A few weeks ago I began a project to search out the best underwear made anywhere in the world. Obviously, given the focus of Permanent Style, the focus would be on both quality, including materials and construction, and style.

The first is fairly objective and can be analysed quite easily – though with this project it will have the added benefit of testing, with several wears and washes used to determine comfort over time. The second is more personal, but I will express my preferences and the advantages of different styles, to help inform personal choices.

The brands so far included in this project are Zimmerli, Sunspel, Schiesser and The White Briefs. This list has been put together based on conversations with stockists in the industry. If anyone has any suggestions to add to it, they are welcome.

In this first post, The White Briefs. Started by husband-and-wife team Peter and Henriette Simonsson in Sweden, the company began two years ago as a project to make the perfect pair of white briefs. The range has since expanded, but the ethos remains.

One advantage of coming to the idea fresh like this is that Peter and Henriette could take time to pick and choose the best cotton from one source (here, Peru), the best knitters to make the cloth (Switzerland) and the best factory to put them together (Estonia). Underwear is normally a vertically integrated process. This is cheaper and quicker, but lacks choice and flexibility.

Indeed, the industry as a whole is – I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear – a high-volume and high-margin business, driven by marketing and brand identification, with little attention to detail as a result. In that way, all these producers I’ve highlighted stand out from the logo-driven mainstream. The White Briefs is slightly different from the rest of them in its independent starting point.

The important thing about picking the cotton and how it will be woven is balance in weight and feel, says Peter: “Heavier cottons are sometimes more comfortable and always more durable, but of course they are less flexible. So it took a while to get what we thought was the perfect balance there.”

The easiest way to give a cotton durability and ensure it retains its shape is to add Lycra, but Peter dismissed this: “Lycra is plastic. It is wearing plastic against the skin. Objectively it is always going to be less breathable, and personally I think it leads to a feeling of being trapped. Good underwear should make you feel free.”

There is, however, some lycra in the binding (the strips along the edges) as this has to have some stretch and that’s impossible without it.

The other aspect of the construction is the waistband, the rib for which Peter spent a long time getting right. “The sizing is important, you don’t want it to be too tight but then it has to stay in place as well – the height of the rise is also crucial, as with a good trouser.” As with the rest of the production, the waistband had to be unbranded, simple and sophisticated in design.

Underwear takes a surprising amount of engineering. T-shirts, which are all about the cotton and the cut, are easier. Peter has found this as he has expanded the collection, into different models of underwear and other white basics.

The first underwear model was the Platan – a basic, simple brief with relatively long sides. The next was my favourite, the Elm (pictured), which Peter describes as a sixties-style trunk – halfway between a boxer and a brief. Although the shape is much like a short trunk, the sides are a little higher up the thigh, which makes them more comfortable as your quadriceps arch higher up on the outside of the leg than on the inside.

The last model was the Willow, which is a trunk longer in the leg, indeed a couple of inches longer than others on the market. “The key there was to get underneath the thigh muscle, so that it keeps the hem in place and they don’t ride up as you wear them.” That rang true for me – it’s one reason I dislike a lot of trunk-style underwear.

So how has the Elm worn? Very well, so far. The difference the quality cotton makes to comfort is surprising – though I confess I never really spent much money on underwear before. After each wash it seems like it could have lost shape, but disproves that as soon as it is worn. If I have any criticism of the Elm, it would be that the inside leg could be a tad shorter. Occasionally the little that is there can ride up.

It is also worth mentioning that all the cotton used is organic. This doesn’t make any difference to the comfort, but green values are important to Peter and Henriette. And the range is expanding soon to include some models in pima cotton, again from Peru (as most of it is).

I did also try The White Briefs’ collaboration with Fantastic Man in mesh cotton, which is as wonderfully breathable as it promises to be, but isn’t really to my taste.

Look out for the next installments in the series.
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Anonymous

Dear Simon,

good post, thank you. In my opinion, good clothing starts with good underwear and good shoes. Every lady will confirm.

You could probably add Hanro to the list. I prefer Zimmerli since ever, but looking at your list, Hanro would be my second choice.

Cheers, david

TobyS

As much as I appreciate a company that tries to do one thing perfectly, I wouldn’t buy the White Briefs no matter how hard they tried… because cotton just isn’t a very good base layer. For my money (and I’m a schoolteacher, so my money doesn’t go very far) the best boxer briefs you can buy are Under Armour. They’re hugely comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, they breathe well, they don’t get too funky, and they hardly ever ride up. I also have a couple of Smartwool boxer briefs, which match or exceed UA in the first three categories but don’t fit quite as well because of the nature of the fabric. Admittedly, the two brands might come up short on the style front, but my priorities for undergarments are function , function, function, and then form.

