From the February 2000 issue of Startups

When we were little, we wore our Underoos with unparalleled pride...and for obvious reasons. Those Superfriends undergarments are what empowered us to sweep through the monkey bars in seconds flat and perform stellar cherry drops with nary a scratch. Let's face it, there's simply a lot to be said about the power of decorated undergear--a power that has shifted this once-unmentionable garment into a full-throttle accessory.

In today's market, anything goes, be it sexy, ugly, comfy or cheeky. The evolution of underwear owes a lot to the following five young entrepreneurs, each of whom successfully tapped into the youth-oriented garment industry from the bottom up.

Intent upon making his mark on the semi-saturated streetwear scene, New Yorker David Cohen, 29, created a line of humorous (bordering on raunchy) women's panties and camisoles in 1997. This business and fashion school dropout derived inspiration from just about everything. "Comic books, public access television, action figures and the fellow freaks and rejects on the subway," he explains, all contributed in their own special way to designs like the provocative raised-letter panties that state "Read My Lips" and his "Tattush" line, which feigns a henna-stenciled bum. The bottom line? Sales exceeding $3 million.

Los Angeles partners Kevin Monaghan, 34, and Craig Quinn, 35, dance to the beat of a different rump. Their girls' underwear business, Skimpies, wins over plenty of rising starlets with its gender-bending, sexy innovations. Coupling the need for a low-riding panty that wouldn't peek above hip-huggers with the fascination girls have with donning men's boxers, in 1995 Quinn designed a sexier rayon/Lycra men's brief, cut two inches lower in the waist. Landing his underwear line in upscale retailer Fred Segal despite a start-up budget of only $2,000, Quinn, who studied marketing, grew Skimpies to $1.5 million after partner Monaghan joined in 1996.

Darin Hayes, 29, and Michael Porter, 30, discovered ugly underwear sells just as well as sexy underwear when they launched their e-commerce business, Uglies (http://www.uglies.com)--"Boxers so ugly, she'll beg you to take 'em off." The Salt Lake City partners sell comfy, five-panel boxers made from eclectic mismatched fabrics--think tie-dye, Hawaiian print and polka dots. Started in 1998, the business has grown 345 percent over last quarter.

Besides cool underwear, what do these boys have in common? Despite virtually no formal fashion design training, they've busted out of the seams, expanded their lines and successfully left an impression--or, as Cohen prefers to put it, an atomic wedgie--on the lingerie industry.

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