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The Bottom Line

Top-name designers narrow their focus--from exteriors to posteriors. They want men to shed their inhibitions, and their $2.54 undies.

July 09, 1998|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford for Gucci aren't satisfied that their fashions and footwear visibly outfit men from head to toe. These days designers are battling for a less obvious segment of the market.

More specifically, they want their signatures to grace the elastic waistband on men's underwear. And they've been spending millions on sexy, bare-it-all advertising campaigns to lure customers out of their inexpensive BVDs and Fruit of the Looms and into something new.

It's been 16 years since Calvin Klein put Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus and, later, rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg in white cotton briefs and boxer briefs, respectively, parading their images on billboards from Sunset Boulevard to Times Square. Back then, customers not only cared about what came between men and their Calvins, but for the first time they could see it.

But today it takes more than an athlete or actor with chiseled abs to sell men's underwear.

"The cheapest thing in a man's wardrobe is his underwear, and that's the one thing that has to fit the best and be the most comfortable," explains Mike Tawil, co-owner of New York-based 2(x)ist, a fashion underwear brand selling at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York.

Because men are paying more attention to their bodies, they want their underwear to enhance that fact, adds Tawil. "It has to feel better and be sexy too."

It also has to be different enough--either through cut, color or crotch treatment--to compete with the hundreds of well-known (and some not-so-well-known) labels that have launched collections in the last few years in the growing $2.3-billion men's underwear business.

Some of these brands (Generra, Champion, Spalding, Le Coq, Sportif, Fubu) are more recognizable in young men's departments than down the underwear aisle. Many top designers (Donna Karan, Prada, Versace, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang, Kenneth Cole) selling pricey products--from $30 to $110 for a single pair of briefs--seem more concerned about labels than fiscal logic. Newcomers (Sauvage, 2(x)ist, Papi, Von Dutch, Sabrosos) preach "a roomier seat and more generous pouch proportions" to highly targeted niche markets. Others (Ron Chereskin, Alexander Julian, Guy Laroche) are holdovers from the 1970s and '80s who think there is new respectability in briefs and boxers. And don't count out foreign makers (Hom, Beaufort, Luc La Roche Complice). Heck, even basketball player Michael Jordan and late rock star Jerry Garcia have underwear collections bearing their names.

This need to be a player in the men's underpants business has taken marketing well beyond strategically placed billboards. For instance, Structure, the men's retail division of the Limited, launched an underwear collection four years ago with a nationwide model search that now draws more than 20,000 contestants annually.

Designer Ron Chereskin recently sponsored "A Brief Night of Comedy" at a New York comedy club with comics performing in--what else?--Ron Chereskin briefs. Joe Boxer, the company that pioneered fun-to-wear underwear, has its own wacky Web site that promotes "clean fresh underwear" and gets more than 1 million hits a month. Another Web site (http://underneath.com) has a link to the Boxers of the Month Club, an underwear buyers club started by 25-year-old Cary Samourkachian that sells Briefly Stated, JWE, Joe Boxer and Magic Silk boxers along with monthly subscriptions. Samourkachian says the concept appeals to women, who, in his experience, "do not like tighty whities."

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Ironically, underwear has become such big business that a product once thought of as an "unmentionable" is now one of the most talked about elements in men's wardrobes.

"Think of it like coffee," says Macy's men's underwear buyer Dana Zeff, whose stores offer one of Southern California's largest assortments of Calvin Klein, Joe Boxer, Tommy Hilfiger and Jockey products, in addition to its own private Alfani label. "We've all been drinking coffee forever, and now we're drinking designer coffee. Similarly, we've always bought a lot of underwear, and now we have a lot more choices."

Of course, these choices still include the No. 1 seller: basic white cotton briefs. But they also consist of printed cotton and silk boxers, low-rise briefs, gym boxers, thongs and knit boxer briefs, the latter representing the largest growth category. And prices can be as varied as $6.99 for a three-pack of Hanes briefs to $70 for a single pair of black button-fly boxers from Giorgio Armani. Italian designer Allessandro Dell'Acqua, a virtual unknown in the U.S., announced plans recently to launch an American underwear line that will be priced from $60 to $120 a pair.

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