Men's underwear designer has set her sights high

LIFTING UP and pushing out is not just a function of the bra. Boxer shorts are now providing the same service for men - and selling well as a fashion item for nightclubs and health clubs.

Mefisto Duotone underwear has been designed and produced by 26-year-old Susana Ortubia, who this week is a London regional finalist for a Shell Livewire award, which recognises the young entrepreneur of the year. If she proceeds into the national finals in June, Ms Ortubia stands a chance of winning a £5,000 prize.

But Ms Ortubia says the practical advice, plus the business contacts, have been much more important. Her Livewire support worker helped to obtain venture capital from the Prince's Trust for young entrepreneurs, Midland Bank and the London Enterprise Agency. "Livewire has been wonderful, supporting me at every step of the business,' says Ms Ortubia. "They have been my best selling point. They put me in touch with the right people. I most probably could not have done it without them."

The Mefisto range, launched only last November, is already profitable, and Ms Ortubia expects this season to boost sales significantly. Her products are sold, at £25 a time, by four up-market retailers in London and in the other European capitals. She is also in discussions with leading chain stores after favourable publicity.

Ms Ortubia moved to Britain five years ago from Majorca, where she and her parents worked in the fashion industry. After arriving in Britain, she researched the domestic men's clothing industry and became convinced there was a gap in the underwear market. "Boxer shorts have been very boring, apart from rabbit patterns or something," she says.

The emphasis of the Mefisto product is comfort with shape, including padding, which, Ms Ortubia says, adds little in volume but does rearrange. "Padding gives a bit of strength, and is used in women's underwear a lot. People may think they will get volume, but they don't - they will have to keep using socks for that.

"Women have got the Wonderbra. Men are very vain but won't recognise it. This also gives lift, keeps everything together, and looks very flattering. It attracts young customers, up to 40, who have an interest in fitness and good bodies. It is popular in the gay market, where men take care of themselves so are perfect customers. All men with good bodies are good customers. The underwear is very comfortable, so people can work out in it in the gym."

Since the Livewire competition rewards and encourages initiative, other finalists also have original ideas.

Richard Godwin, the 24-year-old proprietor of Red House Recording Studios in Stoke, is broadening the market for recordings by undercutting competitors by 60 per cent. He is attracting Indian classical musicians whose work was not previously sold in Britain, amateur dramatic societies, which are selling tapes of their performances, and budding performers who for the first time can afford to send demonstration tapes to record companies, agents and television producers.

Sandy Ogilvie, UK director of Livewire, says the scheme has proved its worth many times over since it was established in 1982. "Livewire is there to encourage young people to start their own businesses, and consider that as a career choice when they start their careers, not as a last-ditch stand when facing unemployment. We will help them to produce business plans, and offer specialist help.

"Young people don't have the experience, or sometimes the maturity, that older people do, and we have tailor-made programmes and materials available to them to reduce the risks they are undertaking. It helps them make good decisions based on sound facts."

q Livewire is open to young entrepreneurs aged between 16 and 25. Telephone: 0191 261 5584.

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