Women’s Boxers Are Foundation Of Success For Seattle Startup

By Rachel Lerman
The Seattle Times.

It was spring of 2014, and Carma Clark was at a crossroads. But it wasn’t the type of turning point you might suspect from a 46-year-old detective in the Seattle Police Department.

Clark was having a boxer-brief crisis. Her favorite line of underwear from Calvin Klein had been discontinued and her investigation of other limited offerings wasn’t panning out. She found few pairs made for women, and the ones made for men didn’t fit right.

“I’m in the androgynous zone, and most women’s underwear are not comfortable and are not me,” she said.

Lucky for Clark, she met a pair of women at a Seattle Storm game later that month who felt the same way.

In early 2011, Fran Dunaway and her spouse, Naomi Gonzalez, founded TomboyX, a women’s clothing company in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, after Dunaway dealt with similar frustration. She wanted a shirt that fit well and was made with high-quality fabric, but she couldn’t find it in women’s departments, and men’s shirts didn’t fit right.

“Naomi said, ‘Well, how hard is it to start a clothing line?’ and then off we went,” Dunaway recalled. “Oh my god, it’s incredibly difficult.”

One part that wasn’t difficult was finding an audience. TomboyX put a couple of products up on a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $76,000. They found people really responded to the “tomboy” label for clothing.

“We recognized it had meaning to people,” Dunaway said. “People see the word tomboy and think ‘That’s me.’ ”

The company grew so quickly that Dunaway and Gonzalez entered a startup accelerator, Boulder’s MergeLane, and raised more than $330,000, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The pair are just about to wrap up a road trip across the U.S. called the “Not Your Granny’s Panties” tour, showcasing the briefs in a custom-wrapped RV.

At its start, TomboyX experimented with shirts, hats, tank tops, you name it. But now the company has found its core product — boxer briefs for women.

Clark joined Gonzalez, a sports-massage therapist, and Dunaway, who produces political ads, in a warehouse with a pile of boxer briefs to experiment on the best way to make a pair for women. Clark’s wish list included a soft waistband and buttons.

TomboyX created samples and brought in women of all different body types to try on the pairs again and again.

After months of trial and error, the Good Carma line, which sells for about $27 per pair, was born. It was quickly joined by the Feeling Frisky and the Bobbie — all paying homage to women in uniform.

The first run of boxer briefs in fall 2014 sold out in two weeks.

The company sees constant interest from police officers, firefighters and nurses, as well as many other women who wear a set uniform for work. The line is also drawing in athletes, as well as women who want the comfort for everyday wear.

Holly Custis, a middle linebacker for the Seattle Majestics, a women’s football team, first heard about the clothing line when she saw an ad on her Facebook page. She prefers the style of underwear, and cuts made for men just weren’t working.

“If you like that kind of underwear style and you’re female, they are all designed for men,” she said. “This gets away from that.”

She’s not the only one who thinks so. Dunaway and Gonzalez, along with their four full-time employees, sift through dozens of pictures every week from women all over the world who want to model the underwear.

Other clothing lines for tomboys are slowly popping up as well. HauteButch has a wide array of shirts, Scouts Honor clothes the San Francisco tomboy and CharlieBoy carries everything from T-shirts to accessories. But TomboyX is one of very few that specializes in underwear.

TomboyX still creates and brands other products, but the boxer briefs are the defining product. The undies bring in 75 percent of TomboyX’s total revenue, Dunaway said, and more than 8,000 pairs have been sold. She declined to disclose revenue numbers but said they have quintupled year over year for two years.

The company sells mostly online, and its wares are sold in one boutique in Provincetown, Mass. TomboyX has no plans to change the retail model for now — they can barely keep the website and boutique in stock as it is.

Boxer briefs for women may differ a bit from the Nordstrom suits and REI jackets that highlight Seattle fashion trends, but Sydney Mintle, founder of publicist firm Gossip & Glamour, said they’re just what the market needs. It’s all about giving people options, she said. Skimpy or feminine lingerie just doesn’t resonate with everyone.

“Women want to be empowered and for a lot of women that starts with how they present themselves and what they wear,” Mintle said. “I think that giving women underwear that resonates with them really helps.”

There’s no time to slow down. The company is working on a line of flannel pajamas and is considering making soft bras. The biggest requirement of all the lines is they must be inclusive of all women; TomboyX makes every underwear in a size XS through a 4X.

Now Clark, the police detective or “underwear connoisseur” as Dunaway calls her, has introduced the line to a few co-workers and has taken to wearing the boxer briefs around the house, to work and in everyday life.

“The crisis has been solved,” she said.

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