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Brand and shopping advice

Olivia Francis: “It’s the closest thing to going commando, basically.”

Olivia Francis: “It’s the closest thing to going commando, basically.”

How old is your oldest set of underwear? Six months? A year? A decade? “Men in general have quite a weird attitude to underwear, which is that they only replace it when it’s dying,” says Olivia Francis, founder of Hamilton and Hare, a British brand that makes arguably the world’s best boxer shorts. “Often you’ll get people who are like, ‘I’ve had this pair of pants in my drawer for 10 years’.” Francis wants to fix that.

Before Hamilton and Hare, boxer shorts had barely changed in more than a century. Since everything else we wear had, their popularity was collapsing. “People weren’t wearing it, it didn’t work with slim trousers,” says Francis. She found a Savile Row tailor and began re-engineering boxers for the modern wardrobe.

“He thought I was insane,” she says. But he helped her craft something that was more comfortable, more fitted and was a pleasure to wear. “There’s loads of technical tailoring details – a flat-fronted waistband, elastication is on the sides so it grips your hips rather than wants to ride up, which is the biggest fault of boxer shorts. So we went nuts for a product and we just launched one, pureplay product. And then the brand quite quickly developed out of that, which was taking slightly unloved items in people’s wardrobes that are actually really important, and delivering amazing comfort.”

Seven years on, that stable of products includes more underwear – boxer briefs in softer-than-silk lyocell, slimline Y-fronts made from bamboo fibre and trunks knitted without seams – as well as loungewear and even a travel suit that you could sleep in on the plane, then wear straight to a meeting. “They’re the kind of items where for me success is when someone buys something and it’s in their wardrobe, and it’s all they want to wear and they end up repurposing it for every occasion.”

How did you approach boxer shorts, as someone who doesn’t wear them?

Well, I nearly didn’t start the brand. But there are tonnes of men designing for women in fashion, and it’s like anything – you just have to understand your customer and understand the problem. So it was a lot of research. Most guys have a favourite pair for whatever reason, whether it’s emotional or comfort-led. So I realised that it was something people did feel quite strongly about.

 

What did you learn?

Comfort is obviously primary – you cannot have something that irritates – but it also needs to be really durable. It gets the most wash and wear of anything in your wardrobe so I tried to deliver a product that’s durable but feels luxurious. We did iteration after iteration and we tested and we learnt. Things like the riding up was a key thing. And similarly, our seam-free range, that was about trying to create something that feels like the closest thing to going commando, basically. So it’s about applying the same attention to detail that you would outerwear to those underwear garments.

When you think of luxury underwear, it’s either silk or it’s designer brands selling the same fabrics for inflated prices.

We experimented with silk and we realised that it doesn’t work durability-wise. So we got to our lyocell fabric, which is softer than silk but more breathable and durable. Otherwise, it’s luxury for the sake of luxury. Gold trim, all that. For me, it’s all about functionality. True luxury is when you deliver a product that delights someone because they just love wearing it.

 

You don’t want to have to dry clean all your underwear.

No, totally impractical. So exactly like our travel range, I wanted to do a suit that doesn’t have to be dry cleaned, because who’s got time for that? A lot of our guys are off one plane then back on another one, so washing is a big thing for us. Everything’s washable. Because that’s what the new luxury is. It’s garments that make your life better, rather than make it more hassle. More and more, people have got less time, they just need versatility. They want clothes that you feel good in, that are versatile and work well.

Do you find the fabrics first then come up with pieces, or are you looking for fabrics that solve a problem that you have?

A bit of A and B. The lyocell that we came across for our underwear was about how do we get that luxurious feel with a durable fabric. And also, looking at the future, trying to source sustainably. Most of our clothes are worn on the skin, so that’s really important to us, that it feels good. So we do a lot of the ‘cheek test’. Really feeling stuff.

Our loungewear, we do think about it being worn outside as well. For example holidays are a big thing for us, those downtime moments when you’re just relaxed. Poolside stuff. And the rise of working from home, a lot of our customers are very flexible. If you’re working from home, you don’t want to feel like a slob. When I started this business I worked from home and I had this thing where I had to put shoes on – right, I’m working. You want to feel tidy and smart but also comfortable.

 

You want to be able to have a Skype meeting, or a teleconference, you don’t want to have to go and change everything. You’re presentable.

I’ve thought about what I’m wearing, stylish, but I’m relaxed. It doesn’t have to be formal. We had a guy in the store a few weeks ago, on the Spotify board, and he was going to the board meeting and he said they have to wear tracksuits, so he wanted a smart tracksuit. But a tracksuit now is a whole different ball game. It’s that kind of mentality. If you’re going to wear a t-shirt, wear a good one. Wear a really great white t-shirt. There’s no reason why it can’t be both comfortable and stylish.

 

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Words: Tom Banham