Look around—the traditional T-shirt is everywhere. The tomboy top, once the uniform of the motorcyclist, the suburbanite or working girl, has been co-opted. In part, the theft was abetted by Phyllis Keitlen, 30-year-old president of a Manhattan million-dollar-plus bonanza, Tric-Trac, Ltd. Keitlen discovered the “caftan T-shirt,” Tric-Trac’s specialty, in a Moroccan souk (native marketplace) in 1973. “I was warned I couldn’t do business as a woman in the Arab world, but the challenge made me more determined.” She contracted with a manufacturer in Casablanca to mass-produce high-grade T-shirts exclusively for her and within a month of her return to the States had $100,000 worth of orders from American stores.
Today Tric-Trac is often featured in the boutique pages of the top fashion magazines. Vogue’s fashion director, Frances Stein, credits Keitlen as “one of the first to take the conventional T-shirt and, by projecting, hiking or shaving its sleeves, neck or hemline, create infinite variations.”
By chance, Keitlen launched her inexpensive tops when a recession economy made their practical comfort most appealing. But her timing has always been good. The daughter of a Massachusetts obstetrician, Keitlen dropped out of the University of Wisconsin and went abroad just as London, with the Beatles and mod hemlines, became the jet-setter’s mecca. “Europe,” she says, “gave me my first taste of fashion.”
Returning in 1966, Keitlen badgered a job interview at New York’s “in” fashion center, Paraphernalia. From there, she continued her on-the-job training as publicist for several Coty Award designers. Later, following a few free-lance assignments, she worked for the New York-based consul general of Morocco “to rest and reevaluate my life. Aggressive women aren’t happy working for others,” Keitlen admits. “I knew I wanted to set up my own business, but publicity was such a pushy field. I didn’t feel that was the real me.”
In the midst of this identity crisis, Keitlen got her lucky break. A girlfriend returned from Morocco with a suitcase of caftans, which Keitlen envisioned instantly as “great for beachwear.” She bought a ticket for Casablanca, but before leaving New York shrewdly established a company with her attorney “on the chance something might work.” Since then, Keitlen’s Casablanca connection has given her the lead in quality. She has extended her original T-shirt designs to include dresses, bikinis and jumpsuits.
Successful, yes, but the energy and time necessary to start a new business absorbed her private life. “I was too tired to be social my first year,” she admits. Now Keitlen claims a better balance. When designing a collection in Morocco, she water-skis or frequents the hammam, the primitive Arab bath, for a scrubbing down and the special rassoul, a mud shampoo. In New York, “no matter how busy, I can always take time for a phone call from a man. It’s just as important as the office. I’m a businesswoman,” she admits, “but I’m still a romantic.”