Catching the Upswing on Men’s Underwear

“Provided a man is not mad, he can be cured of every folly but vanity.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It took Steven Lien only 30 days to turn a profit. His idea for a new retail store had been ridiculed by experts and mocked by friends. “Everyone was like, ‘There’s no way that will work,'” he told David Colman of The New York Times.

Yet it did. His idea was to open a store that would sell unique and colorful offbeat brands of underwear to men. Although the market for men’s briefs has been fixed firmly in a conservative range of monotone colors for years, Lien had the sense that this was changing. He wanted to capitalize on what he thought was the next hot trend in men’s buying habits.

He named the business Under U 4 Men. He chose Portland’s business district for his first location. “I didn’t open on Gay Street, USA,” he said. “I opened on Main Street.”

Novelty briefs have been around for a long time, but they weren’t a big part of the men’s cotton-knit underwear market until two or three years ago. Last year, for the first time, brightly colored briefs sold better than standard whites, claiming just more than 50 percent of the $1.1 billion market.

Steven Lien wasn’t the only one who noticed and took advantage of this trend. Some of the big companies were paying attention, too. American Apparel began advertising its line of briefs two years ago, and has already sold more than a million pairs. And a Canadian website called Ginch Gonch (Canadian slang for underwear) sold 1.8 million pairs last year at about $30 each, according to the company’s owner.

Much of this trend has been initiated by women, apparently. Underwear, the experts say, is one of the few items of menswear that women buy more of (for men) than men do. But when the underwear the women buy is replaced by the men they buy it for, it will likely be with similar styles – which will mean continued strong sales for Steven Lien and his colleagues.

This is part of a larger trend: the peacocking of the American man.

As a boy, I was taught (not directly, but by my father’s example and by stereotypes on TV) that boys weren’t supposed to care about clothes. That was the mythology we were exposed to, though the reality was very different. There were plenty of men and boys out there fussing over their wardrobes.

My friend Paul, the toughest kid in our grammar school, was a great dresser (and still is). I did my best to dress well, but with a budget of literally zero to buy new clothes, I had to depend upon the accidental kindness of others – wealthier boys whose outgrown clothes made their way through the Catholic charities to my family.

Leave It to Beaver, a staple sit-com of my generation, epitomized the American attitude toward men’s (and boy’s) clothing. Mr. Cleaver and his sons appeared to be completely clueless about style, happily soiling their clothes while doing manly things with machinery (tinkering with the carburetor, fixing the lawn mower, etc.). And yet, they were always impeccably dressed in what we used to call “collegiate” fashion.

Collegiate fashion was easy to adhere to. Chinos, madras shirts, penny loafers – the choices were limited. Formal attire was equally restricted: The best suit was conventionally cut, with a single-breasted wool jacket and pants in blue or grey. Dress shirts were white. Socks matched your shoes. Only ties had color in them – conservative bars of angled stripes.

Had I not been a hand-me-down kid, I could have easily outfitted myself with a complete wardrobe in an hour’s time at Hunter’s, the local clothing store for men. It was simple. The idea was to wear clothes that made you look good without making you look like you wanted to look good.

Given the very conservative approach we took toward dressing then, it should come as no surprise that there was only one choice when it came to underwear: tighty-whities – and always Fruit of the Loom. (Was there even another brand?)

But that’s all changed gradually over the years. In the past decade especially, a “new” kind of man has been blossoming. This is plainly evident if you know almost any men younger than 40. Say the word “product” to them and they will think “hair.” The same word said to a man of my generation evokes some sort of manufacturing image.

The new man has been dubbed a “metrosexual.” He is said to be comfortable with his masculinity, much more so than his macho father, and much more comfortable with social changes that have taken place in recent years (such as the fact that women are often the primary breadwinners and that men are expected to do their fair share of the diaper changing).

Dealing with your baby’s diarrhea is the downside of metrosexuality. Being able to openly concern yourself with your appearance is – we are given to believe – the compensation. Young men are completely knowledgeable about consumer goods that used to be considered “feminine.” I’m talking not only about designer clothing, but also about skin treatments, highlighting, liposuction, body washes, hair removal, tanning lotions … and fancy underwear.

What’s the reason for this?

For better or worse, the baby boomers decided that it was sexist for men and women to play different social roles or even to look different. The objective seemed to be a sort of hybrid gender, with sexuality eliminated as much as possible.

That’s the best spin I can put on it.

And it has been an interesting ride with some positive outcomes. It’s easier and more socially acceptable for a man to be gay, effeminate, or merely foppish … and that’s a good thing. It’s also permissible for women to bear arms and have their heads blown off. I suppose that’s a good thing too – though it’s still not acceptable for women to act like macho men.

Yes, men are becoming less manly in that old-fashioned, Rhett Butler kind of way that men of my generation aspired to. Today, it’s okay to like shopping for clothes. It’s even okay to spend time looking at yourself in the mirror. According to a 2005 Datamonitor survey (“Evolution of Global Consumer Trends”), 73 percent of European and American men rank standing in front of the mirror as important or very important (as compared to 72 percent of women surveyed).

With more men feeling that it’s acceptable to buy and use products formerly used only by women, the personal care market has room to grow. Worldwide sales of men’s grooming products rose from $26.3 billion in 2005 to $29.7 billion in 2006, as reported in Courant magazine. And the Datamonitor survey predicts that the European and U.S. male personal care market will reach $37.6 billion in 2008.

The change in male buying habits – especially among younger men – doesn’t stop with personal care products. The men’s clothing industry, too, is seeing an upsurge. For example, an NPD Group Inc. study done in 2005 found that there was a five percent increase in men’s clothing sales that year (to $53 billion). The increase was attributed to a 53 percent jump in the sales of suits, separate suit coats and trousers, and sport coats. And those sales were largely to men between the ages of 18 and 24.
Men are also venturing into shops more often to buy for the women in their lives. Donna Reamy, associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s fashion department, notes “Where it was a woman’s role to shop, it’s just not anymore.” Plus, says Reamy, who compiles data on men’s shopping habits, the number of department stores catering to men are at an all-time high.
Here are some other notable statistics:

  • The male grooming product market worldwide grew an average of 5.7 percent each year between 1997 and 2005. Men’s bath and shower products and men’s skin-care products led the way with 11.1 percent and 10.3 percent growth respectively (according to EuroMonitor International Research).
  • The spa industry has seen a growing market for male-only services (according to a 2006 Associated Skin Care Professionals survey).
  • 31 percent of American spa goers are men (according to 2006 International Spa Association Research).

When you think of all the possibilities – not just in clothing and cosmetics but in health aids and information products and plastic surgery – you can see that the profit potential of this trend is enormous. And who will foresee the next ripple? It won’t be me, that’s for sure. If I wanted to get into it, I’d partner up with someone younger. Someone who uses face cleansers and wears colorful underwear. I’m not talking about a woman. I’m talking about the new kind of man.

[Ed. Note: This fall, Michael Masterson and a group of the world’s leading Internet marketing experts will be revealing proven techniques for shooting your online sales through the roof, creating over a dozen sources of new revenue, and tripling or even quadrupling your profits within the next 9 to 12 months. Sign up now for ETR’s fast-approaching 2007 Info-Marketing Bootcamp – Making a Fast Fortune on the “Other Side” of the Internet.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]