Skip to main content
BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

The Unassuming T-Shirt Brand Trying to Break the DTC Curse

True Classic has emerged from a sea of men’s brands promising the perfect t-shirt, managing to build a big audience without bleeding cash.
A pack of True Classic t-shirts.
The apparel start-up True Classic is growing faster than most DTC brands, but its distribution strategy and meticulous cost management is keeping it from operating in the red. (True Classic)

Key insights

  • True Classic expects its revenue will grow around 60 percent this year, with EBITDA profits of $25 million.
  • True Classic’s relatively early decision to sell on Amazon, and expand internationally, has proved pivotal.
  • The brand generated nearly $3 million in sales during two-day Amazon’s Prime Day event in July.

There was no shortage of online brands claiming to sell a better men’s t-shirt when True Classic arrived on the scene in 2019.

The brand’s initial pitch wasn’t particularly innovative, either: bombard Facebook and Instagram users with images of male models in fitted shirts every time they opened the apps, and hope enough of them clicked so the brand could afford its next round of ads.

And yet, True Classic is now a bona fide direct-to-consumer success story. The company expects its revenue will grow around 60 percent this year to $240 million, including nearly $3 million in sales during Amazon’s Prime Day, the two-day event in July. It also anticipates earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation of $20 million.

But the question still remains: why this brand? The conventional wisdom around fashion start-ups is that they must target a hyper-specific audience to avoid getting forced into a money-draining online advertising war with lookalike competitors (think the recent crop of Gen-Z brands with busy, Y2K-inspired design). True Classic markets itself to the broadest possible audience, down to the black, block letters in its logo.


“We do have a very wide array of customers that are purchasing our product,” said Breanna Moreno, True Classic’s vice president of customer experience. “We don’t want to be so strategic … in who we invite to our brand.”

And the market is littered with brands that rode a basic hero product — Allbirds’ wool sneakers or Bonobos’ perfect-fit chinos — only to stumble when they couldn’t come up with a second act. True Classic has moved into other categories, including sweatpants and dress shirts. But its three-for-$75 t-shirts, made from ringspun cotton and polyester, remain best sellers, making up 60 percent of annual sales.

True Classic’s growth points to a deep well of consumer demand for affordable, quality basics, long after the boom that lifted Everlane and Allbirds had petered out. True Classic has also been able to learn from earlier waves of DTC brands, keeping a grip on marketing and supply chain costs even as it pursued rapid growth.

The challenge now is to build a connection with customers that keeps them coming back even when they aren’t flooded with ads. After all, plenty of other brands, from online rivals Fresh Clean Threads and Cuts Clothing to Target’s in-house label Goodfellow, claim to sell a superior tee at an affordable price.

“It isn’t enough to have great product, you have to establish a brand,” said Bill Lewis, a partner at management consulting firm AlixPartners. “It’s being able to get the brand eyeballs and availability in multiple locations.”

For now, at least, it appears True Classic’s main focus is on the availability side of the equation: in addition to selling on Amazon starting last year, the brand now sells in 192 countries and has opened five US stores.

A Package Deal

True Classic started with $3,000 scraped together by founders Ryan Bartlett, Matt Winnick and Nick Ventura. The three had little fashion experience (Ventura came closest, having co-founded a sports merchandise maker). But Winnick had a connection to a manufacturer, which extended a $20,000 credit line to make the first batch of t-shirts.

They ploughed their $3,000 warchest into Facebook ads. The static shots of models in t-shirts quickly gave way to skits, often featuring a man prevented from achieving his goal because of an ill-fitting shirt, until a True Classic tee comes to the rescue. Most of the ads highlighted that the t-shirts, which come in neutral shades like white, black, grey and navy, are designed to flatter different body types, hugging in the arm area and sitting loosely in the midsection.


Viewers who clicked through to the brand’s website were greeted with a deal many found irresistible: three t-shirts for $75. The offer helped drive conversions — Bartlett said early on he was seeing $3,000 in sales for every $1,000 spent on Facebook. The company paid back its $20,000 loan in its first month.

