But explaining what makes Newnam’s underwear unique? That requires a certain — how shall we put it? — delicacy.
“It has a patented liner that makes moisture and odor disappear,” Newnam says, reciting a line carefully scripted to sound technical but not TMI. “It’s a very high-end panty with a technology.”
Think of it as Febreze in your underpants.
The line is called Knock Out, a coy reference to the caliber of women she hopes to reach and the underwear’s odor-fighting properties. In marketing materials, Newnam refers to the technology as “that little something extra.” Sassy cartoon women in yoga poses discuss life’s “oops moments.”
Although the subject can be uncomfortable, other intimate apparel companies have managed to turn previously taboo topics into big business. The founder of Spanx famously provided personal demonstrations of the power of her panties to smooth out cellulite, turning the stodgy market for shapewear into a nearly $1 billion industry, according to data from market research firm NPD Group. Hanky Panky helped introduce a generation of women to barely-there thongs, reportedly racking up as much as $50 million in annual sales. Under Armour went the opposite direction, using women’s lingerie as inspiration for its athletic compression shirts.
In recent years, however, NPD found that the market for women’s underwear has stagnated at about $11 billion. But Newnam is betting that she can create an entirely new category and has set ambitious goals for her young company. When she learned that Hanky Panky sold 5,000 pairs of its trademark thongs during its first year of business, Newnam vowed to sell twice as many.
Ten months after Knock Out arrived in stores, Newnam has already surpassed her goal.
A textile family
Newnam had been brainstorming business ideas when she moved to Washington in 2008 with her husband, Todd, who was a managing director at Carlyle, and their three children. Childbirth had given her a new appreciation for lingerie that was functional as well as fashionable, but the perfect pair seemed elusive. So Newnam, a former McKinsey consultant who grew up in the heart of the textile industry in North Carolina, decided to make some herself.
In her research, Newnam came across a forgotten patent developed by former textile giant Dan River Co. A decade ago, the company created a technology that permanently binds the odor-trapping chemicals in air fresheners such as Febreze to fabric. It called the material No Trace and marketed it to outdoorsmen hoping to obscure their scent while tracking game. The hunting hoodies, jackets and pants became some of the company’s most popular products.
But in 2008, Dan River filed for bankruptcy protection and the patent went up for sale along with all of its other assets. Newnam had to find out whether the technology actually worked.
She scoured the Internet for any remaining No Trace hunting gear and found several camouflage hoods on eBay. She cut them into swatches, sewed them into traditional underwearand set off for her annual vacation along the Carolina coast with her friends.
“ ‘Okay, girls, put on these handmade panty prototypes. See what you think,’ ” Newnam’s longtime friend Elizabeth Fernandez recalled her saying when she arrived. “We were like, ‘What is this?’ ”
A few glasses of wine later, the secrets started spilling out: How pregnancy had changed their bodies. How sweaty they got working out. How dangerous laughing too hard could be. They tested the fabric all week, even in the hot sun while lying on the beach.
“We realized the concept really was huge,” Fernandez said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
When Newnam returned home, she asked her father, a retired chemical engineer at another textile titan, Milliken, to broker a meeting with the patent’s inventor, Dave Brown.
Brown left Dan River a few years before the company collapsed to work at another textile manufacturer. He laughed when he heard Newnam’s idea, but he knew the technology would work. He uses the No Trace do-rag when he goes deer hunting.
“If it’s good enough for a hunter, it’s pretty stout stuff,” Brown said. “I threw my head back and said, ‘Hmm, this thing might go.’ ”
Power of persuasion
With Brown as her guide, Newnam dived into family savings to buy the patent and begin research and development. The couple had pulled money out of the stock market during the financial crisis and decided to use $100,000 to launch the business.
Brown helped Newnam figure out how to combine his odor innovation with more common moisture-wicking technology, all in the delicate cotton in underwear — a process they are seeking to patent as well. He also helped her find factories in South Carolina willing to take a chance on her unorthodox idea.
But Brown would be no help in the next challenge: How do you sell a solution to a problem most women won’t admit exists?
Newnam started by hosting “panty parties” designed to foster the open talk that she shared with her friends at the beach. She pitched the line to high-end and specialty lingerie stores willing to devote space to signs and time for marketing events to explain what the panties could do for potential customers. She sent samples of the finished prototype to about 150 people across the country for feedback and to fuel word of mouth.
The panties sell for about $30 — significantly more expensive than the average price of $2.49 for a normal pair of underwear, according to NPD. But Newnam said the cost reflects the unique technology and the fact that the products are manufactured in America. It is comparable to prices at her competitors: Hanky Panky’s run from $18 to $36, while Spanx cost from $23 to $56.
Karen Peters, a stay-at-home mom in Chicago, met Newnam when both women lived in Charlotte. When she heard about Knock Out through mutual friends, she bought six pairs. Peters said that she wears them during intense workouts such as spinning or boot camp. After seeing her comment about them on Facebook, her 68-year-old mother bought them, too.
“I feel as cute wearing that as anything I would buy special,” Peters said.
Even in buttoned-up Washington, the most polite circles have embraced the panties. Glover, who lives a few blocks from Newnam in Kalorama, owns about half a dozen pairs and calls them “durable and comfortable.” The noted hostess and Republican lobbyist has introduced Newnam to contacts in distribution and trade. She said Newnam has set her sights on mass markets such as major department stores, or even Costco.
“I don’t think she’s thinking small here,” Glover said. “This is not a hobby for her.”
To that end, Newnam hired longtime industry executive Lorraine Chambers in May to head up business development for Knock Out. Chambers has worked at major brands such as Wolford, Sears and J.C. Penney as well as startups Spanx and Sassybax. Her first moves were to hire a team of national sales representatives and shepherd Newnam through a gantlet of trade shows, where they met prospective buyers from major retailers.
“I like to be at the beginning of something,” Chambers said. “I was sure this was going to be earth-shattering to the lingerie world.”
They are already beginning to brainstorm other ways to expand the technology: Knock Out panties with control tops, Knock Out yoga pants, Knock Out for men. Brown said he is testing an undershirt he could wear when he plays baseball. Newnam recently shipped some sample Knock Out shirts to a contact in the military.
Still, Chambers said part of her job is to help Newnam stay focused. Some entrepreneurs try to grow too fast; others stray too far from their core product before it has a chance to become a household name.
“That’s really hard for a young company to do — become a brand,” she said.
Perfecting the line
Newnam is taking it one step at a time. Her big innovation for 2012 will be a full-coverage boy short. And once again she turned to her girlfriends for inspiration.
Newnam returned to their annual beach week this month with her new prototypes in hand. (The camouflage, mercifully, is long gone.) Each woman got a pair, and she peppered them with questions: Does the lace scratch? Does it give you enough coverage? How does the fabric feel? At one point, her friends became human mannequins as Newnam whipped out a needle and thread to alter the undies before they could take them off.
By the time she left, Newnam had perfected the fit. The prototype was at the manufacturer the next week. And Newnam has another year to come up with the next crazy idea to bring to the beach.