By  on April 8, 2010

If diversity is the hallmark of success, men’s underwear is going gangbusters.

Once the home of a sprinkling of brands and even fewer styles, the men’s underwear market continues to balloon as an onslaught of niche brands and seasonal releases from major players vie for the attention of male consumers suddenly surrounded by choice.

“It’s increasing all the time,” said Michael Kleinman, president of Freshpair.com, a leading innerwear retailer, of the category’s explosion. “There’s more happening in this business as new brands pop up and well-established ones come out with new collections.”

To wit: Freshpair now offers 1,500 men’s stockkeeping units from 57 brands — a 30 percent increase over two years ago. Virtually absent from the MAGIC marketplace a year ago, boutique underwear vendors now have their own area at the men’s wear show, where more than 20 brands exhibited this past February.

“It used to be really commodity-based,” Joe DePiro, vice president of marketing at Isaco International, which produces Papi as well as licensed product from Perry Ellis and others. “But then fashion started to happen.”

And it’s not just fashion. The proliferation of brands and styles has been girded by twin beliefs: not every man wants the same underwear and all men have multiple underwear needs — performance for the gym, basics for work, trendier (or even gut slimming) styles for weekend. “Women’s wear has had this concept of day and night in their intimates for decades but it’s now applicable to the men’s business,” said Jason Scarlatti, creative director for 2xist, which launched a collection of evening-inspired underwear in January called Tux. “It’s much more influenced by occasion dressing.”

In the face of such diversity, the classic question — of whether a man is a boxers or briefs guy — misses the point. According to the new thinking, many guys are both.

The market is now ample enough to incorporate such obscure sounding ideas as men’s shapewear — even Spanx has gotten into the market.

It’s also allowed market leaders like Jockey and Calvin Klein to develop extensive portfolios of underwear programs, which they launch with splashy ad campaigns each season. Calvin Klein, which most recently introduced the X range with a celebrity-studded ad campaign, produces 15 underwear platforms at any given time, ranging from trendy styles with wide waistbands to active-inspired ranges like Pro Stretch. And for Calvin, whose underwear is produced under license by the Warnaco Group, the niche underwear business has room to grow. “The growth potential stems from the observation that most guys have yet to discover that there are multiple types of underwear for places like the gym or playing sports,” said Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer for the brand’s underwear division, which has successfully followed a seasonal launch strategy for more than a decade.

Jockey has adopted a similar, though less splashy, approach to its product offering. The brand now carries 12 programs from updated basics to the active-inspired Go line to its latest release, Sport Performance Stretch, marketed to hard-core athletes.

Even Hanes, king of the commodity underwear business, has been influenced by the move toward trendier and more varied styles. The packaging and advertising focuses on the brand’s latest product innovations — often comfort-oriented improvements — like its cotton-wrapped waistband.

“There is always something new to react to,” said Jay Turner, vice president and general manager of men’s underwear for Hanes, who acknowledged he follows underwear trends of his higher-priced competitors, and is particularly interested in men’s shapewear and performance fabrics.

But growth of the men’s wear market has not been supported by equivalent sales. Sales of men’s underwear bottoms dropped 3.2 percent in 2008 and another 4.6 percent last year to $1.82 billion, according to The NPD Group.

With more companies vying for a smaller pot, some brands are having to adjust to the competition.

“A few years ago product started looking very similar,” said Kleinman. “I think the recession woke people up and made them realize they have to be distinct. It really comes down to how they differentiate themselves from what’s out there.”

Isaco is rationalizing some brands and targeting others to what it calls “underserved markets.” The company is debuting 9Two, a new line geared to the skate and action sport market, and is retooling Papi for the Latin American market.

“Slices of the market — like the gay and contemporary niches — are oversaturated,” said DePiro.

Papi is targeting the Latino market with product reflecting the flag colors of Latin American countries. The line is launching during Hispanic Heritage Month in September.

Issues of competition aside, the men’s underwear executives feel the category has running room.

“It’s a $3 billion category,” said Turner. “You don’t have to be big to carve out a business and make some money. For Hanes, it makes it interesting to watch.”

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