Ask any woman where the real skeletons are in her closet, and she could conceivably point you to her underwear drawer, where the rayon thong she wore the night she went to third base in tenth grade has somehow retained its occupancy. Needless to say, a typical underwear drawer is what confusion looks like in sartorial form. It houses an alarmingly vast array of different shapes, colors, brands, and styles, tattered granny panties, the occasional period stain that remains despite numerous washes, and other questionable specimens. It’s the opposite of streamlined. It’s also proof that the $15B underwear industry is ripe for disruption.
I realize that particular phrase has been bandied about often enough over the last few years that its meaning has dulled, but it’s the most accurate way to describe the state of intimates in 2019. I could easily make an emphatic case for my favorite brand of jeans, or swimsuits, or oat milk, or cellular device, but underwear? I haven’t a clue. This sense of bewilderment (not to mention lack of brand loyalty) is likely why a number of underwear startups have gained traction over the last few years.
If you’ve spent time in downtown Manhattan recently, you’ve probably walked past giant wheatpaste ads announcing the launch of Parade, a startup whose mission–as stated on its website–is to “rewrite the American underwear story.” The posters themselves paint a picture of how the brand is trying to do that, showcasing models of different sizes (Parade’s sizing goes up to a 3X) without a single pair of skin-colored underwear in sight (though Parade underwear does come in black, the emphasis is placed on their technicolor offering). Notably, the models look sexy not because they are half-naked or posing in overtly suggestive ways, but rather because they look comfortable and self-assured–a decided contrast to classic Victoria’s Secret advertisements of yore.
A craving for that contrast was precisely why 22-year-old Cami Téllez founded Parade in the first place: “I started Parade because I felt that the underwear category was undergoing a crisis and I couldn’t find a brand that celebrated women for who they are,” she says. “Underwear brands are trapped in this paradigm of sexualized hot pink and overcorrected nudes. For so long, underwear brands have set boundaries on womanhood, but I started Parade because I believe that women are free-wheeling, dynamic, and expressive people and there wasn’t a brand that opened up a world for them.”
That sentiment definitely lines up with my own history of navigating underwear acquisition. I’ve worn granny panties from the Gap for as long as I can remember, save for a brief hiatus in high school and college when I exclusively wore Hanky Panky thongs. While both varieties served their purpose (the former comfort and necessity, the latter a certain degree of communal cool factor amongst my teenage girlfriends), neither felt uniquely “me,” nor did they inspire a tangible sense of allegiance.
After surveying more than 3,000 women about what they wanted or felt was missing in an underwear brand, Parade launched this month with three styles: thong, cheeky, and boyshort. Every pair is made from recycled fabric, and 1% of all profits are donated to Planned Parenthood. In addition to sustainability and giving back, community is another core tenet of Parade’s brand identity. There are currently 300 Parade brand ambassadors (a.k.a “Parade Friends”)–college students and micro-influencers who are actively putting out user-generated content and providing feedback on the product.
MeUndies is another startup that launched as a reaction to the industry’s penchant for telling people who they should be and what they should look like. “For far too long the underwear industry has been putting women (and men) into a box and telling them how they should look, with everything from push-up bras to uncomfortable lace and bows,” says MeUndies founder Jonathan Shokrian. “MeUndies’ mission is to fuel authentic self-expression, which is different for everyone. We want women feeling comfortable—in who they are, as they are.”
Like Parade, MeUndies is working toward that goal with a focus on size-inclusivity (the brand extended its size range to 4XL this past summer, and if you need a size that is not currently offered on the site they will send a pair free of charge) and other things they know customers today care about, like ethical working conditions and sustainably sourced materials. Its prevailing mission, though, is to make wearing underwear feel like fun instead of a boring necessity.
After following both Parade and MeUndies on Instagram for the past month or so, I’ve been fascinated to witness firsthand the–dare I say–fandom of their burgeoning communities. From butt-baring boomerangs to self-timed hype shoots, there is a clear momentum behind how these brands and their missions are resonating. The kind of momentum that made me want my underwear to do more than just separate my undercarriage from my high-waist jeans for the first time… ever.
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The KiT, an underwear startup that launched shortly after Parade, has more tactical priorities in mind. Founders Jamie Mizrahi and Simone Harouche have more than 20 years of collective styling experience dressing women for everything from red carpets to fashion week, and they are channeling this background into creating undergarments that simplify the process of getting dressed.
“The KiT is inspired by the go-to items inside our stylist kits and is a reflection of what we believe to be the solution-based essentials women need,” the founders explain via email. “We are really approaching this from the perspective of stylists and experts in dressing. We’re not trying to change or reshape your body, but rather help you choose products that make you feel your best. We also offer products women may not realize they’ve needed before or didn’t know they exist like our adhesive thong that eliminates visible panty lines.” True to this mission, a section of The KiT’s website is devoted to explaining how its offering addresses common issues that come up in getting dressed–like an underwear silhouette cut for those with shorter waists, or another pair with a high-cut leg designed to be worn under skirts or dresses with slits.
Strikingly, because of The KiT founders’ client relationships, the brand launched with something most other companies strive for years to obtain: A-List caché. To date, more than a dozen celebrities have posted photos of themselves wearing and hyping The KiT products, including Kate Hudson, Mindy Kaling, Diane von Furstenberg, Lena Dunham, and Dakota Fanning (many in support of The KiT’s pledge to donate 3% of profits to Women’s Cancer Research Fund for each kit sold during Breast Cancer Awareness Month).
Even more compelling, though, is the content The KiT has re-posted from non-celebrities, many of whom are breast cancer survivors, interspersed with the occasional BTS shot of the brand’s operating team showing off their favorite pieces, or photos of the two founders signed “xo Jamie & Simone.” I was immediately sucked in by the some of the off-the-cuff selfies and longer captions, which might be considered too long by traditional brand marketing standards. In a world where most brand messaging is strategically honed to within an inch of its life, scrappiness that doesn’t feel forced is a breath of fresh air.
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I added yet another newish underwear startup, Knickey, to my growing list when I was suffering from a UTI a couple weeks ago. A friend recommended I check out the brand after listening to me complain about going on antibiotics for the third time in sixth months, informing me that she found their underwear “uniquely breathable.” Color me intrigued! I visited Knickey’s website and immediately fell into a black hole reading all about their extensive sustainability initiatives, from committing to using certified organic cotton, to partnering with a New York non-profit to spearhead a program for safely recycling used underwear so it doesn’t end up in a landfill.
“Most underwear brands manufacture synthetic panties derived from crude oil, which are covered in toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, cadmium, and petroflourochemicals (PFCs),” Knickey co-founder Cayla O’Connell Davis told me. “These garments are not breathable, and act as a breeding ground for bacteria by trapping heat and moisture near your nethers. At Knickey, we believe that these toxic chemicals and their unwanted side-effects [yeast infections, UTIs, irritations] have no business up in your business.”
If you’re curious whether I tried out any of this underwear, the answer is yes, dear reader–I tried all of it. As you’ve probably gathered from this investigation, each has something to offer, depending on what your underwear priorities are. Interested in colorful basics that are fun and sexy-but-not-gross and $9 a pop? Parade is for you. Keen to experiment with distinctive patterns and insanely soft (seriously–it’s wild), sustainably sourced fabric? Escort yourself right on over to MeUndies. Have a black-tie event coming up for which you require the perfect unobtrusive undergarments? Browse The KiT’s range of pieces. Passionate about shopping more eco-consciously? Go bananas at Knickey.
I just read about a study that recommends cleaning out your underwear drawer every year–just in case you needed an excuse to purge a few skeletons.
Feature photos via Parade.