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Men apparently know what they want — in underwear, that is.
After decades of relying on women to buy their tighty whities, a growing number of men are taking responsibility for selecting and buying underwear at traditional brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. The demand for fashion, which now plays a leading role in the $3.9 billion men’s business, has grown dramatically over the past year, and both basic and fashion brands are responding to the call with a wider range of styles, prints and specialty treatments, as well as an expanded palette of colors.
Innovative fabrics continue to rock the business in performance blends of cotton with Lycra spandex and a new generation of ultrasoft microfibers that offer wicking and antimicrobial benefits. There’s also a focus on proprietary applications that regulate body temperature, allowing the wearer to stay warm or cool while exercising or throughout a business day. And for purists, there is growing popularity in luxurious underwear of 100 percent merino wool.
Retail sales of men’s underwear — led by the boxer brief and trunk silhouettes — spiked 4 percent in the 12 months ending in February 2014, according to The NPD Group Inc./Consumer Tracking Service. The boxer brief posted the largest growth at 17 percent, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD.
“The [men’s underwear] silhouettes are not new, but fashion and innovation continue to drive the market,” said Cohen. “Even conservative guys have upgraded their underwear selections with fashion looks. The men who didn’t care about fashion in the past now care. It used to be that 75 percent of all men’s underwear was purchased by women. It’s not close to that at all. Women now buy 36 percent.”
Industry executives say they expect the combination of fashion, function and performance to continue to fuel business into 2015.
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Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer of Calvin Klein Underwear, a subsidiary of PVH Corp., said product that is “relevant” will continue to be the brand’s hallmark for fall and holiday.
“We want to continue to offer relevant product that speaks to a balance of everyday, aspirational utility and luxury, and, when appropriate, specific functionality,” said Mazzoli. “For fall 2014, we are really invested in the basic essentials.…We have two big concepts for fall: Calvin Klein Power Red, which has a full offering across multiple classifications that allows us to pollinate the iconic cultural relationship between our brand name and the waistband in men’s underwear, and Calvin Klein THRML, which uses a technical yarn with heat-retention properties in layering pieces, such as T-shirts and long johns, to keep him warm in cold weather.”
Regarding key items, Mazzoli singled out the Calvin Klein Dual Tone line, which launched this spring.
“We introduced a new silhouette called the square cut, which is gaining traction worldwide. We will continue to invest in this design style, in addition to the men’s trunk, brief and boxer brief,” he said.
Mitchell Lechner, president of the Dress Furnishings Group at PVH, said, “The men’s fashion underwear business has grown substantially in the overall market.
“In the last few years, men have become more forthcoming in expressing their lifestyle and aesthetic by choosing the right fit and colors of their clothes as well as in how they accessorize,” said Lechner. “From a functional viewpoint, the purpose for why men buy underwear has become fragmented. Men now have a choice of wearing certain types of underwear for work, the gym or whatever the activity. Underwear choices also need to be appropriate for an outfit or an occasion. The act of underwear buying represents a place, a purpose and a perspective.”
Lechner said athletic- and performance-inspired underwear has created a new category and fueled incremental growth.
“Athletic-inspired fabrics incorporating quick-dry and wicking properties have been gaining momentum across the board. We are launching a cotton stretch program as well as an athletic program with mesh panels and athletic waistbands in Tommy Hilfiger. In Izod, we are launching Izod Energy, a performance-blend, stretch program with moisture-management technology and sport styling details. In Michael Kors, we are offering a touch of luxury with nylon stretch performance fabric,” said Lechner.
Addressing crossover trends, Lechner said, “There is definitely a cross-pollination happening between sportswear and loungewear, resulting in a trend referred to as ‘ath-leisure.’ This is contributing largely to the growth of the loungewear business as it has become more acceptable to wear loungewear pieces outside of the home. Sweatpants, hoodies and Henleys that typically borrow from sportswear silhouettes, albeit in lighter fabrics, are acceptable for the couch, as well as the weekend grocery run.”
Jan Snodgrass, president of Hanro USA, sees a growing demand for fashion merchandise.
“We are finding that microfiber and MicroModal fabrics are becoming much more popular, just as they are in the women’s collections,” said Snodgrass. “Trendy, modern designs that attract a younger-minded customer are what is currently driving Hanro’s [men’s] business. The most recent collection, called Fancy Woven, offers woven boxers in stylish plaids and checks for $49. Also, a lightweight MicroModal fabrication called Urban Touch is designed with a modern, trendy customer in mind. Hanro customers respond well to the seasonal fashion colors, as well as basic black and white in this group.”
