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Men’s Underwear Market Moves Beyond Basics

A trifecta of color, fashion and performance is driving the men’s underwear business.

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Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/12/2012

You can save your tighty-whities for a rainy day.

The surging demand for fashion, color and performance is creating a new level of sex appeal in the men’s underwear arena. Basic commodity goods, including underwear and T-shirts, might have been king during the recession, but the appetite for fashion is steadily growing as the economy improves, say industry executives.

The proof is in the figures.

RELATED STORY: Men’s Wear Trend: The Boxer >>

Total annual sales of men’s underwear and tops in the U.S. increased 6.6 percent to $3.3 billion in 2011, according to The NPD Group Inc.’s Consumer Tracking Service.

Several factors are credited for bolstering the fashion and fashion-basics segments of the men’s underwear business. The segments are expected to continue growing by 10 percent or more in 2012. The influencers include:

• A greater acceptance of newness and innovation from tech-savvy consumers who want to be on trend.

• The popularity of men’s slim-fitting apparel, which requires equally stylish and slim-cut undergarments.

• E-commerce is beefing up sales of men’s fashion and novelty underwear, a top-selling online category.

• High-tech fabrics that enhance performance on several levels, including ultrasoft blends of microfibers such as Modal, polyamide and elastane, as well as performance applications like antimicrobial and moisture-wicking treatments. Also in the performance area is the growing use of Lycra spandex-blended fabrics that sculpt and buff the body, especially the torso and stomach.

The number-one-selling silhouette continues to be the boxer brief, which commands more than a 40 percent share of the men’s underwear business in the U.S., according to executives. A shorter cut trunk is the go-to style in Europe and Asia. And woven and knit boxers — a classic item that is sold to both a traditional customer as well as a hipster — is also gaining traction in updated prints in fashionable colors.

Mitchell Lechner, president of the dress furnishings division of PVH Corp. — which owns the Tommy Hilfiger and Izod brands and produces men’s underwear bearing the licensed Michael Kors, Geoffrey Beene, Chaps and Van Heusen labels — said the company has “introduced new fashion colors, fabrics and product lines to each of our brands this year.”

“We continue to watch the male underwear consumer grow more comfortable with his understanding of what he wants to wear for the garment closest to his body. We have created an expectation for our customers that brands will drive excitement using new silhouettes, colors, fabrics, waistbands and packaging,” said Lechner. “Every season we are focusing on what we need to do to meet these demands by looking for innovative products and fabrics along with marketing opportunities. This has been a key to our success and growth….Over the last 10 years, we have seen a shift in the consumer from one who expects color and fashion from one brand and the consumer who expects athletic fabrics from another brand. The consumer now expects that each of our brands offers him everything that is trend-right in this expanding marketplace.”

Lechner said he anticipates a trifecta of color, fabrication and product innovation will drive sales for the fall.

“Fashion has been driving this category for a few seasons. We have seen new waistband fashion combined with terrific fabrics like Modal and microfiber. Color this season has really been a leader in driving sales. The male consumer is voting every day with his purchases, sending the message that fashion is his choice. He is becoming more sophisticated with his choices and understands the trends. We see this continuing for fall, but we will need to keep pushing the envelope to make sure our product meets the consumer’s new level of sophistication,” said Lechner.

Regarding Tommy Hilfiger innerwear, he singled out fashion-forward colors paired with novelty as a winning formula.

“That combined with Tommy’s mixed fashion waistband is driving sales in boxers, and packaged product is performing based on new fashion basic colors and higher-selling multiples….Our success with Michael Kors is it’s a business that revolves around both color and fashion. Our two-pack boxers have a lot of fun color aspects and we are focusing on fashion ground colors with bright accent colors running through basic patterns. For packaged underwear, our technical and luxurious fabrics like our Modal and microfiber programs in fashion colors are our best sellers.”

New products for fall for Tommy Hilfiger underwear will include a five-pack of hip briefs and a five-pack of boxers, while Michael Kors underwear will launch Free Fit, a moisture-management technical fabric of cotton and Lycra.

Assessing the color equation, Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer of Calvin Klein Underwear, said the Calvin Klein innerwear brand will continue to use “aggressive color for fall 2012.”

“We launched Calvin Klein Underwear Bold a month ago and it’s been a huge success. We interpret the visual language of color through our lens. The message is for people to enjoy color and buy different colors,” explained Mazzoli. “We’ve been doing color for 30 years, but it’s great to be able to galvanize something so fundamental. For fall, we will have a special edition called Calvin Klein Bold X-Ray with bold waistbands and Calvin Klein offset logos.”

Addressing the popularity of performance fabrics, Mazzoli said acceptance of microfibers in the men’s realm has been an ongoing process.

