One might expect an ex-advertising guru to have a certain way with words, perhaps an instantly zingy personality. Simon Phillips of Edinburgh based men’s underwear brand Cahoonas undoubtedly lives up to such expectations, exuding charm, passion and knowledge along with an unusual type of battiness I can’t quite put my finger on. At once specific yet totally distractable, wise yet zany, he is the best juxtaposition within the fashion industry I have met in quite some time.
We meet in a beer garden, Laura and I not quite knowing what to expect. Would the infamous Phillips, the man behind boxers specifically designed to fit your package whichever way it swings, be every bit as bonkers as we imagined? Would there be reasoning behind the idea, a strong brand and valid marketing approach? Or would it all be a load of balls…? As we debated over what to expect, one thing we both agreed on was that the man must surely be ultra-modern. As the driving force behind one of the country’s most cutting edge underwear companies, combining unique technology with a USP any brand would kill for, we were all set to meet a super sleek city robot, with perhaps an aloof air of creativity. The man who walked through the patio doors was far from what either of us expected. Dapper, moustached and decked out in a tweed suit, Phillips is by far the jolliest fashion founder I have met. When I ask him for the time, I half expect him to whip out an antique pocket watch. And were I to make a stab in the dark about his favoured form of underwear, I would have to opt for silk boxers. Yet here he is, all set to explain to us how he conquered the biggest challenge in mens underwear in the modern age. So- how did the idea come about?
With a background in advertising and marketing, Phillips tells me that most of his life has been about creating advertising campaigns for other people. As such, it quickly became apparent that the “golden nugget” of any campaign is the seemingly elusive USP. As he tells me, “just about everything we ever got had no USP”. Fast forward a few years and, with the seed of originality well planted in Phillips somewhat bonkers brain, he set in motion the wheels of his first underwear company. A brief stint at Heriot Watt provided him with the technical know how to create what had previously been little more than a paper pattern, cut on a kitchen table, for a pair of scants.
As I push for more information on this first original company, Phillips is more than happy to open up- yet I can tell it’s an oft spun out version of a story obviously close to his heart. A trademark problem with a retail heavyweight forced the company to fold, and instilled in Phillips the understanding of the importance of strong IP rights, patents and trademarks. Cue a year’s worth of research into trademark law and underwear, during which he discovered that whilst “75% of blokes hang to the left and 25% of blokes hang to the right, no-one seemed to be doing anything about it”. Suddenly, the elusive golden nugget was very much apparent- and it was in the shape of two bollocks.
Why has no-one done it before? Well- because it’s bonkers
Whilst seemingly obvious, dress specific under garments for men appeared to be an area the underwear industry had utterly neglected to cash in on. Whilst women could happily enjoy all the spoils of balcony bras, air pumps and half cups, it seemed the largest choice their male counterparts had to make use of was small, medium or large. Hmm. Cahoonas patent application is currently sailing through and on completion will confirm that they are the only company in the world patented to make underwear that is dressed specifically for left or right, perfectly cut to fit a man’s body and which takes into consideration any differences which may feature throughout.
So what’s the secret? Apparently, it was all an accident. Whilst trying to make something which was dress specific, the Cahoonas team came up with a totally new way to approach the crotch/ gusset closure of boxers. Their signature style, the 75 trunk, pulls the fabric into a sphere in a similar way to how a tennis ball is created. As such, even if the fabric around the crotch is pulled, the crown jewels themselves are well protected. As Phillips put it: “it is the only compression garment in the world that won’t compress your junk if you compress your other muscles”. He explains how such a feature improves lymphatic drainage, increases the speed at which your muscles recover after sports and ensures baby daddy duties are still most definitely possible following a lifetime of sporting endeavours. Indeed, the sporting industry is where Cahoonas are currently making their biggest mark, with customers including triathletes, boxers, footballers and rugby players. Utilising fabric specialities and clever cutting techniques in an utterly unique way has allowed Cahoonas to make use of a single layer gusset- a feature seemingly elusive to their main competitors. The benefits? Lighter, faster, with less air friction. The future would seem to point to a move into the realms of swimwear and athletics, sports where mere milliseconds can mean the difference between a medal winning position and last place. As Phillips continues to wax lyrical on the benefits and mechanics of the garments, I make my first balls-up of the interview- a throwaway remark about the masses of technology being utilised in a single pair of pants. I am quickly informed that a pair of Cahoonas are NOT just a pair of pants- they are a “sports hybrid”. Oops.
How does one go about marketing a sports hybrid, then? Like many before them, Cahoonas have a lot to thank Kickstarter for. An attempt at the EDGE Award proving fruitless, the team decided to look to the start-up crowd funding platform for support. And support they received, to the tune of £5,000 of sales in 30 days. Having proved the market, features in Underwear Expert and Men’s Insight, along with a distribution deal in America, soon rolled in. With no actual product to sell, things could have quickly spiralled out of control. Luckily, Phillips and the team got their act together and looked to start-up incubator E-Spark to gain training and direction. Soon, they were in a position to again apply for the EDGE Award and, a win later, plumped up their bank account by a juicy £30,000. This has allowed the team to set up an Edinburgh based manufacturing plant and employ more team members to push the promotion of the brand. Along with four new Cahoonas tartans recently commissioned, due to be showcased for the first time ever at this year’s Nightwalk SS14 Showcase, there’s a heck of a lot to keep on top of.
And what of the brand? At once both bonkers and utterly logical, I’m unsure of which tack would be best employed to pull in the punters. Luckily, with his marketing know-how, Simon is not. As he explains the team’s latest campaign, I struggle to comprehend why I even needed to ask- the answer is blatantly obvious. Perhaps all the talk of naked men had gone to my head; but I digress. The brand’s unquestionable USP, the selling of trunks based on either a left or right swinging persuasion, could not play more perfectly into the current political mud bath the UK are set to embark upon. Indeed, the company have rolled out an entire advertising campaign based around the slogan, already featuring in Private Eye and with much bigger sights set. Banners will be taken to Parliament, models will stalk the streets of Edinburgh in their dress specific smalls and come the 18th of September the model army will be stepped up to feature across voting stations up and down the land. Nice. Stand on whichever side of the fence you like, but there’s no denying the Independence Referendum is a blessing for Cahoonas.
Marketing dream come true aside, I can’t help but think the future looks undeniably bright for Cahoonas. Be they a sports hybrid, cutting edge boxer or simply top notch pair of scants, there’s no denying the brand fill a very obvious, very neglected niche. As Phillips himself puts it: “Britain is full of eccentric, quirky people doing eccentric, quirky things. Why has no-one done it before? Well- because it’s bonkers”. Whilst I couldn’t agree more, meeting Phillips has confirmed one famed statement more than any other- with Cahoonas, far from being a load of bollocks, there’s most definitely method in the madness.