Since then, True Classic has made bundling an essential part of its strategy, adding “build your own” packs for other categories like underwear and socks. It also piloted a paid membership program in June that offers a $50 credit on signup and free shipping.

The brand has had to confront quality control issues. Reddit fashion forums are flooded with complaints about t-shirts falling apart after a single wear, or feeling too cheap for the price. True Classic has at times responded in the threads to say it’s addressing problems with manufacturers, and to offer free tees. Behind the scenes, the company hired an external quality control firm at the end of 2022 to inspect production at its partner factories to ensure those vendors weren’t cutting corners.

The Everywhere Brand

True Classic’s relatively early decision to sell on Amazon has also proved pivotal. Many start-ups steer clear of the e-commerce giant, fearing the pressure to lower prices would cannibalise their DTC business or that Amazon would replicate their items for its own private label.

But a brand specialising in a competitive category with low barriers to entry and low differentiation benefit from making its product as easy to find and purchase as possible, said Benjamin Bond, a principal consumer growth strategy consultant at management consulting firm Kearney.

“For many people, t-shirts would fall into that category,” he said.

True Classic opened its first stores in November 2022. It signed short, 10-month to 1-year leases, passing over premium urban shopping districts in favour of busy suburban malls in places like Santa Clara, Calif. and Tysons Corner in Virginia. More locations are in the works.

The company partnered with cross border e-commerce enablement firm Global-e Online last year to enter new markets, including Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Mexico. By year’s end, international sales accounted for nearly 30 percent of overall revenue. In the next year, True Classic is planning to partner with local fulfilment centres overseas to lower shipping times, which it expects will bump international sales to 50 percent of the business.


“Everyone loves plain clothing,” Bartlett said. “It’s a thing that translates across countries.”

Every Dollar Counts

Facebook and Instagram are still central to True Classic’s marketing, but their approach to the platforms is changing.

The days of $3,000 in sales for $1,000 in ads are long gone. The brand had taken a “more is more” approach to online advertising, which led to about $2 in sales per $1 spent. Last year, the brand set a new target of $2.50 per advertising dollar and hired Ben Yahalom, a former Meta executive, to identify the type of customer who could generate this return.

Yahalom, now True Classic’s president, looked at the buying behaviours of its customers with high average order value, such as those who pay with American Express instead of Visa or if they spent more money buying jeans over other types of goods, and then found similar customers.

True Classic’s rivals are adopting many of the same techniques. Avoiding the DTC trap means doing things a little better, a little cheaper and a little smarter.

“No one’s going to argue with getting something that fits better, is less expensive and is higher quality,” Lewis of AlixPartners said. “If you can hit those three dimensions, then really everybody is your customer.”

Further Reading

How the DTC Bust Could Play Out

Fashion and beauty start-up valuations appear to have stabilised after plunging last year, though it may be months or even years before many return to their old highs — if they ever do. But there are ways for emerging and established players to ride out the downturn.

Case Study | How to Build a Profitable DTC Brand

With the direct-to-consumer funding heyday now over, DTC brands need to turn a profit. Unlike their revenue-obsessed counterparts, DTC pioneers Marine Layer, Meundies and Trinny London offer a blueprint for achieving both top- and bottom-line growth.

About the author
Malique Morris
Malique Morris

Malique Morris is Direct-to-Consumer Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. He is based in New York and covers digital-native brands and shifts in the online shopping industry.

© 2024 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

More from Direct-to-Consumer
How direct-to-consumer brands and retail concepts are reshaping the industry, online and off.

What It Takes to Win at DTC in 2024

The DTC bust of the past two years has casted a cloud on the sector, but emerging fashion brands with a better handle on supply, demand and customer retention are seeing profitable growth.

How Emerging Brands Can Build DTC Businesses

In London, where independent labels have been hit hard by the implosion of key stockist Matches, brands like Clio Peppiatt, Marfa Stance and Completedworks have grown direct-to-consumer businesses that peers can learn from.

view more

Subscribe to the BoF Daily Digest

The essential daily round-up of fashion news, analysis, and breaking news alerts.

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The Business of Beauty Global Forum
© 2024 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Cookie Policy and Accessibility Statement.
The Business of Beauty Global Forum