Secrets of Growth

Men's underwear leaves the Stone Age

January 27, 2012: 11:25 AM ET

Entrepreneurs like Tommy John's Tom Patterson are looking to take advantage of a growing market of increasingly fashion-conscious men. First stop: underwear.

By Colleen Leahey, reporter

FORTUNE -- The days of over-sized jeans sagging from the derrieres of men everywhere are no more. Skinny jeans, tailored pants, and fitted oxfords are de rigeur, leaving little room for excess fabric in the undergarment department. Boxers or briefs used to be the only question men needed to ask themselves, but today, the options have grown.

Five years ago, Tom Patterson was a medical-device sales rep by day and an avid-viewer of CNBC's The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch by night. "All of the featured products or services … were created out of personal frustration," recalls Patterson. "I found myself constantly looking around, asking, 'What can I make better?'"

During the financial crisis, Patterson was laid off from a sales job he held for six years. During his down time, he realized that one of the biggest fashion annoyances he faced while he was working was a fabric gut -- that baggy bump just above the belt line caused by a loose-fitting undershirt.

After researching fabrics and designs of the bestselling undershirts at high-end department stores, Patterson came across micro modal. The patent-pending fabric is soft, with properties similar to cotton, but it doesn't shrink or yellow as easily. "I headed to my dry cleaner's with a design and paid him $100. Then ordered 15 more, asking trusted friends to wear them and give me feedback."

With positive reviews in hand, Patterson moved to San Diego with his girlfriend, locked down a manufacturer, and founded Tommy John. Today, the three-year old company offers its wares at stores like Saks (SKS), Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom (JWN). Revenue over the past year was $1.5 million, up from $900,000 in 2010; Patterson predicts that 2012 revenue will be between $4-6 million. And this week, the company launched a new underwear line for men at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

"Women's underwear is like the Jetson's. It's futuristic, innovative," says Patterson. "But men's hasn't been modernized at all." His company's brief line has a "Quick Draw" fly, which is horizontal rather than vertical, a ventilation zone, and no-rise legs. The fabric also allows stretching that keeps the briefs from riding up the wearer's thighs. More

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