It was 2006, Trent Kitsch was salmon fishing in Alaska, and he had a problem. “My package was stuck to my legs for hours,” he says. “The whole trip I kept thinking, I have to reinvent men’s underwear. There has to be a better way.” Kitsch, who at the time was 26 and in business school at the University of Western Ontario, hired a local fashion student to help create a design that would prevent stickage. Companies such as 2(X)ist had installed pouches for added room—and a more pronounced presentation—but Kitsch didn’t think they solved the Alaska dilemma.
After 14 prototypes, he settled on perpendicular mesh panels inside a pouch that he incorporated into a brief and a boxer brief; the panels envelop a man’s privates and provide a protective barrier against the inner thighs. Kitsch took out a $20,000 loan and poured all of it into his new company, Saxx. (He’s nothing if not subtle.) By 2009, the shorts were in Sports Shack, a major Canadian retailer. In 2010 he sold Saxx to No Limits Group, in Vancouver, which owns several other niche-apparel makers.
Mesh-paneled underwear might sound gimmicky, but it’s no joke: In the past two years, Saxx’s revenue has grown 250 percent; it’s forecast to reach $40 million in 2016. “We have an 85 percent adoption rate when people try our underwear,” says Chief Executive Officer Tim Bartels. The company has signed endorsement deals with the Chicago Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, last season’s Cy Young Award winner—he was already wearing the underwear and reached out to the company—and Kevin Love, who won the 2016 NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In May, Saxx began shipping globally, and Nordstrom recently tapped it as an “emerging brand” and placed it in 60 stores throughout North America. “They have a really interesting take on men’s underwear” and were able to convince the industry of their innovation’s value, says Min Park, Nordstrom’s buyer for men’s emerging brands.
Whether Saxx’s design makes a lasting dent in the $2.9 billion men’s underwear market remains to be seen. At this point, its sales account for only a little more than 1 percent of that figure. Other smaller companies are developing similar technologies: In 2012 a former No Limits employee broke off to found MyPakage, which employs a “keyhole” design to “cradle the male package.” Stance, which made its name making socks for the NBA, now sells underwear that employs a “wholester.”
Major players would need to adopt a similar design for these crotch-comfort innovations to go mainstream. “The men’s underwear category grows in spurts,” says Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst for NPD Group, a market research company. “When something comes along that makes underwear more comfortable or sexier, and it’s imitated, numbers go up.” That was true when Calvin Klein introduced a more stylish brief 30 years ago. And it was also true when the boxer brief was introduced in the early 1990s. The latest uptick in market growth came in the year ending last February, when the industry gained 2 percent. That was spurred largely by compression underwear, performance garments that keep muscles warm and better supported during athletics. Under Armour introduced the style, and Nike, Adidas, Jockey, Tommy John, and others soon adopted it.
Saxx has expanded its offerings to include nylon performance underwear. The compression is in the rear and legs; the pouch maintains the company’s patented design. In January it will begin selling a running short. “Luke’s Locker, a store in Texas, was cutting out the liner of running shorts and selling a pair of Saxx underwear with them instead,” CEO Bartels says. “We decided it was a good idea.” And, he adds, Saxx is only two years away from making women’s undergarments. “Obviously,” he says, “it won’t include panels.”