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Silly, Not Sexy, Is His Winning Formula

FashionNicholas Graham, the whiz behind Joe Boxer's success, designs underwear and ties on a whim and keeps it light. But don't expect to see him wearing any.

April 23, 1999|JEAN H. LEE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The savvy marketing whiz who parlayed a pair of yellow smiley-face underpants into a multimillion dollar novelty phenomenon known as Joe Boxer has a confession to make: He really enjoys going without.

"I never wear ties. I never wear underwear, either," says Nicholas Graham, letting out a peal of laughter as he runs a hand through a vertical shock of yellow hair.

Making light of underwear has made San Francisco-based Joe Boxer Corp.'s "Chief Underpants Officer" a very rich man. His latest venture: the Undo-Vendo, vending machines that dispense the trademark Mr. Lickys in a pop-top can.

"For some reason underwear really fits with my character," Graham says, throwing his head back with a wild guffaw.

Some of his favorites: inflatable underwear ("Great for river rafting!"), 3-D underwear ("So funny!"), a pair that quacks and another that reads "no, no, no" in daylight and "yes, yes, yes" at night.

Where does Graham get his ideas?

"There's a Microsoft program you can use. It's called Underwear 4.0," he says coyly.

And the process? "It's either Prozac or Viagra--depends on the day of the week."

To say he is wacky is an understatement.

Graham was a 27-year-old rocker from Canada looking for a way to make money when he started designing ties in 1985. He taught himself how to sew and set up a machine in the corner of his band's San Francisco studio.

After he concocted a pair of X-rated boxers for a buyer as a wedding gift, she urged him to keep going. He stuck a raccoon tail on a pair of red plaid boxers. They sold "like mad" at Saks Fifth Avenue, and Joe Boxer was born.

"People just saw it and laughed their heads off," he recalls.

Behind the giggles and guffaws is a marketing genius. His empire has expanded to sleep wear, kids wear and sports wear sold in more than 4,000 U.S. stores and seven nations. He has a staff of 140 and puts growth at 40 percent for each of the last five years. He expects sales for the privately held company to exceed $100 million this year.

Pretty good for an aspiring rock star looking to make a little money on the side.

"I've never had a job in a traditional sense," says Graham, now 40. "But I've had a couple of room service jobs, and that's when I'd see people in their underwear. That's what triggered me to do underwear: I went, 'Oh, God!' "

Joe Boxer occupies a mere sliver of the $15 billion intimate apparel industry, but it has done so with style, says San Francisco marketing analyst Harry Bernart.

"His image is based on fun and a little bit of blasphemy, very cutting-edge," he says. "He appeals to that younger, less traditional customer."

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Graham's boxers may well be the wackiest in shops.

Shopper Melina Carnese considers boxers with dragons and cows before settling on glow-in-the-dark stars for her son.

"He's 22 and he likes fun things," she says. "They're weird, but I think it'd be great if you could match them to somebody's personality."

That's just what Graham wants. While Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss use sex to sell their skivvies, Joe Boxer simply wants to make you laugh.

"It makes you smile. It's not serious," he says.

Graham has pulled off some crazy stunts as he tries to build Joe Boxer into a brand identity that goes beyond underwear. He dressed up as a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic Airways and got 400 travelers to change their underwear midflight. Another time he gussied up as Queen Elizabeth, with Virgin CEO Richard Branson as Prince Charles, to launch Joe Boxer's e-mail billboard at Times Square.

He launched a rocket in Nevada that shot out two pairs of underwear--one Joe Boxer, the other a Russian brand--and staged a fashion show in Iceland complete with sheep and Vikings.

His 14,000-square-foot New York showroom is now called the manor--but it's anything but stuffy. Walk in and you are faced with an 8-foot-tall revolving banana, funhouse mirrors, talking walls and a conference table with "Blah, Blah, Blah" splashed across the top.

What goes on there? "Nothing!" Graham chortles.

At his San Francisco headquarters, he's got a boxing ring and air hockey table. A Romper Room diploma hangs on one wall of his office, a pair of worn boxing gloves on another. Fun is clearly part of the formula.

"This is entertainment," he says. "I wouldn't want to do it if I didn't have fun."

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