Like much of the men’s apparel business, underwear isn’t exactly booming, with many retailers reporting flat sales or slight gains. Hosiery, while doing better, isn’t likely to save the day either. Still, hope does loom on the horizon, as men are leaning towards performance fabrics, innovative products, novelty patterns and bright colors to replace much of what has been in their dresser drawers for too long.
“Performance fabrics have become really prevalent in the business,” says Brian Small, buyer of men’s basics for Bloomingdale’s (where the biggest sellers include Calvin Klein, 2Xist and Hanro). “Many of our underwear customers are looking for longer-length silhouettes in performance fabrics, and we have seen an increase in demand for knit fabrics and performance stretch.”
“There is a lot of interest from our customers in technical fabrications and bright colors,” says Darien Sport Shop’s GMM Tom Whitney. “We are seeing a definite surge in tactile underwear going forward.”
“The biggest factor driving our business is innovation,” says Hanes’ director of sales Angela Dobbs. “We’ve introduced a line called XTENT that is temperature-controlling underwear. It really cools you down through wicking or heats you up by non-wicking. In fact, anything with moisture-wicking sells well, even if some men may not wear it every day.” Hanes is also launching a new underwear line with 5 percent spandex to be initially be sold at Kohl’s, as well as a higher-priced better-quality cotton line called Hanes Platinum (retailing at $36 to $38 per four-pack) to launch at Lord & Taylor.
Smaller brands are just as cognizant of the need for innovation and comfort in their products. When Vasumathi Soundararajan started her New York-based brand, Ken Wroy, three years ago—essentially, because she found her own boyfriend’s underwear to be too boring—she surveyed 275 real men on what they wanted in their everyday underwear. Since then, she has incorporated their answers (“no hanging pouches,” “no sagging backs,” “no riding up,” “no itchy waistbands,” and “no chafing”) into the line.
No chafing is also one of the reasons Turq, a three-year-old Connecticut-based brand geared to swimmers and surfers, has grown to over 100 accounts. “Over the years, the men in my life have complained about being uncomfortable—code word, “chafed”—during vacations or while playing sports,” says owner Susan White. “The last straw was when my teenage boys were wearing cotton boxers under their board shorts. That was just wrong. So I created a product that is great not just for watersports, but any sports. It’s technical performance underwear that is anti-microbial, non-chafing, quick-drying, as well as form-fitting and supportive. It’s built for all-day comfort.”
At four-year-old Wood Underwear, men are steadily responding to the company’s commitment to odor control and thermal control in its fabrics, says founder Terresa Zimmerman, while two-year-old online and specialty manufacturer Tani brags about how its use of luxury fabrics for ultimate comfort in its underwear contributes to projected sales of over $700,000 this year.
Meanwhile, Cash Warren, founder of Pair of Thieves, says the best thing about his company’s socks (sold online and at Target) is the performance factor. “We built our socks on the foundation of the performance sock, with features like a mesh upper, a cushion heel and arch support. Then we layer the design on top.”
NEW AND NOVEL
Some companies are hoping to stand out in other ways. Bugatchi Uomo will be releasing its colorful socks in a special sock sleeve for Father’s Day, while Ken Wroy has recently found success with its cleverly packaged “Skyline” print collection, which pays homage to such cities as London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney and New York.
Other manufacturers and retailers are counting on novelty products to help spark sales, especially during the holidays. “In the winter, we sold some Star Wars socks, and they did incredibly well,” says Hannah Shepherd, buyer for Iowa-based department store chain Von Maur. “So now, we’re doing superheroes for Father’s Day.”
LA-based Gallant & Beau has just received the license from HBO to put out novelty socks tied to its hit series Game of Thrones, which will debut with the premiere of the new season in late April. (The product will come in three different tiers, ranging from basic to luxury.) “The licensing business is truly growing,” says owner Daniel Nahari.
Gallant & Beau is also among the brands that sell “no-show” socks (along with larger companies such as Paul Smith), a category that is gaining market share and is especially favored by younger consumers who like to wear brogues, oxfords and espadrilles, and don’t want a thick sock to go with it. “This summer, we’ll be introducing them in pastel colors. It’s a lot better than having guys borrowing their girlfriends’ peds. That just doesn’t look good.”
Another small company, Taft, has also found considerable success with the no-show look. “Because there is so much competition in the hosiery market, it was key we do something to set ourselves apart from all the other brands,” adds co-owner Kory Stevens. “I think we’ve sold over 80,000 pairs of no-shows since November.”
