©Allison Specketer, Posture Mag
Fashion brands that get their start in the gay community often face a familiar challenge: how to broaden their appeal in the mainstream marketplace without alienating, or even antagonizing, their loyal LGBT fanbase.
When it involves a gay-friendly underwear brand, the stakes are higher. Sexuality and gender identification are important marketing considerations for a queer undies label, and any attempt to water down the message to reach a broader market can be met with hostility.
That’s the scenario facing the emerging New York label Play Out Apparel, which is aiming to grow its customer base while, in its own words, “staying true to our roots.”
You’ll see what that means in a couple of weeks when Play Out shakes up Lingerie Fashion Week in Manhattan with a closing runway show that’s bound to be memorable. More on that shortly.
©Lisa Iancin, aLIas Photography
Play Out was founded in 2011 when partners Abby Sugar and Sylvie Lardeux began developing designs for wide-band men’s-style boxer briefs, in geeky techno-inspired prints, for the lesbian community. The pair were motivated by the dearth of non-girly underwear options for lesbians — an extremely common complaint — and a heightened awareness of the boom in fashion-centric new brands targeting gay men.
Women of all descriptions in the LGBT community have been wearing men’s briefs and boxers for a long time, which typically meant shopping in department stores and patronizing mass-market brands like Hanes, Jockey and even American Apparel. The appeal? Comfort, ample cuts, breathability, non-binding hems and the lack of bows, ruffles and other ultra-feminine decorations that are contrary to their personal style and self-identification.
“The guys have all these cool smaller brands and larger, big-name brands that make cool underwear for them,” Sylvie wrote in her blog. “Us women? Well, we have pink and lacy, uncomfortable and bad quality thongs and bikinis. And the graphics? Horrendous girly flowers at best.
“[We] also wanted comfortable underwear, made in natural fabric and not synthetic fibers that make you sweat. And is it too much to ask that your underwear doesn’t go in your ass crack? Is it?”
After an unsuccessful crowdfunding effort in 2013, Play Out‘s self-financed first collection became available in early 2014. But the long-anticipated launch came with a few surprises for Abby and Sylvie.
First, other “tomboy” brands like New York’s Girls Will Be Boys and Seattle’s Tomboy Exchange had recognized the same market opportunity and were building a fan base. And second, Play Out‘s cool cuts were a hit with the guys, too. Yes, men were getting turned on by faux men’s boxer styles originally meant for lesbians.
And with good reason. Play Out calls its androgynous aesthetic “gender-neutral” — an interesting phrase that strips away the limiting restrictions of LGBT labels and bypasses the traditional male-female binary paradigm that dominates fashion (and so much else).
“Play Out is neither femme nor butch,” Abby told Lingerie Talk. “We’re somewhere in the middle.
“Even though all of our underwear is listed as men’s or women’s, we have had people of all different gender identifications buy all of our cuts.”
Play Out‘s appearance at Lingerie Fashion Week will be a kind of mainstream coming-out party (pardon the pun!) for the label, and they’ll be introducing an expanded collection that includes three new prints, additional colorways for their existing styles and their first men’s line featuring longer inseams and a bit more fabric in front.
The Play Out runway show is being financed with another Kickstarter campaign which (as of this writing) is about 95% of the way toward its goal, with 11 days left in the campaign.
The couple’s earlier, unsuccessful attempt to raise capital through Kickstarter might have delayed their product launch but it was a blessing in disguise, Abby said.
“We’re glad it didn’t work out. It allowed us to rethink all of our processes, from fabric sourcing to manufacturing, and do it better. We had gotten caught up in trying to do things too quickly. But our goal never changed.”
What has changed (and what you’ll see at their Lingerie Fashion Week show) is the emergence of another market demographic that has been surprisingly appreciative of Play Out‘s genderless blend of fashion and function — the sporty, thrill-seeking X Games crowd.
“Part of our aesthetic has always been very urban, very skater oriented,” Abby said. “We identify with brands like Roxy, Billabong, Volcom and PacSun” — lifestyle fashion brands favored by the boarder and skater communities.
“We want to be true to our roots in our LGBT bubble,” she added, “but we’re also looking beyond that.
“We think there’s room for a crossover. We can have ambassadors who are LGBT ambassadors but also rock stars in the skateboarders’ community.”
Play Out will literally make tracks on the Lingerie Fashion Week runway with an amped-up skateboard show from two members of All Girl Skate Jam, which promotes women in the male-dominating skateboard community. The boarders will be in Skate Jam outfits and Play Out underwear, backed up by a DJ and, with luck, a full quarter-pipe to show off their skills.
Until now, Play Out has sold most of its $24 undies at PRIDE events, but their LFW debut should open up a world of new marketing and distribution channels.
Whichever direction it takes, Abby insisted, one thing about Play Out‘s orientation will always stay the same.
“We’re just really trying to stay true to who we are and what our brand is trying to do,” she said, “which is be different.”