Priceonomics

Beneath Zegna suits and Yves Saint Laurent dresses, celebrities and the ultrarich prefer to don “the world’s finest underwear.” Made by Zimmerli, a small, century-old Swiss company, the plain white cotton briefs aren't flashy or bedazzled with jewels. Rather, they grace buttocks with "unparalleled comfort" and enlist only the rarest of cotton blends. For this, customers pay a premium -- up to $110 per pair.

These aren't the type of underwear you'd find on Homer Simpson or Breaking Bad's Walter White -- truly, Zimmerlis are the Rolls Royce of skivvies, and they've earned the title through a long lineage of placing quality and comfort over aesthetics.

In 1871, vocational school teacher Pauline Zimmerli encountered a dire financial situation. Her husband’s business had gone bankrupt and the couple, who lived in a quaint village in the foothills of Switzerland, had few other means to make a living. So, Zimmerli took matters into her own hands, and embarked on a career as an underwear entrepreneur.

With her last dollars, she invested in a state-of-the-art knitting machine capable of producing a plain stitch -- a technology invented in the United States only a few years earlier; it was a risky move, but soon paid off. Zimmerli worked around the clock, churning out 12 to 18 pairs of “fine-grade” stockings and undergarments each day, and soon became known throughout surrounding villages for the the quality of her products. 

A sales force was subsequently hired (Zimmerli’s sister, and her sons), and by 1876, her underwear was being imported by France. Around the same time, the designer commissioned a needling shop to build a custom machine that manipulated yarn in such a way that it was made twice as strong and twice as soft.

Over the ensuing decades, Zimmerli grew into a sizeable fashion house and established a luxury brand -- but didn’t pay a penny in doing so. Nearly a century later, Zimmerli became the underwear of choice for fashion’s A-listers. In the blockbuster film Rocky (1976), Sylvester Stallone houses his hulking physique in a Richelieu -- the “crown jewel” of Zimmerli’s tank-top collection. A slew of celebrities have since followed suit -- Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress, Bruce Willis (in every movie he's ever made), and Hugh Jackman in Wolverine -- all out of their own volition.

Hugh Jackman (center), touting a Zimmerli Richelieu tank ($140).

Today, the company remains modest at 70 employees, and dedicates itself to creating the “world’s finest underwear” -- a title that comes with a hefty price tag and, of course, exclusive-sounding descriptions. The company sells 14 types of underwear and undershirts, ranging from $45 to $185 per item, in styles for both men and women.

The company’s creme de la creme pair of briefs are crafted from “Certified Sea Island” cotton, the “rarest and most expensive cotton in the world.” The yarn used is so fine that “ten thousands meters of it weigh just one gram.” Zimmerli’s product catalogue boasts that only the top 0.0004% of the world’s cotton is good enough to be used, and adds that the underwear is “ladder-proof” (resistant to “runs”).

Another pair of exclusive man panties -- the “Royal Classic” -- are described as “meticulously handmade: a concept from another time -- and an indescribable privilege” (they’ll run you about $102 a pair). Like Zimmerli’s other premium underwear, the Royals come stamped with a “numbered hologram,” just so you can prove to all your friends that yours are the real deal. And if tighty whities aren't your thing, fear not -- Zimmerli makes regular boxers too, and they're only $99 a pair.

If any doubts linger about justifying hundred dollar drawers, Zimmerli leaves you with a parting declaration:

“The world’s finest underwear – that is what Zimmerli of Switzerland guarantees; that is our obligation. The unmatched feel, the exceptional comfort, the glance in the mirror makes it clear: Zimmerli is a discreet yet highly sophisticated understatement.”

Marcel Hossli, Zimmerli’s CEO, is no stranger to luxury brands: he spent five years as an executive in the high-end watch business. “Yes,” he admits, “we [sell] high-priced products but our customers are willing to pay for the quality we deliver.” In a fashion interview, he divulges that his underwear is on the rise -- “a healthy 6% to 10% growth in the last year.” While Hossil says customers are constantly begging for more affordable “everyday wear” prices, the brand is currently only stocked at the finest stores -- Harrods (London), Printemps (Paris), and Barney’s (New York).

But luxury underwear isn’t for everyone. On a style forum, one Zimmerli customer, “LawyerDad,” enumerates on the pros and cons of his new purchase:

“The fabric is great, and feels very nice going on. But I can't say that once I finish getting dressed and get on with my business, my day is punctuated by all that many ‘Good God, my underwear feels great!’ moments. American Apparel t's fit me well, and I can buy a drawer full for $20 or so. The Zimmerlis are definitely nicer and probably will last longer, but I'm not sure the marginal benefits outweigh the significantly greater cost (or, for that matter, the aggravation of having to worry about whether you're sufficiently coddling your underwear through the laundry cycle).”

Regardless, we have to hand it to Zimmerli: while other luxury brands rely heavily on marketing, presentation, and paid endorsements, the little underwear company from Switzerland earned its prestige through the quality of its products and a long-espoused emphasis on comfort over style. Though until the price is right, we’ll stick to our Hanes.

This post was written by Zachary Crockett. Follow him on Twitter here, or Google Plus here.



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