It's for the man who has a little too much of everything — the man girdle, or "mirdle."
In a land where metrosexuals reign, a London department store is hoping to cash in on the lucrative men's underwear market Thursday by launching a throwback to the Victorian era, a gut-cinching garment that designers say will help men make it through these belt-tightening times.
The stretchy contraptions resemble normal sleeveless tank tops or long-sleeved T-shirts — only shrunk down two or three sizes in a special blend of Spandex, nylon and polyester. Control underwear will be launched later this year.
"It makes waists look trimmer, improves posture and helps men get into the latest slimmer fitting suits," said Gavin Jones, head of the Australian company Equmen, which launched its male shapewear line in Selfridges on Thursday. "Men are under a lot of pressure right now to perform financially, socially and romantically. Why shouldn't we have the same products that women have had for years to make us feel better?"
Europe has been at the forefront of the metrosexual revolution, illustrated by images of a svelte Daniel Craig in tight bathing trunks or a fitted tuxedo as 007, and a near hairless David Beckham in white Armani bikini briefs — larger-than-life ads that stretch out across London's double-decker buses. Even Clive Owen, the British actor known for his rugged good looks and reticent characters, is the face of Lancome's new anti-aging skin-care line.
A booming businessAs male vanity has increased in the past decade, so have retail sales.
In the United Kingdom, sales of men's grooming products — moisturizers, home waxing kits, manicure kits — totaled some 840 million pounds ($1.18 billion dollars) last year, according to a report from market research firm Mintel.
Similarly, men's underwear sales are growing faster than women's. In Selfridges, sales of men's underwear were up 21 percent whereas women's underwear grew by some 10 percent last year. The UK alone totaled roughly 679 million pounds ($957 million) in men's underwear sales in 2007 — the latest statistics available — whereas the U.S. tallied about $4.9 billion in 2008, according to Mintel.
Equmen's undershirts promise "to do for guy's chests what Spanx have done for flabby female thighs."
"Brands like Spanx have been huge for women, so we thought pretty soon the same thing would happen for men," said Mithun Ramanandi, a Selfridges underwear buyer. "We saw the brand last year and it was something that didn't look like a corset — something that men could wear to look slimmer without looking silly."
Spanx, one of the leading brands of shapewear for women which exceeded $350 million in retail sales last year, is also considering a new line for men.
"We have something in the works," said Misty Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based company. "Men have been asking us for it and let's face it — they want to take advantage of the style tricks women have been using for years."
Department stores in the United States, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, are also offering lines of male control wear. Saks started carrying a line last year from 2(X)ist, which features briefs and slimming undershirts.
Men's control wear has been around since Victorian times in Britain, where dandies such as Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde were known for their fanciful and slightly feminine outfits. Advertisements for male girdles became popular in the 1930s but many of the products struggled to look different than women's undergarments.
Today's man girdle looks like something Marlon Brando might have worn in "A Streetcar Named Desire" — a slimmer and more coifed Brando, that is.
"An old relative of mine said there used to be men and women, now there's this gray," said Pete Bainbridge, 31, a consultant in financial services. "I suppose some people want to look good. It's not my taste."
Male optionsRetailers say it's not about making men more feminine, it's about giving them more options.
Some agree, in theory.
"I suppose I would buy products I wouldn't have 10 years ago," said Adam Lazarus, 51, a business consultant.
Jones, who founded Equmen in 2007, said he got the idea by looking at specialty clothes that athletes wear.
"I thought if there is apparel that can help shave off a second of the time for swimmers or cyclists there must be something that could improve the performance of hardworking men who have kids and a mortgage to pay — a man who doesn't necessarily have time to get off the merry-go-round and make himself look and feel better."
Selfridges, which opened up a spa last year for men, has increased their underwear department by more than a third in its flagship London store. In its other UK locations, the underwear department has tripled in space to make room for specialty garments like Equmen's.
"If it's going to be called a bloody girdle or 'mirdle' then I'll take it on the cheek if it gets men to try it," says Jones. "But I think there needs to be line drawn between a man wacking on a bit of mascara and buying a product that's going to give him more confidence and keep his belly from hanging over his belt."
Equmen's precision undershirts, start at 49 pounds ($69 dollars). Other lines for warmer climates will be released soon.