Four Montrealers follow quest to create “ultimate boxer brief”


New Manmade underwear company promises “to support a man’s wellness by strengthening his foundation.”

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When lifelong friends Anthony, Berto, Philip and Robert hunkered down in a cabin for three days to brainstorm entrepreneurship ideas, they invariably circled back to the same lament: their underwear was making them miserable.

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“We kept having the same conversation about men’s underwear and socks and how my T-shirt was too snug — I hated how it made me feel,” said Anthony Ciavirella.

Cotton briefs feel good out of the dryer but sag as the day wears on, they agreed, causing chafing and socially awkward readjustments. Polyester creates a “swampy” sensation. High-end brands are overly fashion conscious, constrictive and expensive.

“We thought: ‘There must be a way to get the comfort men need and want for cheaper,’ ” Ciavirella said.

From these seeds, Manmade was born. Montreal’s newest underwear startup was conceived in June of 2020 by Ciavirella, Philip Santagata, Robert Marzin and Roberto (Berto) Rebelo, natives of Montreal North and St-Léonard in their early 30s who quit their banking and accounting jobs to create something they could call their own. Marketed through Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, sales launched in late August, with more than 2,000 pairs sold in three months.

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It’s a ballsy quest in a market dominated by brands like Gildan, Hanes and Ralph Lauren. The quartet thinks they can compete by providing a simple design made of high-quality natural fabric that fits well. Plus a “Mansack” pouch they promise “separates your family jewels from your thighs for extraordinary comfort.”

They also offer unprecedented customer service. Ciavirella called 500 of their 800 customers personally to say thanks and get feedback. Clients can re-order by sending a text message. And all briefs are shipped with a handwritten note of thanks, all part of their mission statement: “To support a man’s wellness by strengthening his foundation.”

With their tech backgrounds, digital marketing and sales were the easy part, but  “we weren’t so comfortable when it came to schmatte — the garment business.”

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The four partners of the Montreal-based Manmade underwear exchange product ideas. Left to right are: Philip Santagata, Anthony Ciavirella, Robert Marzin and Roberto Rebelo.
The four partners of the Montreal-based Manmade underwear exchange product ideas. Left to right are: Philip Santagata, Anthony Ciavirella, Robert Marzin and Roberto Rebelo. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

They pooled their savings and spent a year on research and development. They discovered that high-end brands used modal, a yarn derived from beech tree pulp and treated with chemicals to create a silky-smooth fabric more absorbent and durable than cotton. A global products expert from Toronto put them in touch with a supplier in Sri Lanka covered by WRAP certification that guarantees ethical labour practices. (Producing in Canada would have boosted costs to $80 a pair, Ciavirella said). The Sri Lankan company checked out the foursome’s backgrounds, and agreed to do a relatively small first order of 10,000 boxer briefs, in basic black, which their market surveys showed most men preferred. They went through 34 iterations to hone their final product.

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Then COVID-fuelled labour shortages in Sri Lanka pushed production back six weeks. And the pre-samples arrived — in grey.

“We freaked out,” Ciavirella said. “We were like ‘What the hell?’ All our marketing showed our product in black, and this is grey. It wasn’t fun. It was a scary time.”

Fortunately, the factory hadn’t dyed the whole lot. The final product features few seams to minimize chafing and a waistband so smooth “it feels like a koala hugging your body,” Ciavirella said. At $24 plus tax they’re pricier than Fruit of the Looms, but the founders say their design is more durable and comfortable, while remaining significantly cheaper than comparable models made by companies like Saxx.

A personal test confirmed they are comfortable — so much so one forgets one’s wearing underwear.

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Strong sales and positive feedback are making up for a year of no salaries and eating ramen and frozen pizzas after putting more than $80,000 of their own funds into production and marketing. Most sales have been online, but they’ve also experimented with selling in a friend’s store and at a café and hair salon, where women bought them for their partners. They sent samples to local social influencers, including popular sportscaster Tony Marinaro of TSN 690, who’s been raving about them daily for more than month.

The results have allowed them secure financing to place an order for another 35,000 pairs in February, with plans to expand beyond the Montreal and Canadian market and into the United States, and possibly a stint on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. They started selling sports socks this month, and plan to bring out a line of T-shirts next year.

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Just in time for Christmas, they’re offering a “double-double bundle” that comes with two boxer briefs and two pairs of crew socks for $68, plus taxes, with free shipping. Now the foursome is busy sending hand-written holiday cards to every customer to say thanks, and hopefully spur future sales.

The labour has been hard, but also of love, so fun. And in a way essential for four friends who shared a vision.

“We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s do this, let’s become entrepreneurs. It’s what we always dreamed we would do,’ ” Ciavirella said. “This is our baby, and we’ve sworn never to sway from the goal of this child.”

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