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Eleven minutes and 58 seconds. That’s how long the recorder has been running before Bryan Lalezarian, the CEO of underwear startup MeUndies, tugs down the waist of his jeans and shows me his underwear, to effectively demonstrate just how excited people get about their MeUndies briefs. Two seconds later, the head of PR and social media, Greg Fass, follows suit.
"How many times have you been at a party and you tell someone you work at MeUndies and they grab their waistband and they show you it’s purple?" Lalezarian asks, flipping over the waistband of his Lovestruck briefs to show the grapey purple inner lining. Fass flashes the purple underside of his own flaming orange pair in response. "They all have purple waistbands, that’s our signature color. When else have you had someone show you their underwear like that?" Never, I say, while simultaneously holding a frantic inner debate about how many milliseconds an intrigued-but-not-too-intrigued stare at this man’s briefs is supposed to last.
If this is weird for anyone else, they don’t let on. Lalezarian, a 30-something former investment banker who ditched the hedge fund career track in favor of a riskier life in startups, self-identifies as the least creative guy in the group. He wears the brainy Zuckerberg look well: non-descript black T-shirt, dark wash jeans, and a brand new wedding ring on his left hand. Fass, on the other hand, is decked out in MeUndies loungewear and a Knicks cap and frequently shows up in the company’s Snapchats. He was one of the original MeUndies employees along with the founder, Jonathan Shokrian, before Lalezarian came on "to CEO us," as Fass puts it.
MeUndies is a direct-to-consumer business that bills itself as the online destination for the perfect pair of underwear — a life-changing experience, the website boasts — and, while it started with a focus on men’s briefs, it has recently been pouring more resources into building out its women’s line. The prices are ambitious, the marketing has been compared to American Apparel, and the team hopes to become a household name in underwear within the next two decades.
"[Underwear shopping] is not a great experience," Lalezarian says. "It was obvious to us that there’s such a better way to do it. The way we describe it in house is ‘un-boring comfort.’ The core of our company is to have fun, it’s what we really like to promote, and underwear is our vehicle for doing that."
The company employs 40 people in a brand new office-slash-warehouse in Culver City, California, two doors down from a circus training school. When I visit, the team is still getting used to working out of an office that has windows and a parking lot, let alone a gym and beer tap-equipped kitchen. The front half of the office is filled with long desks and empty chairs ready to be filled with new hires, and the back half acts as a small distribution center where boxes and boxes of underwear are stacked up from floor to ceiling, waiting to be shipped.
The prices are ambitious, the marketing has been compared to American Apparel, and the team hopes to become a household name.
MeUndies sells its underwear a couple different ways: in individual pairs for $16 to $18, in packs of various sizes for $42 to $4,000 (yes, $4,000), or as a subscription service. About 20% of MeUndies customers are subscribers, Lalezarian tells me, and this is where the customer engagement really comes into play. Users who sign up for the subscription service get MeUndies’ design of the month delivered to their door on the first of each month for $14 per pair. Each package comes with a corresponding knickknack; for example, a pebble-printed credit card holder for November’s Pebble theme, a zombie-fied deck of playing cards for October’s Rocking Dead theme, and a keychain with a bottle opener attached for July’s Summer Lovin’ theme. The trinkets combined with loud, playful underwear designs make each purchase a shareable experience, which isn’t always easy to come by when you’re selling underwear.
"The fact that we have guys who are showing their other guy friends what color of underwear they are wearing is a totally new thought," Lalezarian says. "No guy would ever want to show anybody else his underwear. But now that there’s this personality to it, that it’s not so boring and black and white, it creates that feeling of ‘I want to show my friend this and tell them about this,’ which is how word of mouth has been so big for us."
Women’s underwear, on the other hand, is slightly newer territory for the brand. While MeUndies has sold to both men and women since its inception, it only carried one women’s style, the Cheeky Brief, up until this year. In May, the brand launched the "All of Me" collection, MeUndies’ first big expansion into women’s products. The collection includes three different fits: a bikini, a boyshort, and a thong, and each type was tested out on a sample group of 300 to 400 of the brand’s most devoted female shoppers before going into mass production.
Plus, when you’re buying a houndstooth-printed thong, you’re buying into the whole brand experience, which Lalezarian and his team have worked hard to perfect at MeUndies. Each underwear purchase comes with a complimentary MeUndies snapback ("to better help you show off that MeUndies pride," an enclosed note explains). In years past, condoms were included with each purchase. When you order, the confirmation email comes from a mysterious person named "Jen," who also sends out periodic email blasts and Snapchats. The company built a billboard campaign around her; driving around Los Angeles, you’re bound to come across a grapey purple billboard that simply says "Who is Jen?" alongside the MeUndies logo. When I ask Fass to explain further, he passes, saying that it would spoil the fun.
