The Bad Boy Behind the Funny Undies : Fashion: Nick Graham’s wacky underwear is turning up in films and on magazine covers. He expects his Joe Boxer Corp. to pull in $12 million this year.
Forget about Atlantic City, Mike Tyson, Michael Spinks, Robin Givens, Don King, Donald Trump, Leroy Nieman, $200,000 a second and the lawyers. Think about your underwear. Think about Joe Boxer. --Joe Boxer T-shirt
Joe Boxer’s Nick Graham is the undisputed bad boy of the underwear biz.
If there’s any doubt, just look at his stuff:
* Glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts that proclaim “NO NO NO NO NO” when the lights are on and “YES YES YES YES YES” when the lights are out.
* The much-knocked off glasnost classic, a T-shirt featuring a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev’s head and the words “Surf Russia.”
* 3-D pajamas, T-shirts and underwear, all of which can be seen in “Undo-vision” when viewed with a pair of those nerdy, cardboard sunglasses that accompany the merchandise. Apologizes Graham, a former performance artist: “I was actually designing four -dimensional boxers but I ran out of time.”
* Higher-priced silk loungewear, which actually is quite elegant and refined . . . until you get to the names. His “Weekend With Ivana” collection features a “Marla Aspen” pajama set, “Trump Tower” silk boxers and a “Mar-a-Lago” Jacquard silk robe. Inside, the labels say “Joe Boxer Couture?” and, in smaller type its locations: “New York, Moose Jaw (a tiny town in Saskatchewan), Tokyo.”
* T-shirts with a Father’s Day theme that announce “The Good, The Dad and His Money” and have matching boxer shorts printed with dollar signs.
* “The Almost Really Athletic Type” collection, which includes “The Roseanne Barr Tank Top,” “The Jackie Gleason Jersey,” “The Mama Cass Knickers” and “The Hoss Cartwright Pants.”
* And from deep in the archives, Graham’s personal favorite, a number he refers to as “The Imperial Hoser.” A Canadian born in Calgary, Graham explains that the term hoser is Canadian slang for a guy who drinks beer and works on his car a lot. “The Imperial Hoser” is a boxer short made of red plaid flannel with a detachable raccoon tail.
Though such items might seem merely good for a laugh, Graham, 31, expects his funny undies will pull in at least $12 million this year for his San Francisco-based Joe Boxer Corp. He has been in what he calls the “interior sportswear” business for five years now, with the designs getting a little more wacked out every year. He’s come a long way since starting with a modest line of novelty Christmas boxers (nothing silly--just small, traditional prints ).
It didn’t take him long, however, to move on to T-shirts that command “Wake Up and Smell the Underwear,” and to expand to boutiques and major department stores throughout the United States, Canada and Japan.
Earlier this year, Bloomingdale’s opened the first complete Joe Boxer shop at its Manhattan branch. “Even if I didn’t buy his product I would fall in love with Nick as a person. He’s the only designer-owner I know who will come in and be so in touch with the sales associates. He makes them feel good,” enthuses Nan Puryear, Bloomingdale’s buyer for men’s underwear, loungewear and sleepwear.
She volunteers, however, that some of Graham’s designs are too hip, even for Bloomingdale’s customers: “He does some things that fit better with (New York’s) Soho area. As sophisticated as our customers are, they’re not that sophisticated. However, I will try his 3-D underwear.”
In Japan, Joe Boxer goods are now sold by the retailing giant TAKA-Q. (The Japanese have preferred Joe Boxer’s bold graphic designs and passed on such items as shorts printed with a gas-station attendant asking “Check Your Underwear?”.) Graham is also in discussion with the Japanese on opening a store there and is already working on two stores for London.
Meanwhile, in America, Joe Boxer styles--which retail for about $14 for boxers and about $16 for T-shirts--have been turning up in all the right places. Michelle Pfeiffer wore a pair of Graham’s boxers and one of his T-shirts in the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” (Graham estimates that 50% of his sales are to women for themselves). Billy Crystal appeared on the cover of Esquire wearing Joe Boxer red polka dot pj’s. John Travolta is expected to wear Graham’s pajamas printed with golf balls in the sequel to “Look Who’s Talking.” And in the upcoming film, “Kindergarten Cop,” Arnold Schwarzenegger is to wear Graham’s silk pj’s from the “Weekend With Ivana” collection.
In San Francisco, the Joe Boxer “World Headquarters” are two stories above a muffler shop and one floor up from a San Francisco County Jail Psychiatric Center. Jokes Graham’s Vice President Denise Slattery, “You can get everything repaired on your way up to Joe Boxer.”
Inside, an inflatable moose head is enshrined on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk. Another, authentic moose head is draped with a feather boa in the spacious office-rumpus room that Graham shares with three other members of his design staff.
From the ceiling hang enormous boxing gloves about the size of a 6-year-old, an old-time bicycle and two antique mannequins--wearing underwear, of course. Graham’s desk, a piece of Formica atop canisters covered with cow-print fabric, resembles a miniature theme park. Among other novelties, there’s a Royal Canadian Mountie riding a plastic cow. A plastic replica of Trigger. And a statuette from Jockey, the underwear giant that recently entered the printed boxer shorts business.
This afternoon, Graham is going over last-minute details on a new group of colorful loungewear designs with a speedway-Moto Cross biker look. And he’s speculating on a marketing plan that may not be far from the truth: “We’re going to have members of the Hell’s Angels on the floor to assist you in your shopping.”
Graham is also showing off his new “Almost Basic Underwear” line, a collection of men’s briefs designed to compete with Calvin Klein and Jockey. (Except, as usual, there’s a twist. The waistband is printed with huge, black block letters that spell JOE BOXER.)
It’s tame stuff compared to the fare in Graham’s totally non-basic line--carried at The Broadway, May Co. and Fred Segal Melrose. Once, after Graham printed exact likenesses of $100 bills on 900 pairs of boxers, they were confiscated by the Secret Service. Graham had no idea it was unlawful to reproduce American currency and still wonders, “Did they think people were going to cut them out and spend them?”
And after a visit from Chanel representatives, Graham also had to stop making his “Joe Chanel” swimwear line, a spoof of Chanel goods using the No. 5 and interlocked Cs, allegedly created by his French-Canadian brother, Coco Boxer.
He also reveals that underwear played a supporting role in getting him kicked out of boarding school at age 18.
“I celebrated my 18th birthday to excess and ended up swimming in my underwear in Lake Ontario in the middle of February and almost died from exposure.”
After graduation from another school, he skipped college and took off with a girlfriend for Europe, where he worked an assortment of jobs ranging from model to deck hand to designer for a Greek boutique.
Now that he’s a father (his wife Margaret, a painter, gave birth to their first child on Sunday), Graham is relatively settled--and focused on expanding the Joe Boxer empire.
His latest goal is to establish a whole Joe Boxer “culture,” in much the same way that Ralph Lauren has done with high-styled preppie merchandise.
A musician who played and sang with the now-defunct, San Francisco band “Screen of Dreams,” Graham’s already taken a step in that direction. He persuaded TAKA-Q, his Japanese retailing partner, to distribute CDs of a forthcoming album composed and performed by himself and Paul Trupin, who created the music for the film “Sid and Nancy.”
“I don’t consider myself a designer. This is just fun,” says Graham. “What I really want to do is build Joe Boxer into this entertainment company--everything from music to sheets. I think the more culture you build around a company, the more intriguing it becomes to the customer and the more exciting it is to the retailer. What I’m trying to do is create a culture that’s a cross between Bon Jovi and Ralph Lauren.”