It was a particularly unglamorous experience that sparked Jonathan Shokrian’s idea for a multimillion-dollar business.
Preparing to embark on a two-week trip to Europe in 2010, the then-25-year-old Conservative Jew from Los Angeles realized he needed more than his existing five-day supply of those most basic of garments: boxers. So, the young man headed to a department store for what he thought would be a straightforward and inexpensive task.
Not so. The Calvin Klein boxer shorts he bought set him back $26 apiece, he said. And, as he found to his distress once he reached Europe, he’d accidentally purchased workout underwear instead of the more comfortable regular kind.
“I thought there had to be a more convenient way of shopping for your apparel,” Shokrian said. “I wanted to create a product that was higher end and could be neatly purchased through a website, with better pricing.”
Today, that desire to improve the lot of underwear shoppers everywhere has turned into a $10 million business, and it’s growing fast. MeUndies, an online basic apparel retailer launched by Shokrian and his childhood friend Barak Diskin in late 2011, sells boxer briefs, women’s briefs, socks, simple T-shirts and lounge pants to 100,000 repeat customers a month in the United States and abroad, company executives said. The 25-member firm operates from a warehouse in Culver City.
“I’ve been very surprised at the growth, but very excited,” said Shokrian, who described MeUndies’ fast trajectory from selling a few thousand dollars’ worth of apparel at the start to hitting the multimillions.
The secret to the fledgling company’s success is both the quality of the products and creative, social-media driven marketing campaigns, explained marketing director Greg Fass. The garments are made from Lenzing Modal, a soft fabric extracted from beech trees in Europe, and are assembled mostly in Turkey.
Fass said the quality is comparable to big designer brands but because purchasing is done online, MeUndies (MeUndies.com) has lower overhead than a retail store and can offer competitive prices: $14 to $24, depending on the item. Customers may purchase items individually or subscribe to receive regular monthly deliveries at a discount.
Styles of underwear come in a few, simple categories — briefs, boxers and trunks for men, and briefs and thongs for women — but shoppers can personalize them by choosing from a wide range of colors and designs. Each month, the company also launches a limited-edition “design of the month” based on a special theme and accompanied by a social media campaign of sexy photo shoots and video stories.
Themes so far have included “The ’90s,” a bold dot-and-zigzag pattern for which the company created a music video filled with ’90s characters and set in New York City. There was also “The ’Stache”: mustache-printed underwear, accompanied by a love-story skit set in a barbershop.
A model wearing MeUndies boxers
All the photo shoots and videos are built around couples, usually wearing underwear with matching prints, which MeUndies CEO Bryan Lalezarian said is because the company wants to appeal to both sexes and make underwear buying something couples can share and have fun with.
“We’ve always been catering to both audiences — I actually think that’s something that sets us apart from other brands,” he said. “We really care a lot about building fun and lifestyle into what we do, and for most people that usually means a man and a woman. So it allows us to really create unique experiences and paint really cool stories that you can’t otherwise do with just men.”
Lalezarian knows Shokrian from childhood, as their families attended Sinai Temple together. He replaced Shokrian as CEO about five months before the co-founder was hit with a prison sentence in February following a botched asbestos cleanup he oversaw for his family’s real estate and property management business years earlier. (Shokrian spent six months in prison and returned to the company last month.)
Social media has been a key part of helping get the word out about MeUndies. Unlike businesses of old, the Internet has allowed the company to promote its products without large advertising expense, Lalezarian said. The company has thousands of followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, a testament to the brand’s young, tech-savvy appeal.
Quirky, controversy-sparking marketing is another strategy. The company has generated publicity by advertising its products on an adult website, enlisting the endorsement of underwear-shoplifting Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle, selling underwear from strategically placed vending machines in Los Angeles, and partnering with alcohol-delivery app Saucy to offer delivery of a “sleepover” underwear and T-shirt pack.
“Things like that really spread the word and create the whole following,” Fass said.
The brand appeals mostly to young professionals in their 20s and 30s, Lalezarian said, and 70 percent of sales are from repeat customers. The majority of sales are within the United States, but the company also ships internationally.
The CEO said he’s optimistic the company still has plenty of room for growth, from expanding the product line to selling in brick-and-mortar stores. He said MeUndies would eventually like to open its own store.
“We really want to grow our presence and grow our brand — we want to reach more and more people,” he said. “We want to own underwear.”