Five middle-aged men were seated in a clinical gray conference room to discuss the latest advertising campaign for 2(x)ist, an underwear label famous for plastering aggressive images of hyper-ripped, nearly naked men on bus shelters and phone kiosks just about everywhere.
Among them were Joey Harary, the president of the Morét Group, a company that acquired 2(x)ist in 1995 and is to skivvies what LVMH is to couture; the designer Jason Scarlatti; two marketing executives; and James LaForce, whose fashion public relations firm has been hired to take the label in a direction that is “more aloof” and “not so intimidating.”
A video playing in the background showed behind-the-scenes moments from a recent photo shoot, where a lithe young man, Lasse Hansen, described his journey from serving in the Danish Navy to landing a big-time modeling career in New York City.
“I like the quiet life,” he said. He wears a robe in most of the scenes, his modesty intact.
“We describe it this way,” said Mr. Scarlatti, a winsome, precisely scruffy designer who also works part-time as a comedian. “We are going for something a little more statuesque, and a little less steroid-y.”
Mr. LaForce interjected, “We are giving the models an identity, so they are not just a piece of meat.”
Vic Drabicky, the founder of January Digital, who is consulting on the company’s online business, got to the point: “We are taking the focus off the crotch shots.”
It should be emphasized, right up front, that 2(x)ist is a company that has long held a strict “no stuffing” policy when it comes to advertisements. Only last October, the company staged a runway show of hot guys in their underwear, hosted and ogled by Jenny McCarthy.
Sex sells, you know, and nowhere is this truer than in the booming business of briefs, where the imagery has followed an ever-more-provocative and chiseled trajectory since Marky Mark dropped trou for Calvin Klein in 1992. Things have become so raunchy now that the marketing for a sizable niche of underwear brands bears a marked resemblance to gay pornography (see, or please don’t if you are prudish, labels like Andrew Christian, Papi, Baskit, Rufskin and, for a very particular man, Nasty Pig).
At 2(x)ist, and elsewhere in the underwear market, there was a growing sentiment that the models were getting to be, well, too sexy, at least to be relatable to a new breed of fashion customer: the average heterosexual man.
Thus, the change in campaign direction, which shows models (still attractive, shirtless and depilated, mind you) in lifestyle situations like exercising on a beach, often turned slightly away from the camera. The company is also creating a series of online videos that show the products in a more artistic light, including the one with Mr. Hansen, and another using dancers from the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
The focus here, it should be noted, is more on the packaging than the package. And that is also the message coming from some new underwear brands, like MeUndies and Mack Weldon, that are hiring models of less conventional beauty. Reacting to what is perceived to be a case of abs fatigue among male shoppers, these companies are resisting the notion that a model has to look like Matthew Terry, the one from the Calvin Klein Super Bowl commercial, to move products off the shelves.
Flint and Tinder, another new collection taking an artisanal approach, rarely uses models in its marketing, which is more focused on the fact that the underwear is American made. “You don’t need to see a picture of a half-naked man to get a feeling of how a product is going to work for you,” said Jake Bronstein, its founder.
Who’d have guessed that a lot of men are uncomfortable with underwear shopping these days? “They don’t want to see only those plucked-chicken models,” said Michael Kleinmann, the editor of the blog The Underwear Expert. “They want models who are somewhat aspirational, and they want to look like the guy in the pictures, but every model can’t be blond, hairless and perfect.” The most common feedback Mr. Kleinmann has heard from readers recently is that they want to see more diversity, including guys with tattoos and guys over the age of 40.
WHETHER UNDERWEAR models are generally getting less sexy, though, depends on your definition of sexy.
“I think a lot of these brands have segregated themselves a bit, and the models they pick are indicative of their targeted demographic,” said Gregory Sovell, the creative director of the nearly decade-old label C-IN2, and before that the founder of 2(x)ist.
“At one end is a sex party that is basically taken off a porn set out of the Valley,” Mr. Sovell said, looking at the spectrum from Andrew Christian to Mack Weldon, “and at the other end, it has a kind of kookiness to it.” C-IN2 falls somewhere between those extremes, with racier campaigns using well-defined models and athletes, though always in settings where it would be believable to find a guy wearing only underwear (locker rooms or lounging in an apartment). “Why someone would be standing on a rock in front of the ocean in their underwear, I don’t understand,” Mr. Sovell said.
Underwear was the fastest-growing category of men’s wear in 2012, up 13 percent to $2.4 billion, according to NPD Group figures released last month. While economic pundits are quick to theorize that this rise, like rising hemlines or lipstick sales, is indicative of a recovery, it is more likely a result of strong consumer demand for new fashion styles, the neon-bright colors and the trimmer cuts designed to go with “slim fit” suits and dress shirts. The 2(x)ist executives can tell from online sales that the top-selling color in South Dakota, for example, is purple. These styles are especially popular with younger shoppers, and maybe those women who still shop for their men, but they are confounding to a large portion of the male population who remembers when buying underwear was easy.
Walk into an underwear department today and you will encounter black 2(x)ist briefs with fuchsia piping from its “vivid range,” or white ones with racing stripes, or red Diesel trunks with a dragon painted on one cheek, or Calvin Klein’s Pro Stretch Reflex boxer briefs in gunmetal gray or Steel Micro Hip briefs on which the logo waistband is wider than the actual brief. There are few options that could truly be called basics.
“Underwear is a category that has frustrated me for years,” said Brian Berger, an expat from the world of digital who started Mack Weldon last August, with a direct-to-retail business model similar to that of the online eyewear company Warby Parker. His site offers three styles of underwear, four T-shirts and two sock styles (solid or stripes), and is already generating sales in the low six figures each month. The basic brief costs $19.50.
The appeal of Mack Weldon, a fictitious name that was inspired by the early 1900s sleepwear label Weldon, is that the designs are elegant in their simplicity and functionality, with mesh panels in the areas where guys sweat most, and the colors, like lichen green and a light gray called “cloud burst,” are not too crazy. Mike Sharits, the model who wears them in clever animations on the site, may be fatless, but he is just goofy enough, rubbing his belly or tripping out of a pair of trousers, to be relatable. He even has a dusting of chest hair, and sometimes wears glasses.
“It is a departure from the airbrushed guys and the 12-pack abs,” Mr. Berger said. “It wasn’t a Michelangelo kind of look.”
NOR WOULD YOU SAY that of the guy on the site of MeUndies, an average, almost beefy man seen in a video flossing his teeth while debating with his much more attractive mate about sleeping with her girlfriends, if she were to die. The site is about as unsexy as it gets, with hairy-chested models, some good looking and some who would not get past security at Calvin Klein.
“We’re not hiring models from big agencies,” said Jonathan Shokrian, a founder of the company, which was started in Culver City, Calif., in 2011. “We want to find people who we feel are good looking and who emphasize the image of the everyday guy.”
MeUndies products are quirky, with $16 briefs in a variety of unconventional colors, in chevron patterns or houndstooth.
“We’re never going to be Calvin Klein,” Mr. Shokrian said. “This is like American Apparel, but more tasteful.”
Of course, you can’t fault Calvin Klein for making the business of underwear so sexy. In fact, it is that company’s example of turning a basic into a fashion category that has attracted so many new competitors to the realm. Mr. Kleinmann, the Underwear Expert, estimated that there are more than 300 companies in the market, including many small labels that have started within the last year. Each has its own personality, he said, so buck up, guys, there’s something for everyone.
“The bottom line,” Mr. Kleinmann said, “is that you just have a lot more options.”
[A version of this article by Eric Wilson appeared in print on May 22, 2013, on page E1 of the New York Times with the headline: Less Ab, More Flab]