SINGAPORE — It started with a wedgie, but that was not the only problem Danny Charbonnet faced with existing underwear brands in the market.
Even when affordable, the boxer briefs were uncomfortable, wore out too fast, or rode up his thighs. Or they were simply not breathable. On the other end of the spectrum were comfortable brands at exorbitant price tags.
After sitting on the problem for close to a decade with no resolution in sight, Charbonnet, a 32-year-old American, felt compelled to solve the problem himself. He founded his own direct-to-consumer menswear line, called "All Citizens" in 2017, with prototype underwear that he designed from scratch with just US$3,000 in savings.
“There's a huge void in the market where I felt we needed a product that invest more into developing the most comfortable and high performance underwear, but offered at a much more accessible price point.
"And that's kind of the genesis of the idea for All Citizens. The key question I asked myself is why are comfort and affordability mutually exclusive?” said Charbonnet.
His underwear aims to solve all the niggling problems that men have with undergarments at an affordable price point.
Over the past half year, Charbonnet has increased the price by only US$1. His underwear now costs between US$16 and US$18, or S$20 to S$24, which is still on a competitive level with other budget brands.
For example, a pair of Renoma microfibre or spandex trunks at Tangs department store goes for S$18.90, two pieces of Byford bamboo trunks retails for S$18.90 at Metro. Uniqlo’s AIRism boxer briefs go for S$14.90, while two pieces of bamboo spandex boxer briefs from Hush Puppies cost S$18.90.
Now All Citizens is a fast growing brand that also carries dress shirts and training shorts. Charbonnet said the company grew 300 per cent in revenue last year, and got US$1.2 million in pre-seed funding in January this year from investors such as co-founder and chief technology officer of StashAway, Nino Ulsamer.
While it has a presence in the US and Canada, the Singapore-based company plans to expand into the United Kingdom and Australia next year.
From corporate high flyer to startup founder
Around the same time that Charbonnet ventured into underwear, he was offered a position with Amazon Web Services to expand the team in Singapore. He earned a more than comfortable annual salary of US$300,0000 to US$400,000 with the e-commerce giant’s cloud computing department, but the problem of uncomfortable underwear kept gnawing at him.
“One question I asked is, 'why can't I just get like a one week's worth of great underwear for under US$100?'" he said.
But why did he do it?
“It’s hard to explain, but you kind of get obsessed with solving this problem… And I just got so hyper obsessed with this one problem that I was like, Look if anyone needs to do it, it's got to be me,” said Charbonnet.
Buoyed by friends who commented that the underwear was “much better” than what was available in the market, Charbonnet begin to work on All Citizens on the side. Even though he was strapped for time, Charbonnet refused to quit Amazon as he was “risk averse”.
“I was deathly afraid of being that founder story where they've cashed in their retirement they’ve cashed in their savings, and spent all their money building this brand, and then it fails, right?
"And I didn't want to be living on the street. I just got married, I wanted to make sure that I can support my wife and me. And so, you know, you hear these stories where these founders are two months away from being completely bankrupt and not being able to pay rent. I can't handle that pressure.”
Charbonnet knew it was time when, after three years at Amazon, revenue at All Citizens had far surpassed his pay at Amazon. “So I thought it was time to really accelerate this and then to potentially bring on investors you know, a year or two later,” he said.
In September 2020, Charbonnet left his cushy corporate role for the startup life. While he is now drawing less than a third his previous salary, he is busy scaling up his business and eyeing a Series A funding round in 2024.
Started from ground zero
Lack of design experience wasn’t Charbonnet’s only obstacle. Fresh to the undergarment scene, the founder did not have any connections or network. But with his background in consulting, Charbonnet had a good handle on finances and a mind for problem solving. He worked his way backwards from a planned price point of US$15 per underwear.
He also improved on his underwear design based on customer feedback. The first version of the boxer briefs that he sold online between end 2016 to early 2017 saw 30 per cent of his sales returned. Dismayed, Charbonnet emailed his customers who replied that the briefs were too tight around the thighs. So he asked his customers to measure their thighs.
“And actually a lot of them were surprisingly open to that and and so they sent me their measurements and what I realised was there's a whole subset of guys in the US, I guess about around 30 per cent, that used to play (sports), that used to wrestle… they had big legs because they're very athletic.”
With the feedback, Charbonnet launched the athletic fit of his underwear line, which accommodated larger thighs.
Apart from its signature grip thighs, which prevent the boxer briefs from riding up, All Citizens underwear also features horizontal flies for ease of access, reinforced stitching at heavy duty areas and a paradise pocket - which prevents the men parts from chafing against the thighs.
Currently at version 10 of the boxer brief, Charbonnet thinks he has addressed a bulk of the main issues with men’s underwear and gives his product a rating of 9.5 out of 10 in terms of its performance.
“We still haven't created the perfect piece. And the reason why I said that is because I think our North Star is this continuous evolution and we are continually pushing the boundaries of what performance and comfort can be,” he said.