When April Spring spied a woman whose thong was peeking out above her jeans, she didn’t intend to make the woman the butt of an ongoing joke.
Nor, at the time, did she envision that the awkward moment would spawn an innovative apparel company based on a hybrid between men’s and women’s underwear.
But fast forward a decade, and Atlanta-based FOXERS offers now lines of women’s lingerie and loungewear that blends fashion and comfort. It also has men’s underwear and sleepwear. Since starting in 2007, the company (despite a few bumps along the way) has achieved a rapid growth trajectory, with year-over-year increases annually since 2010.
The story of Ms. Spring and her husband and partner, Alex Emmerman, is a traditional American success story made possible by creativity, an entrepreneurial bent, a simple idea and exporting assistance from state and local agencies.
It started when the couple lived in Boca Raton, Fla., where Mr. Emmerman worked for Motorola and Ms. Spring owned a vintage clothing store, Vintage ‘n Vogue.
When her husband was offered a two-year-assignment in Malaysia, they packed their bags. Ms. Spring took classes in clothing design and illustration, became familiar with the apparel industry and began to design and show her clothes.
It was in 2006 when Ms. Spring noticed the woman’s “whale tail” at the next table. She offhandedly commented that when men’s underwear shows, it’s only the waistband. The light bulb went off. By the next day she had sketched an idea, bought men’s boxer shorts and sewn the waistband onto women’s panties.
“I didn’t know how the world would receive the product but I wanted to try it for myself,” she recalled. “I loved the idea and went with it. What I think is appealing is that people see the waistband but not where it’s going. They see the boxer band but not the lacy briefs.”
Soon, friends and family started to affirm her idea, making a dent in the few hundred pairs she had stitched together at home. At that point, she and Mr. Emmerman had some savings and knew some manufacturers. They opted to try three basic styles: a thong, boyshort and lace boxer short. Eventually they returned to the U.S., settled in Virginia and opened a small office. They found representatives to carry the line, and the website was up and running. By the end of 2007 FOXERS was in about 50 boutiques, and the website brought in sales as well as marketing buzz.
“When we were able to trademark the name, that’s when I really felt we were on to something so we put together a plan to have representatives in five areas of the U.S. and two in Canada,” Ms. Spring said.
While the couple was working their plan in Richmond, Va., the recession hit. Stores closed and Dillards dropped the brand. Fulfillment centers became harder to work with.
But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. They used the time to build a new website that handled wholesale orders and found a new fulfillment company, shipvine. By 2012 orders were flocking in and retailers were coming back.
“During the recession we never stopped creating, and we stuck with the products that were the most popular and our price points were where we wanted. Our next challenge was manufacturing because I was always committed to having everything made in the U.S., but it was one of the worst experiences for time, money and relationships.”
She found domestic factories had uneven quality at price points that were sometime “crazy.” She quickly took manufacturing to Malaysia, though now she’s working on bringing some of it back to the U.S.
With the website sizzling and boutiques coming on board, it was time to start exporting. Friends and business partners the couple met in Malaysia opened FOXERS stores in Austria and Switzerland. Distribution deals were made for Australia and New Zealand, and Ms. Spring started working with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“The resources that we have in Georgia are amazing, and I haven’t even used them all. I had great experiences with their programs to find country representatives and working with those representatives to find distributors in the countries that we have chosen.”
In 2017 as the couple was about to visit England, they contacted Mike Harling, managing director of the state’s trade office in the U.K. and Ireland, who called retailers, distributors, agents and media to get a feel for the market. Then he helped the company narrow down a shortlist of potential distributors.
The resulting 26-page market overview helped Ms. Spring break into the market, and a mention in a trade publication resulted in calls from distributors and stores.
“Following on from our work, April signed a distribution agreement for the UK market earlier this year with one of the companies we introduced her to, and the FOXERS brand is now available in the U.K.,” Mr. Harling wrote Global Atlanta in an email.
Ms. Spring isn’t so keen on exporting to other areas, as some markets “scare me to death. I’ve talked to people doing business in China and I’m worried.”
Now FOXERS is focusing more heavily on retail, which is growing faster than e-commerce at the moment as people encounter the brand in-store and tell their friends.
FOXERS is paying back initial investors and will look for a new round of funding for increased marketing and manufacturing deals in the U.S. More lines are being introduced, especially in lounge wear and cross lounge-to-street wear as well as more fabrics and decorations.
Ms. Spring says the company navigated the tough and competitive clothing/lingerie sectors by keeping their eyes on the customer, not chasing trends.
“I follow retail but not the brands. I hate business plans. I know what I like and we are staying true and steady with my ideas. We’re only listening to our customers, who love the concepts and want more.”
Learn more about FOXERS at www.foxers.com.