It was part gravity, part vanity that inspired Sydney-based fashion photographer Marc Debnam to design his dream pair of underwear six years ago.
“I was sitting down at Bondi Beach and an old guy was doing exercises in front of me, but I couldn’t help noticing that his testicles were hanging lower than his shorts.”
“I was struck by the impact of gravity,” says Marc. “[I] went to buy a pair of underwear for myself, but as I stood in the department store I thought, ‘I don’t want any of these’, so I had an idea – and that’s where it started.”
He parked himself in front of the computer, uploaded a moody image of trees he’d taken himself and created the prototype for a pair of duds that looked more like a work of art than a pair of smalls. Dubbed “Boris the Forest”, it was the first piece in the stonemen range – which is, according to Marc, the only underwear in the world with a 360 degree photographic image digitally printed onto the cotton fabric.
He spent the next couple of years refining the technical design, investing in research and development, attracting investment and seeking out mentors in the industry for advice.
“There’s a reason why we are the only people in the world doing it,” he says.
“It’s complicated and expensive. I have to place the image in, repeat it and then twist it on the front and rear panel so when it is stitched together it will match as a perfect image. We print on cotton and you have different rates of shrinkage through the roll, so if you have four per cent shrinkage one way and six per cent shrinkage the other way, you need to anticipate that so when it’s washed and steamed it comes back to exactly 100 per cent.”
When his mate Johnnie Cass, who appeared on the first season of Big Brother in 2000, returned to Australia after a stint overseas on the motivational speaker circuit, he jumped at the opportunity to invest in the brand.
“Immediately I was captured by it, but what sealed the deal was when I put them on and they were really comfortable,” says Johnnie.
“I knew we had a great brand that looked great then it became a process of getting the undies into consumers hands.”
Stonemen has struck a chord with design-conscious consumers. At a recent design market in Melbourne, hipsters were clambering over each other to get their hands on a pair.
“We killed it at the Melbourne Design Show,” says Marc. “Our brand is remarkable. People get it. They love it and they talk about it and tell people.”
There are 13 original pieces in the current range. Ocean and Hibiscus was designed by Shane Martin, an artist who travelled the world in the 1970s airbrushing sandman vans. Horses, a number one seller in the women’s range, was shot by Wyoming cowboy, Tony Flash.
“We collaborate with artists,” says Marc.
“We want to be a creative movement and work with artists to come up with beautiful designs that reflect the brand.”
Originally a menswear brand, Marc and Johnnie realised the product had broader appeal.
“Analysing our website data, we realised [that] 80 per cent of our consumers were women, so we decided to put out a women’s range with the feel of your boyfriend’s underwear,” says Marc.
Their business is growing at about 200 per cent annually, with the underwear retailing for $40 a pair.
There company’s three investors – Marc, Johnnie and silent partner Robert Malan – have recently hired a commercial manager with export expertise and have also opened a distribution hub in the U.S.
“Up until now, if someone orders from the US it takes two-to-three weeks to get a product. With our hub, they will get it in one or two days and we will look at creating one within the EU early next year,” says Johnnie.
The brand is primarily sold online, but it is stocked in select boutiques and at design events and shows.
Johnnie’s big vision: “I would love for Stonemen to be a male version of Victoria’s Secret, with beautiful men and women walking down the cat walk.”
The range is also diversifying into lounge/weekend wear – sweat pants, t-shirts, vests, long-johns, short-johns – and the use of repeated patterns (rather than a 360 degree image) will see an underwear range with cheaper price points launched later in 2014 as well. The fashion festivals are next.
Angela Martinkus is a Melbourne-based communications consultant and journalist.