The men’s intimates space hasn’t seen quite the public upset that the women’s market has—there’s no Victoria’s Secret fashion show to boycott, no bra to reinvent. But the lack of media attention doesn’t mean the men’s intimates market hasn’t experience change—and growth.
In the shadow of a much larger women’s lingerie market, the men’s intimates sector—which Trendalytics estimates will be valued at upwards of $16 billion by 2025—has been undergoing a quiet evolution of its own. The biggest shift isn’t so much in the composition of the underwear, undershirts and socks themselves, but in the way they’re bought and sold.
And the trend follow’s men’s overall shopping habits.
A new report from First Insight highlights the rise of the “male power shopper,” stating men now shop more often than women across online and traditional channels. Data indicates that mobile shopping is growing enormously among men: the number of men who reported “never” making mobile purchases dropped significantly from 48 percent last year to 18 percent this year, while women’s mobile shopping rates saw little change.
Along with large marketplaces like Amazon, men are also turning to direct-to-consumer brands for a curated shopping experience. Specialty retailers like Allbirds, Untuckit and M.Gemi perform particularly well with the guys. Among consumers who shop other retail categories six or more times a month, 20 percent of men versus 5 percent of women shopped at specialty stores. It makes sense, then, that specialty intimates have captured the male shopper’s attention.
One of the more established “new” companies in the men’s intimates space is Tommy John, which was launched in 2008, a few years before the wave of intimates startups that included MeUndies and Mack Weldon. Though Tommy John is known primarily as a direct-to-consumer brand today, the company actually focused on wholesale at launch before pivoting to DTC, said Tom Patterson, founder and CEO of the company.
“When we launched the business in 2008, women were largely shopping for men’s underwear, and in department stores,” said Patterson. “As the years progressed, we quickly learned that we can scale much more quickly and efficiently online.” According to data provided by Tommy John, in 2008, 65 percent of women were buying men’s underwear. Men had few options in the intimates space, and as a result, didn’t engage in the purchasing process.
Seeing this gap, the company invested more resources in its online store, and saw that men became more active and engaged consumers when they had the ability to purchase direct. Online business became the company’s primary focus. And in 2017, Tommy John launched a male-oriented flagship retail store in Philadelphia that features a lounge area and local beers on tap. The company’s attempts to turn men into more active consumers have paid off, and appear to be reflective of a larger sea change in the intimates space: today, only 30 percent of women buy underwear for their male partners, the company said.
Laura Dweck was once one of those women. While shopping alongside her husband, Michael, to replace his own drawer full of worn-out briefs. The couple found the shopping process laborious and time-consuming, so Laura, who had worked in swimwear and footwear, co-founded Basic Outfitters with Michael to tackle the problem.
Basic Outfitters sells individual packs of underwear, undershirts and socks, but its standout service is “create-a-drawer.” This option lets consumers choose new socks, underwear, shirts and a “wildcard” item (like jogger pants or extra underwear) for a flat rate of $70, compared to $100 if the pieces were purchased separately.
“The create-a-drawer option lets men customize their assortment without getting overwhelmed,” said Dweck, adding the service offers over 50,000 combinations of socks, underwear and other basics. “The beauty of it is that you can overhaul a whole section of your wardrobe, and save money at the same time, which really incentivizes it.”
Basic Outfitters also sells some products on Amazon, a strategic move that Dweck says is necessary for most brands to succeed. “A lot of DTC brands fold up,” Dweck said, “But when we look at Amazon, we see it as a place for customer acquisition. We want to meet customers where they’re shopping, win them over with the product, and hopefully convert them to create-a-drawer customers on our site.”
The mindset at Tommy John is similar, even though the company started out in Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom before selling to men directly. “We like to say that we are an omnichannel-first business,” said Patterson. “More and more businesses will enter the space and iterate on their approach to comfort, performance and innovation over the next few years, but only those businesses that have a strategic, sustainable omnichannel approach will profitably persevere.”
Tommy John and Basic Outfitters have also broadened their customer bases by expanding their product offerings to meet the most in-demand styles and fabrics in the men’s space. Men’s performance underwear and comfort socks are driving the category, per data from Trendalytics. To no surprise, Basic Outfitters’ best-selling items are a super-soft sock and boxer brief, and Tommy John is rapidly expanding its performance-focused underwear options.
“When it comes to underwear, the fit and quality are most important,” said Dweck. “We did tons of market research, but the beauty of being direct-to-consumer is that any time we put out product, people write in and say what they like or don’t, so we can use that as a guideline.”
In the next few years, the men’s intimates space is poised to grow substantially, and Dweck believes that growth will happen primarily in the space that direct-to-consumer companies have carved out. “Product innovation will always be important,” Dweck said. “Direct-to-consumer brands tend to shake up the status quo, with the product, but also with value and convenience. That’s why people are excited to jump on board.”