For many men of a certain age in our culture, their fascination with underwear probably began in 1992 when Mark Wahlberg -- then a reckless rapper known as Marky Mark
-- was vaulted to Times Square billboards clad only in his boxer briefs, then a fresh style on the underwear scene.
Marky Mark wasn't the first to halt traffic; that honor belongs to Brazilian Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus
. He not only literally stopped traffic, but launched Calvin Klein into a new era of advertising that would influence our imagery for decades after. The iconic image would go on to be named one of the "10 Pictures that Changed America" by American Photographer
However, when giving props to changing attitudes, we have to travel far past Baltimore Oriole's Jim Palmer
in his brightly colored and tight Jockeys in the '70s all the way back to 1934 when a little company in Kenosha, Wis. (Greater Chicago area) named Cooper's (and later renamed Jockey) would invent the first men's Y-Front Brief
-- a progression from the athletic and humble jockstrap.
For Jerrad Matthew, founder of The Matthew Agency Model Management
, his journey to founding Underwear Nation
would take as long as his carefully curated product line which, while contemporary, does pay homage in many ways to that ever-evolving spirit of fashion where legacy and innovation often sit comfortably together.
In 2009, Matthew, an alumnus of Grand Valley State University, would return to Grand Rapids after spending four years in Nasvhille to begin his talent agency in response to Michigan's film incentives.
In no time at all, his agency -- which represented kid talent, actors, and even models -- built much of its early business strength around its 200 extras that were placed in 800 film roles. It was incredible while it lasted, but it all ended once the film incentives were cut in Lansing.
Moving quickly, Matthew pared down the agency, reducing his focus to just models that he would place in commercials and runway shows. With a keen eye for fashion and a dynamo knack for photography, he and his business partner Dan Parker created a model empire in no time at all.
One day in 2011, he received a call from a childhood friend, Todd Wendrick, who'd seen some of Matthew's photography. As they conversed, they both discovered an affinity for men's fashion. But they also observed a niche not being served.
"Looking around on the web, Todd and I quickly realized that no one had started an underwear of the month club for men," says Matthew. "We wanted to start a business with great and hard-to-find underwear and employ good photography on our models while curating a great product experience for our clients."
After mobilizing connections with manufacturers, they began to design everything from the user experience of their website to their specialty packaging featuring a printed-on-the-inside design experience engineered locally through Advance Packaging. Like most artists who enter the field of business, they pushed Advance to try things in a new way with stunning results.
While the concept is fairly simple, I tried out a competitor earlier and I must confess, Underwear Nation would lure anyone away from those other services. Why? Simply put, Underwear Nation has curated an experience carefully weighed out each month by members of the team.
Their first few months offered primarily two styles of underwear: the brief and the trunk (boxer brief). They later added a jockstrap option and a wildly popular editor's choice -- always a mystery and their number one checked box. Their clients trust them!
Each month, their "citizens" will unwrap a collectable photo card that features the style they have just purchased face-up with the other style on the flipside. There are no jockstrap images as cards are, of course, only two-sided.
Now, just over a year old and with clients in nine countries outside the U.S., Underwear Nation is once again advancing, launching a revamped site through the assistance of their $5000 StartGarden investment. They are beginning monthly features focusing on a theme captured via Matthew's original photography and using local models nearly 90 percent of the time. Change has to happen because it is integral to fashion-focused firms who shift with the times.
"We have had one thing that we have not changed since the very beginning: our commitment to quality, comfort and style," says Matthew, who sources underwear currently from 10 different brands/designers around the globe.
Products are tested and approved by his staff or models. Matthew adds, "To keep us fresh and current, we are always on the lookout for new trends in men's underwear."
Styles I am shown by Matthew that could possibly make their way to the new shopping section of the site in the weeks ahead include the "runner," a long panted pair of underwear you would wear while working out in the gym or the bedroom, and the "sheer," a classy, yet edgy style that uses unique fabrics and colors (like hot pink). There is even a nod to the classic collegiate wrestling singlet, but it's updated and made to be rolled down to sit just above the hip bones. It is a very nice look.
So why do this? Why focus on men's underwear?
Quite simply, our culture has been focused on it for some time in fashion. It is only now that we are seeing men respond in ways never before imagined as the market begins to change how we shop, with online shopping offering privacy so that a huge leap, much like the '90s, can once again commence.
Matthew cites one very simple reason for their success. "We're hearing often from our citizens that it just makes them feel sexy wearing what we have curated for them. Even if you never know, it is their secret."
In addition to expanding the line on the website, Underwear Nation is in the early days of their new ambassador program where citizens can pledge their allegiance to the brand through outreach incentives. Matthew is also exploring other delivery concepts based on their successful unmentionable of the month model.
What more we can expect? Are there trends about to break very soon?
Not missing a beat, Matthew reaches into a container packed with underwear to pull out a pair that is noticeably a bit more airy than the others I've been shown.
"While the Jockstrap has in many ways replaced the thong," says Matthew, "in men's underwear, this style is beginning to invade other styles where we are seeing designers take the ass out of everything."
We both laugh.
As I peer through the opening cut just between the waistband and the soft pima cotton seam, I believe I can see the future. And it is, I have to admit, pretty damn sexy -- and daring, too.
The Future Needs All of Us.
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Photos of Matthew Agency models by Jarrad Matthew. Other images shot by Tommy Allen.