(Courtesy of aussiebum)

Aussiebum: Down Under designs in more ways than one

SYDNEY: Why the small "a" in the Australian label aussieBum?

"Damn good question," says Sean Ashby, the underwear company's founder. "It was a kindly reminder to myself that the company is never too big to forget it was started by a bum who couldn't get a job."

"Our turnover says otherwise but my team and mates remind me constantly I am just an Aussie bum."

The company that Ashby founded with a 20,000 Australian dollar, or $17,500, nest egg in 2001, as an alternative to unemployment and "not being able to find a decent pair of nylon cozzies" - the Australian term for swimwear - has become a global multimillion-dollar enterprise, with yearly sales of 35 million Australian dollars, quarterly growth of 15 to 20 percent and a celebrity-studded following.

The aussieBum range includes basic nylon cozzies, as well as "boardies" (baggy nylon shorts commonly worn by surfers) and snugly fitting underwear in a range of exotic designs and futuristic materials (including most recently a "vitamin-enriched" fabric). The briefs - designed, as the name suggests, with the wearer's derrière in mind - cost between 12 and 120 Australian dollars.

The company has also done well with a form-enhancing garment called the Wonderjock, a sort of male aesthetic equivalent to the breast-augmenting Wonderbra.

"We did it as a bit of a joke," Ashby says of the cotton brief, invented by his business partner, Guyon Holland, and which, according to Ashby, "lifts and moves everything forward," which is "what makes them so comfortable."

It takes a little prompting to force the admission that comfort may be the least-contributing factor in the Wonderjock's appeal. "The most common request we had from guys ordering was they wanted to look larger than they actually were. So we thought 'Why not'?"

AussieBum sold 50,000 of the briefs within 7 days of their market release in late 2006.

The brand now retails in department stores like Selfridges in London, Printemps in Paris, KaDeWe in Berlin and Harvey Nichols in Dubai, as well as in small boutiques from Milan and New York and ships to more than 65 countries.

It represents a broad reach for a business run entirely via Web, with no shop front and only a bare-bones staff. "To pick, pack and ship over 1,000 unique orders a day requires only eight people," Ashby says. "We have very advanced in-house technology. A person can order from New York and pay 6.60 Australian dollars in delivery charges and have it in their hands by Friday the same week."

The operation is guided by a man who seems the embodiment of laconic, personable and laid-back Aussie male he hopes to appeal to. (In what is perhaps a personal brand of multi-tasking, he conducts this interview via e-mail and telephone, while "sitting on my porch in a pair of shorts, thongs" - Australian for flip-flops - and "planning our strategy for 2008.")

Ashby is quick to admit that aussieBum has, in large part, derived its success on the back of another brand that has long sold well internationally - Australia.

"The image of Australia," Ashby says, is "the place far far away and a place where people live by the ocean, eat shrimps from the barbecue, enjoy a laugh and really don't take themselves seriously and, best of all, they believe all Australian men are beautiful and bronzed.

"Naturally, we took advantage of this image, however, at the same time, make a point of showing people the reality of our brand."

The site www.ausbum.tv - which features videos depicting men, many of whom were plucked randomly off the streets of Ashby's home town of Sydney, modeling the products - offered "the chance to present our real larrikin character," a reference to the Australian tendency toward irreverence and self-deprecation.

"We were the first brand to feature a male model with hair on his chest, and hair under his arms. We were also the first to have a major ad campaign of a man siting in his favorite chair in just his undies watching the footy and drinking a can of beer," Ashby says. "Very Australian and very real."

Thus, says Ashby, it came as a surprise to learn recently from a team of revenue-seeking Google advertising executives that aussieBum had become the 7th most popular search word in Australia. A temporary surprise: "The reality is, we sell swimwear and underwear. It's hard to present that in a way that's boring and drab."

It appears that the image resonates everywhere from the hills of Hollywood to the trenches of Iraq. "One of the joys of the Internet is you get to see whose ordering your product," Ashby says, listing the actor Ewan McGregor "among many" other loyal celebrity online clients.

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