I would suggest the addition of UnderArmour to your list – as much as it is a big brand, they do have a proprietary fabric and a commitment to quality, and the briefs are fantastic. They’re available in 3′, 6′ and 9′ lengths and only a handful of colors.

Anonymous

FYI: 279 SEK is about 43 U.S. dollars.

Tim

Great post! I’ve had a difficult time finding briefs that satisfy my interests since I wear my trousers at my natural waist and prefer my underwear to be there as well. I look forward to more. Thank you.

Jason

Interesting, I went on a quest to find decent men’s underwear several years back. I will be following this series with interest. Already a couple of observations to think about.

I settled on a few overall guidelines for myself: shaped front pouch, waistband .75 inches or wider, moderately high cut or higher, no front opening.

I realize now that several of these items are really choices made to compensate for attributes that it is likely possible to engineer out.

The idea of a trunk has always appealed to me in theory but I have never been able to wear them comfortably due to a profound aversion to having them ride up on me. An extreme dislike of underwear riding up on me is what drove my to high cut briefs.

A couple of possible additions to your list:
2(x)ist
Tommy John

Anonymous

My experience has led me to conclude that it is the material that matters above almost anything else. Briefs or boxers are of course a base layer and not on display (that often!). I am not a fan of cotton for obvious reasons. I would recommend merino wool. The Kiwi outfit ‘Icebreaker’ has started making briefs in merino and I fnd these to be far superior in comfort to anything made from cotton.

Anonymous

You should indeed check out Hanro.

Anonymous

Simon, would you please share with us your favourite brand and type of underwear for wearing under a well cut suit? I think I have tried all the major high street brands and none of them ever were satisfactory. The riding up all day is horrible.

Anonymous

I´ve realy appreciated your post about The White Briefs.

It is a quite awkward topic and there are few good posts or articles out there. Indeed are the most of them sexually conotated or up to promote s.th.

I am quite disappointed by CK and HUGO BOSS underwear, which happen to be poorly made and with a lot of spandex in the cloth. As a result they are only washable at 30° C – and don´t get really clean.

Therefor I am glad to have some advises. I´ve heard a lot about Zimmerli and am looking forward to following your posts.

Anonymous

There is also http://www.pacadudz.com, who make activewear in alpaca, only long underwear so far though, http://www.pacadudz.com/Fall-Winter-2011/Men-s-Long-Underwear-p21.html. They are also featured in this clip:
http://www.youtube.com/thegreeneconomy#p/a/u/1/8EWW3NfAIm8

Anonymous

Dear Simon,

I´ve realy appreciated your post about The White Briefs too, and I would like to advise a brand for those who liked briefs for the confort and boxer shorts for the style : Clemence de Gabriac.

This brand mix perfectly elegance and confort, as it a boxer short with a discreet inside support in fine supima cotton. And you can wear it under a well cut suit.

The funny is that it is made by a woman, very interesting!
Cheers,
Paul

Anonymous

Great blog Simon, thanks very much. It rocks my boat every day.

I think we have all forgot to mentioned Brooks Brothers Club Country mercerized briefs. Excellent quality, shape and at 25 usd a pair it`s a steal. Do however remember that US-sizes are big in sizes so go at least one size down.

Have a great weekend gents

Mads

Anonymous

personally, i find muji trunks to be excellent.

HoustonBespokeTailor

I’d add three more fantastic, IMHO the best most comfortable brands.
1) 2(x)ist,
2) V.K. Nagrani
3) Hanro

Rob

I very much appreciate the unbranded waistband.
Just ordered a pair of “Elm” online from Boozt.com so I hope they don’t disappoint.

Joel

Hi Simon,

Have you tried the new Tom Ford underwear?

I bought a pair of he briefs £50.00, very expensive but that come with Tom Ford territory.

They are really comfortable and when looking at them the construction seems to be really good and superior in comparison to other brands I have bought which is mainly Calvin Klein and some Ralph Lauren.

Don’t know if you plan on buying any Tom Ford underwear but would love to hear your thoughts on both the quality and other brands who are comparable or even better?

Kindest regards

Joel

Joel

Thanks a Simon,

I will check them out, I only have tops by Sunspel and Hanro.

I have to say I was surprised at the quality of Tom Ford underwear as I consider his clothing completely overpriced when I see £1000.00 formal trousers made of rayon.

Hope you have a fab Sunday.