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.”