Inside the 1800: Interview With Caius Olowu, Director of Design and Pre-Production

Next Level Apparel’s 1800 – Unisex Ideal Heavyweight Crew is the first of its kind for our industry. Finally, there’s a premium entry-point T-shirt distributors can present to their clients, regardless of their budget. But this game-changing garment didn’t come out of nowhere – it was actually four years in the making and went through 22 different iterations before the final version was brought to market.

To learn more about what goes into creating innovative and imaginative apparel, we’re interviewing Caius Olowu, Director of Design and Pre-Production at Next Level Apparel. Discover what really went in to crafting the 1800, what challenges Olowu and his team faced and why the end result is so groundbreaking for promo professionals.

Next Level Apparel Tees

Would you be able to tell me a little about your job and what your primary responsibilities are?

My department is called MPP – Merchandise & Pre-Production. I oversee all design and development, which includes all pre-production, color development, new styles, partnering with the fabric team to create new fabrications, plus a million other duties that help to keep Next Level Apparel at the forefront of our market and competitors.

What does a typical “day in the life” look like for you?

It depends on what stage we’re in. At this moment, we just finished the first phase of 2021 and are moving into phase two of 2021. My days consist of developing and finalizing move-forward colors in different fabrications, finalizing and tweaking design ideas, fit sessions to create the perfect fit, daily communication with production to make sure they have all the right info from my department while also jointly solving issues.

I am constantly developing new ideas, so working alongside my pattern manager to develop them is sometimes a daily event. Working alongside the fabric director is also a daily event, where we put our heads together to compare notes in creating and developing that next fabrication.

What I do is not a 9-5 job; it’s a lifestyle. You have to truly love the process to be able to work with multiple categories. Next Level Apparel is a brand, manufacturer and supplier of men’s, women’s and kids’ sports athleisurewear blanks. My whole life revolves around the creative process. I believe every idea you create eventually creates doubt – so you create the next idea.

Caius Olowu

“My whole life revolves around the creative process. I believe every idea you create eventually creates doubt – so you create the next idea.”

Caius Olowu, Director of Design and Pre-Production of Next Level Apparel

What was the inspiration behind adding the 1800 to Next Level Apparel’s product line?

To remain a leader in our industry, you have to constantly push and move forward with time to be able to survive. The 1800 has been in development for over four years at Next Level Apparel. We ended up with 22 variations before we decided that this was the best result to move forward with, based on who we are as a brand, manufacturer and supplier. It was a constant call out by our customers who were looking for something different, especially in the tubular tee market. We also have a lot more coming soon.

What unique challenges did you encounter while creating the 1800? How did you solve them?

The typical industry tubular tee is made out of a cylindrical roll of fabric with no side seams. Traditionally, the fit has been a flat 2-D form, with the back and front body being the same.

We solved this challenge by bringing together the best talent and taking our best-fitting tee specs to re-engineer the tubular tee process by turning a flat 2-D form into a 3-D form with an extra defined fit and keeping its principle of having no side seams. Having studied civil engineering before going into apparel, I was able to put my knowledge of 2-D and 3-D forms into work.

Perfecting the cylindrical width and shrinkage was a slight challenge, but when you have the best talent on your side, nothing is impossible. The 1800 back and front body, including the sleeves, are shaped differently, just like a regular side-seamed T-shirt. We created the perfect tubular fit.

The 1800 is now my go-to tee. The reason why is because it has better fabric, a better finish and overall better comfort and fit.

What do you think prevented our industry from achieving a premium entry-point T-shirt previously?

The overall set-up cost in creating a decent tubular tee is expensive. Other brands have failed because they never invested in taking the next step in the manufacturing process. Yes, it is cheap to make once you have the first step defined, but doing it the Next Level Apparel way is an extra step with a cost to it. You can’t rush the making and finishing process; these key details truly make a great product.

Next Level Apparel Tees

Are there any unique aspects of Next Level Apparel and your design team that you feel allowed you to achieve the 1800, where others could not?

Taking our time to develop without feeling rushed to create something truly unique. Four years, 22 variations and the best industry talent working together created the 1800. I believe in teamwork.

If you could leave distributors with one piece of advice for selling the 1800, what would that be?

The 1800 Tubular Ideal Tee: Better fabric, better finish and an overall better comfort and fit.