Hanro’s newest initiatives are linked to current men’s fashion trends, explained Snodgrass. “This spring, a loungewear and beachwear collection called Nuno offers a great long-sleeve tunic shirt with matching lounge pants in a neutral chalk color story that’s great for indoor or outdoor loungewear.…And we are finding even when a Hanro customer may be older, he likes to live like a younger-minded consumer. Logoed waistbands are a popular trend for younger consumers, so it makes sense that Hanro now offers logoed waistbands in many of our newer collections,” said Snodgrass.
Athletic and performance underwear are also key at Jockey International Inc., said Dustin Cohn, chief marketing officer.
“We have done a lot of marketing this past year and focused on our sports underwear program,” said Cohn. “Technology and innovation are helping to drive our business. Our Stay Cool program, which regulates skin temperature with phase-change technology that reacts to body temperature, keeps a wearer warm or cool.”
Alex Guerrero, Jockey’s vice president of men’s merchandising, said the heritage brand will be launching two new performance groups: Jockey Active Blend, a cotton-based group that “stays dry all day for the man on the go,” and Jockey Air, a group comprised of superlight polyester microfiber and CoolMax that has cooling properties for the man who enjoys activities like golf or hiking. Jockey Air will launch in spring 2015.
Meanwhile, Levi’s is looking to broaden the market share of its 139-year-old jeanswear brand with the launch of Levi’s men’s underwear for fall.
Grant Barth, the company’s chief merchandising officer, described the underwear as “more than basics — this is underwear reengineered with details inspired by our expertise in jeanswear.”
Barth singled out the 200 Series as a top group. “They keep you comfortable all day and they were built to be worn under jeans. Even the batwing logo is functional and the silicone treatment adheres to your button-fly and holds your underwear waistband in place,” said Barth. “We infused innovation in everything from the stretch-cotton rib in the 300 Series that won’t lose its shape to our premium 100 percent merino wool group that naturally keeps you cool and dry.”
Wearable technology is what’s driving business at Mackweldon.com, according to Brian Berger, founder and chief executive officer of Mack Weldon underwear.
“Performance is core to our brand. Whether it’s our standard 18-hour jersey material, which is a custom blend of cotton, Lenzing Modal and Lycra, or our latest innovation, Mack Weldon Silver, that blends pima cotton and X-STATIC XT2 Silver Technology, we are committed to pushing innovation in men’s basics,” he said. “Beyond that, color drives a significant portion of our business. We focus on wearable color — no neon — that compares to what you’d wear in a T-shirt like indigo, seasonal shades of blues, greens, accents of classic shades of red and purple. Our standard for color is that you need to be comfortable taking off your pants in the locker room.
“We’ve also introduced a modern interpretation of the classic woven boxer. Here, we developed a stretch woven fabric that enables us to cut a more tailored fit while preserving the freedom that guys like,” added Berger.
Performance fabrics are a top classification at Miami-based Isaco International, maker of papi and the licensed Perry Ellis underwear for men, said president and chief operating officer Alan Zelcer. He singled out Modern Stretch and Microfusion Performance by papi as best-selling groups of lightweight polyester and spandex that have “quick-dry and moisture-wicking features. For fall, papi will be coming out with a program of performance fabrics for Hispanic Heritage Month. It will be a color-block program with flag motifs of Latin American countries on the waistband, he said. “We also feel there is an opportunity in fashion with the Perry Ellis label, not crazy stuff, but fashion that could be converted into a basic with color and performance fabrics.”
Jason Scarlatti, creative director for 2(x)ist, said the trendy brand will combine fashion and basics with performance fabrics for fall.
“This will be a first for 2(x)ist, which is known as a sexy, fashion brand. The boxer brief will be a big focus for us as a silhouette, and we’ll be introducing a black tie-inspired group of Modal with spandex called The Affair. I was very inspired by the tuxedo on the men’s fashion runway.…The underwear will have satin tux stripes down the side and the waistband will look like a cummerbund,” said Scarlatti.
Despite the rush to performance fabrics, the loyal cotton customer is the target of Bread & Boxers, a line of basic underwear at United Legwear Co. The top two styles are a classic boxer brief of 94 percent cotton and 6 percent spandex, and a relaxed-fit crew-neck T-shirt of 100 percent cotton, said Isaac Ash, president and ceo.
“The Bread & Boxers business will always be driven by classic styling and perfect fit, rather than new and trendy styling. The pieces are everyday basics — T-shirts, boxer briefs and briefs in white, black, gray,” stated Ash.
While minimalistic, everyday underwear may be the brand’s bread-and-butter business, Ash said a line of loungewear is planned for fall. “The demand is there, and our customers view the Bread & Boxers aesthetic and ideology as understated, attainable luxury. They’d like to expand that from their underwear into their everyday wear,” said Ash.