In 2000, Sarah Blakely launched a line of women's seamless, slimming undergarments she conceived of after cutting the feet off a pair of control-top pantyhose. Her product, Spanx, caught on by word of mouth (she has yet to spend a penny on advertising), and 12 years and dozens of tummy-slimming, butt-smoothing, seamless underwear styles later (not to mention numerous knock-offs), Blakely has appeared on the cover of Forbes as the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world.
That's the potential of underwear, a $29 billion global apparel sector. People buy underwear by the dozens, and though the industry isn't always associated with high-tech innovation, new inventions can clearly reap huge profits.
A look at three companies pushing technological advancements in underwear that could change the way we dress and undress — and earn huge profits for their inventors.
1. Knix Wear
"We believe it's time our underwear did more, and that's why we're changing it forever," says Joanna Griffiths, the creator of Knix Wear, in her promotional YouTube video. Knix Wear, made from absorbent, anti-microbial fabric, protects women from moisture and "stress incontinence," a condition that causes afflicted people, including some new mothers, to pee a little when they laugh or sneeze. Unlike most products designed for this problem, Knix Wear also comes in sexy Knixy style — "lovely lace lingerie that can go from morning 'til wherever the night takes you." Griffiths has raised more than $60,000 on an Indiegogo campaign to finance her first shipment.
2. Knock Out
In 2009, stay-at-home-mom Angela Newnam discovered a fabric called No Trace, used in hunting apparel to mask human odor from deer. Inspired by the possibilities, Newnam bought some No Trace gear and started running at-home tests. "She cut small swatches and placed them in Ziploc bags together with pungent-smelling foods," says Bloomberg Businessweek. "Then she had her friends do a smell test to see if No Trace lived up to its name." Finding that it did, Newnam took her experiments to the next level, and sewed swatches of the camouflage material into underwear, which she gave to her friends to wear during workouts. "The results were unanimous."
Newnam bought the patent from Dan River, a defunct textile company, and created Knock Out, a line of lace-trimmed thongs and boy-shorts with unique odor-absorbing capabilities. She sold 20,000 pairs in the first year, and in April 2012, won Harvard Business School's Alumni New Venture Contest for startups with less than $1 million in invested capital and less than $2 million in revenues. How does the magic fabric work?
The No Trace molecules — they contain the same active ingredient as Febreze — are bound to the cotton in the finishing process, creating small pockets that trap scents. Because the molecules are encapsulated in the weave, they're good for at least 40 washes, says Dave Brown, who developed the patent for Dan River and is now a consultant to Knock out. [Bloomberg]
3. Underwear for Men
There's no reason the world of men's underwear can't produce a star like Blakely. Underwear for Men (UFM) is awaiting a patent for an invention that appears to incorporate all the comfort benefits of a hoodie into boxer-briefs. A tube string stitched in the seam line of the front of the underwear lets the wearer "adjust the amount of isolation, comfort, and support they receive at any given moment." According to the website, the first batch will be ready to ship this month.