While MeUndies underwear doesn’t come cheap — $18 for that houndstooth-printed thong is way more commitment than the typical seven for $27 deal that can be found at Victoria’s Secret — Lalezarian doesn’t seem too worried about the competition. "We’re making a product that doesn’t compare to Victoria’s Secret," he tells me. "The quality is much different, the design is different. Ours lasts a lot longer. With Victoria’s Secret, you’re probably buying more frequently than you would here. Women more than men tend to think of underwear as a disposable product. You wear it for six months then you throw it out and buy it again. That’s part of the way Victoria’s Secret has trained women to buy underwear, it gets you in the store frequently. It’s a bit different for men, they invest in the long run. In terms of quality our underwear is lasting a lot longer, you’re not replacing it as often and it’s a lot more unique."
"Women more than men tend to think of underwear as a disposable product."
On the marketing front, MeUndies takes an irreverent approach that, more often than not, toes a rather bro-friendly line. When Dallas Cowboys running back Joesph Randle made headlines for shoplifting underwear from a Dillard’s in Texas, MeUndies swooped in to set Randle up with a constant stream of MeUndies briefs and donated the equivalency of his fine to a Dallas-area charity. Similarly, when Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch got fined for grabbing his crotch in celebration after making a touchdown, MeUndies set him up with his own supply of underwear and offered to match his fine with a charitable donation to Lynch’s foundation every time he grabbed his crotch in last year's Super Bowl.
"Those types of stories are a lot more engaging than advertisements," Lalezarian says. "Not many brands are willing to do what we did in that case. The kinds of guys who watch ESPN and watch football can admire us for taking that bold step."
Not that MeUndies’ advertisements are a snooze in comparison. When Facebook banned an overly sexual MeUndies ad in 2014, the brand responded by circulating another Facebook ad mocking the company for banning the ad and asking viewers to click through to a "Too Hot For Facebook" section of the site to see the uncensored ads. Click-through rates quadrupled on that ad, according to Digiday.
The brand got press for advertising on a porn site in 2013, in the form of a banner ad showcasing a woman with her face turned away, wearing nothing but socks and "SHE LIKES LONG _OCKS" written in block letters over the image. (The American Apparel comparisons really come into focus here.) MeUndies ads regularly appear on comedian Bill Burr’s podcast; in one episode, he opens with discussing the virtues of "slapping the shit" out of a woman and then, 20 minutes later, sings a MeUndies jingle and shills the briefs. When rapper Lil Dicky gets to the part of his live show where he gives a woman in the audience a lap dance, he does it in MeUndies briefs.
Lalezarian says that any controversy that the brand attracts for its stunts is worth it, although he acknowledges that the team learned that negative reactions tend to have more reach. In any case, it doesn’t seem to be slowing the brand’s growth. On social, MeUndies regularly engages with over 200,000 Facebook followers, although Fass says the brand’s most active platform is Instagram, which has grown from 30,000 followers to 110,000 followers in just under a year. Fass credits the growth to a combination of using Instagram personalities (including LA’s own cookie genius) to promote the underwear and encouraging customers to share their own photos of MeUndies on the platform.
"I think people want to see interesting photos of people in their underwear."
"One thing we really love to do is [show] people in underwear doing things," Fass explains. "I know it sounds really simple, but when someone is out doing something that they’d normally be doing in full clothes, but they’re doing it in underwear, it makes a great photo, so we’re kind of lucky in that sense. I think people want to see interesting photos of people in their underwear." Next year, Fass is aiming to hit half a million followers on Instagram.
MeUndies may still be small but it's attracting a variety of talent away from impressive brands: the company just hired its first creative director from Beats by Dre, where he held the same position, and MeUndies’ head of product development spent time at Target and Abercrombie & Fitch before crossing over into start-up life. "I think we’ve built an incredible team," Lalezarian says. "There’s a special magic to the culture we have here that is really hard to replicate, and it takes time."
Lalezarian has his sights set on a couple hundred million in revenue, which he says is in view as long as the team keeps honing MeUndies’ obsessive, weirdly passionate culture of underwear. "You know how Clark Kent has a Superman outfit on under his shirt and no one knows? It’s kind of the same thing with the underwear you’re wearing that day," Lalezarian tells me. "It gives you a sense of confidence. It sounds crazy, but there is something special about this category that’s been forgotten."