"I WEAR A T-shirt and jeans every single day," said Erik Schnakenberg, 30, co-founder of the Venice, Calif.-based brand Buck Mason. "It's definitely my uniform."
Difficulty finding a great-fitting, well-priced T-shirt was one reason that Mr. Schnakenberg, who has a background in fashion retail, and his friend Sasha Koehn, 32, an ex-techie, decided to launch their line of affordable but style-conscious basics last year. "T-shirts have become a fundamental piece of the workday wardrobe in Los Angeles," said Mr. Koehn. "We wanted something that could be worn through the day into evening." The brand's $24 classic crew-neck, cut from North Carolina cotton and sewn in L.A., is finished with a hem that's slightly rounded like a shirttail and gives it a dressier look.
Interactive art director Clay Weishaar, 33, discovered Buck Mason on Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where the label opened a shop last October. So far, he's bought about 10 tees, which he wears with jeans by Acne and Rogue Territory. "I wanted to simplify my wardrobe," said Mr. Weishaar. "A slightly unique T-shirt looks good in my profession. A Hanes tee might not."
There is no denying that men have more interesting clothing options today than they did 10 or 15 years ago, but the dressy stuff gets most of the attention: bespoke suits, lace-up shoes, perfectly tailored button downs. But as guys upgrade the clothes hanging in their closets, shouldn't they refresh the basics in their drawers, too?
U.S. stores sold $5.4 billion worth of men's T-shirts in 2013, according to market research firm NPD, but that comes out to less than $11 a tee. The challenge for labels such as Buck Mason is to convince guys that replacing crew-necks that have seen better days for nice-fitting, nice-feeling tees is worth the investment. When men become believers, they tend to buy in bulk.
Once a guy has felt a good T-shirt against his skin, it's an easy conversion, said New York-based designer Adam Lippes, 41, a self-professed T-shirt nerd. "When I was 23 and got a job at Oscar de la Renta, everyone there wore suits," he said. "I was the first person at the company to wear jeans and a T-shirt. So, I was always on the lookout for that perfect white tee." Mr. Lippes, unhappy with the logoed designer options available at the time, began making T-shirts nearly a decade ago as a side project. He broke out on his own in 2004 and eventually expanded beyond T-shirts into full men's and women's fashion collections. After a brief hiatus from the fashion world starting in late 2011, the designer relaunched his women's line in early 2013. Last summer, he reintroduced his tees.
When working on his original tees, Mr. Lippes altered the fit dozens of times before choosing the final design, and he hasn't changed it since. "The most important thing is that the shoulder fits," he said of what distinguishes his T-shirt from your standard three-pack. "And look at the length—is it too long or too short?"
While Buck Mason's styles are described by Mr. Koehn as "slim and relaxed," Mr. Lippes's T-shirts have narrower shoulders and fit snugly enough to be layered or to show off the result of hours spent in the gym.
New York-based brand Håndværk lands somewhere in the middle on the fit spectrum, and its neck hems are thinner than average. "It's a tailored fit for someone who takes care of himself," said Håndværk's Esteban Saba, 41, a former investment banker who launched the label with his designer wife, Petra Brichnacova, 36, last October.
Peruvian-born Mr. Saba has near-century-old family ties to his native country's textile and apparel industries. The couple use some of his family's own factories to produce Håndværk. Their cotton, said Mr. Saba, has a yarn count two to three times higher than that in the average T-shirt. He compared it to high-thread-count sheets.
There are a few things that luxury-T-shirt neophytes should keep in mind. First, white tees, even well-made ones, need to be replenished more often than you think. Watch for signs of yellowing. "It's not a forever item," said Mr. Lippes. Next, shop around until you find the label that's right for you. There are many criteria to consider when searching for the perfect T-shirt—from neckline to cotton weight to length.
Lastly, Mr. Saba recommends a varied T-shirt wardrobe. "Guys love crew necks but you should also have a mix of v-necks," he said. "And the simple white henley is a very cool look that should be in every guy's closet."