controls the numbering and placement of Pokémon on Original Switch’s site, to avoid external factors affecting the popularity of any particular character or design. “We are not allowed to [say], ‘This is selling well; let’s move it here.’ It’s a set. This is the design,” says Hayashi.
As part of the agreement, The Pokémon Company also designs all the patterns in-house in Japan. Though by the nature of Original Stitch’s business model, customers experience a taste of the design process themselves. Original Stitch says, on average, customers customize somewhere between two and three areas of each shirt they purchase, mixing and matching different Pokémon along cuffs, collars, and pockets.
Overall, the process of designing, printing, sewing and stocking one generation of Pokémon takes about six months, from beginning to end, according to Original Stitch.
“The impact has been incredible,” says Marina Carrol, marketing manager at Original Stitch. “The Pokémon Shirts are very popular with Pokémon fans and the collaboration has really opened up some other amazing opportunities, like working with The Beatles and Star Wars for custom prints as well.” It also acts as a gateway for fans to spend money on dressing themselves in non-Pokémon related ways, says Carrol. “Business has also picked up for our customized dress shirts line at Original Stitch from a small crossover of Pokémon Shirts customers purchasing from our standard dress shirt collection.”
What’s next for Pokémon Shirts? Right now, Hayashi touts “tremendous” sales for face masks utilizing the same Pokémon patterns. Additionally, the company promises more designs for all its products in the future, a sign that its Pokémon contract, which Original Stitch says is in fact renewable and not necessarily long-term, is in no immediate danger of lapsing.
Original Stitch also has plans to try and bridge the accessibility gap of their shirts. “Our goal is to release more generations of fabrics as the time passes and to also onboard some products that are in a more affordable price range,” says Carrol.
For the moment, though, the company’s approach occupies a unique space in the Pokémon licensing world. One that shows no signs of slowing down.