“But it’s now a really a great time for men’s underwear….It’s what women already knew, but men didn’t know about fabrics and what fabrics can do,” said Mazzoli.

Executives believe crossover trends from the women’s intimates field are influencing the men’s market in terms of color, prints, fabrications, silhouettes and even hanging programs. A key example is low-rise women’s underwear that was wildly popular in the early Nineties and designed to be worn with low-rise jeans and pants. The trend crossed over to the mainstream men’s market with an abundance of logoed waistbands.

Doug Jakubowski, chief marketing officer of the Perry Ellis brand, said trends from the women’s market have been making a strong statement in the men’s area for the past couple of years.

“Women’s market trends have found their way into the men’s market. Low-rise, high-cut styling has been surging in the men’s underwear zone,” said Jakubowski. “There are variations and we are now looking at color and shape in a different way….Color is probably the biggest part of it along with performance fabrics, which are becoming very important because men want high-tech performance in their underwear and they are looking for comfort beyond the cotton brief.”

Jakubowski said the top-selling silhouette for Perry Ellis underwear continues to be the boxer brief, which accounts for 47 percent of sales.

He added that consumers are increasingly buying sexy-looking underwear that has a fashion spin.

“The consumer obviously has to have the appropriate undergarments to wear with the apparel and I think he’s opening his eyes to the [fashion] alternatives. We are taking a different look and sexier approach to men’s underwear, and we are certainly being more aggressive about silhouette, colors and patterns,” said Jakubowski. He added that online shopping has “created a whole new dynamic that allows consumers to be more exploratory in what they purchase and try on at home.”

Kelly Thompson, vice president of advertising and brand management at Fruit of the Loom, singled out another crossover trend as gaining in popularity: Women buying men’s high-performance T-shirts.

“Our basic T-shirt business has just exploded because the T-shirts can be worn as outerwear or as a longer piece. Women are wearing the men’s T-shirts to work out in. The V-neck is also trending in this category,” said Thompson.

Lucio de Carvalho, vice president of design at Isaco International, maker of the Papi, Ike Behar and licensed Perry Ellis men’s underwear brands, said the demand for performance fabrics is transforming the men’s market.

“It’s very interesting what’s going on in the market right now because the consumer wants more information on technology and fabrics. They know what microfibers are — what they want to know is what do microfibers do for them. So our big push is fabrications. All of our packaging and hang tags give information on what a fabric does,” explained de Carvalho. “We use very soft waistbands and we just launched a new line of Modal that’s made by Lenzing that’s not as harsh on the environment. We want our products to be earth-friendly.”

In other developments, Papi has launched an innovative waistband technique called Silica in its Mosaic group.

“The Silica waistband has a little grip to it so it helps a man’s shirt stay put underneath pants,” said de Carvalho. He added that several collections by Papi, including Colores, Cotton Stretch, 100% Cotton, Ibiza, Cool 2 and Allure, were launched for the first time at select Nordstrom stores nationwide and online.

Bjorn Borg is another brand that wants to be earth-friendly.

Ingrid Soderlund, area business manager in the U.S. for Bjorn Borg Inc., said, “We recently did a ‘Turn the Lights Off’ collection that glows in the dark because we wanted to show the importance of recycling. For fall, we’ll be doing a collection of off-cuts called Cut the Crap, which will use unexpected fabrics and will also be good for the environment.”

“We will continue to push color into fall,” said Jason Scarlatti, creative director of 2(x)ist. He said bold color “pops” extremely well on synthetic fabrications.

Regarding performance fabrics, Scarlatti singled out the Touch Collection by 2(x)ist as receiving strong reaction.

“Touch is done in a microfiber of nylon and spandex that wicks away moisture and is excellent for performance, but it’s brushed and has a really soft, peachlike quality,” said Scarlatti.

At Jockey International, Laetitia Lecigne, director of creative product and design, said top trends in the men’s market can be identified by waistband treatments.

“It’s either a superbold and screaming brand logo in bold colors, or an almost nonexistent brand logo that’s very discreet,” explained Lecigne.

“It shows the consumer really knows what he’s looking for. It’s similar to what’s happening in the arts — you know if you’re at the MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she laughed.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for DKNY men’s underwear said trunks are the brand’s top silhouette. “It’s all about trunks. It’s the best style for the modern guy. It’s a little higher up on the leg then a boxer brief and offers more freedom of movement and flexibility for when you’re wearing your suit to work or heading to the gym,” said the spokesperson.

For Fall, DKNY men’s underwear is developing lots of bold graphic prints with bold pop colors and multicolor stripe waistbands. The fall collection will also feature a sporty designed line called Pro for athletic consumers.

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