“We have seen a steady rise in the no-show category over the past few years, but there is a new spin towards dress/patterned no-shows in varying lengths,” says Robin Weiss, vice president of business and product development for Keepers International (whose brands include Stacy Adams and California Joe). “Dressier low cuts especially seem to be trending.”
IN LIVING COLOR
Purple polka dots. Pink stripes. That’s right: bold hues and patterns are now likely to be seen on a man’s ankle or his butt. “Color continues to be important in both the underwear and hosiery categories, especially during the spring season,” says Bloomingdale’s Small. Adds Von Maur’s Shepherd: “Bright colors and patterns are flying off the shelves in our hosiery department. I think it’s a way for men to pop their outfit with some subtlety.”
Indeed, bright colors and bold patterns are nothing new at Lorenzo Uomo. Celebrating its 25th year in the men’s fashion business, its signature looks incorporate stripes as well as fashion forward patterns, and always bright, fun colors. “We’ve always had a customer that loved fun, playful and conversational hosiery,” says Joel Ainatchi, EVP of Lorenzo Uomo. “We have seen men wearing them in a very casual way or with the weekend attire. However, in the past 5 years, we’ve seen a shift from just wearing them casually to incorporating them with dressier styles. Men have become more sophisticated in the way they dress and they do want to make a fashion statement, even when they go to work in a suit. As a group, men are really grasping on to this style of incorporating fun and newness into their wardrobe, finding it as an easy way to add a pop of color with subtlety.”
“Men as a group take a long time to adapt to newness, but they’ve gotten used to colorful socks,” adds Simon Mendez of British Apparel Company, which offers such lines as Per Pedes, Punto, Peter Millar and Robert Graham, all of which feature socks in unusual shades and patterns.
It’s hardly surprising that this color trend is just as prevalent in the South. Tim Shaw, owner of contemporary men’s store 319 Men on Charleston, South Carolina’s fashionable King Street, says that his colored sock business (including such brands as Bugatchi Uomo and Vannucci) was so strong he had to move their displays from the very front of the shop towards the middle to get customers to come in and see the rest of his other offerings. “Otherwise, they would just buy socks and leave,” he notes.
Still, during the weeks right before the South Carolina primary, Shaw created a prominent front-of-store display of Dapper Classics’ special hosiery with the Republican and Democratic symbols. “They just flew out of the store,” he says.
Big-name underwear brands are also seeing color as a game-changer. “It is my biggest growing category,” says Sarah Davis, director of sales for Polo Ralph Lauren. “Only 50 percent of the company’s undershirt business remains white, which is a gigantic change from five years ago when that business was essentially all-white.
“And our bottoms business is now about 80 percent color, with our red-gray-black three pack the biggest seller. Color has revitalized the men’s underwear business.”
Yet, not everyone has turned away from the traditional, especially in the hosiery business. “We are seeing a shift back to basics and more minimalist designs,” says Weiss, while Small also notes that more subdued hues seem to be trending for fall.
Meanwhile, Arizona-based sock manufacturer Remo Tulliani, who has been in the business for over 20 years, says at the recent MRKet show in Las Vegas, orders kept rolling in for solid socks in black, navy and brown.
“We had so many solid socks on the table, it looked like we were doing laundry,” says Tulliani (who also sold plenty of colored socks). “It’s like food; sometimes, you just want a simple meal like spaghetti and meatballs.”
CONQUERING THE CHALLENGES
Still, the biggest challenge the men’s underwear and hosiery market faces is men themselves. Statistics show that, unlike a decade ago when women picked up their men’s undergarments, now men are buying for themselves. (Some companies, including Tani and Tommy John, claim 85 percent of their underwear sales are made by men.)
Still, retailers are concerned that some men simply overlook the underwear department completely while shopping unless that’s the specific reason they are in the store.
To combat that, presentation is key, says Davis. “It’s about enhancing the environment and making the department attractive to them.”
“Sometimes, we add a colorful brand just to give the department a little more fun on the floor,” adds Von Maur’s Shepherd. “Just showcasing an ‘icing piece’ can get men to walk into the department.”
Most of all, say experts, men simply need to change their attitude about underwear. “Men could learn a lot from looking at a woman’s underwear drawer,” says Wood Underwear’s Zimmerman.
“There needs to be different underwear for different occasions. What you wear to work shouldn’t be what you wear on date night,” she adds. “I encourage all of our customers to try different styles and find what they like. And we also remind them that they should replace their underwear periodically.”
Soundararajan agrees, urging men to think about what goes on, literally, down there. “Underwear is the first thing you put on and the last thing you take off,” she says. “Men need to give underwear the attention it deserves.”