Go on, free yourself from Y-fronts: Jim White visits a company trying to satisfy the huge demand for lacy men's cami-knickers and suspenders
Friday 01 April 1994
Men's underwear is, according to Christina Bonfield, the owner of Apres Noir, in the process of throwing off its grey and crusty shackles in favour of a new delicate and lacy look. She believes Y-fronts have had their day, to be superseded by 'exquisitely detailed French cotton bikinis with delicate lace eyelet trim,' - items tailored to accommodate male bulges and to be worn under business suits without visible panty lines.
'It seems as if things have moved full circle,' Ms Bonfield says, sitting in the middle of a photo session for her new underwear catalogue. 'In the 18th century men wore lace and stockings. It's just conditioning to think it's strange to do the same again.'
And in case you think she is catering to a minority taste or specialist interest here, Ms Bonfield is quick to point out that in the four months since she started her range, she has established a mailing list of over 55,000 and sold more than pounds 1m-worth of cami-knickers, basques, bodies and suspender belts to the men of Britain.
'This is emphatically not a gay or transvestite thing,' she says as, in the background, her model (called Dan, but known, apparently, in the business as Mr Underpant - and you could see why) posed and pouted. 'We have letters from male customers who all say they are married and from wives who are delighted that they don't have their underwear pinched any more.'
The idea for all this started in the unlikely setting of the trans-Siberian railway. Ms Bonfield was a career diplomat, an American based in Peking, who, after her marriage to a British geophysicist in 1988, decided to take the scenic route home. It was the depth of winter, and the pair stocked up on Chinese silk underwear for the journey.
'It was fantastic stuff,' she remembers. 'Really comfortable, warm and it looked good. Before I was married I had considerable experience of men taking off their clothes to reveal really ugly underwear, and I thought it was about time women had something nice to look at instead.'
So, on arrival in England, the pair imported hundreds of pairs of People's Republic underpants, and started to sell them via mail order. But they discovered that the stitching was poor and started manufacturing their own items from raw silk imported from China. At first the styling trod familiar territory: boxers, briefs, vests, that sort of thing. But then the demand started.
'In mail order, the most common inquiry is over the phone,' Ms Bonfield says. 'We had hundreds of men ringing in asking for something more feminine, lace perhaps, but designed for the male physique. I thought maybe there's a demand there. So I put about pounds 3,000 into it, did a test brochure and put a small ad in the Observer last October. We had 8,000 people writing in for the brochure from that one ad.'
The demand took off in a manner that would terrify Marks & Spencer. Within a month Ms Bonfield was employing 40 people in an old factory in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, churning out basques, suspender belts, cami-knickers and bodies by the dozen.
But then, in January, the Observer refused to take any more advertisements. 'They said they wanted nothing to do with transvestites. I tried to tell them we sell very little to the transvestite community. The transvestites I have spoken to are only interested in women's underwear - they like to look like women. We solicit comments from customers, and they say they like our range because it is shaped for men, and their bits don't fall out as they found they did when they wore women's knickers.'
The Observer ban was not unique: this newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and all News International titles were unwilling to carry an illustrated advertisement. So Ms Bonfield turned to the tabloids. The response, she says, was not as explosive. Which suggests that her clients are mainly well-heeled.
'Our average order is over pounds 80, and I can't imagine the milkman or the window cleaner spending that sort of money. I suspect our clients are mainly professionals. I have had a letter from an undertaker who said he liked our suspenders because they were cut not to show underneath his morning suit. And yes, we have MPs on our mailing list. Five actually. I can't reveal their names. But they are all Tories.'
One thing Ms Bonfield has discovered in her four-month crash course into male underwear preferences is that lace and frills are not solely worn underneath the British business suit.
'You might think it's the old public school stuff coming out,' she says - and she is right. 'But a tabloid in Sydney got hold of one of our brochures and ran a huge article, really taking the piss, saying this is final proof of the decadent decline of the Poms. Anyway, after the article came out, I got 1,500 letters from Australia, asking if our stuff was available over there. I sent a note to the editor thanking him.'
And next month the brochure is launched in the United States, where the denizens of Capitol Hill are said to be very interested. But why does Ms Bonfield think men buy her kit? Is she not exploiting the sad, the lonely and the Tory?
'I don't know why they buy and actually I don't much care,' she says. 'I think people take all this stuff awfully seriously. Frankly, I'm not crusading for a man's right to wear frilly underwear. We're in this to make money.'
Not that everyone is convinced. Mr Underpant, the brochure model, for instance, objected to the thongs in the lingerie range and declared himself to be 'a straight-forward M&S man, I'm afraid'. And Ms Bonfield's husband and co-founder of the business?
'No, if you must know, he doesn't subscribe,' she says. 'He doesn't actually use underwear.'
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