When an underwear store opens in 2019 with a “Museum of Man” inside, it can only mean Duluth Trading Co. is up to something again.
The company’s impish ads for “Ballroom Jeans,” “Fire Hose work pants,” and “Longtail T-shirts that fix plumber’s butt” have long elicited chuckles, eyerolls and occasionally criticism.
“We offend people,” said Ricker Schlecht, a vice president for Duluth Trading and son of owner Steve Schlecht. “We get letters. We dance on the line a lot with ball jokes and butt cracks. Some people don’t want to hear it, but we want people to have a smile on their face when they interact with our brand.”
The company’s new store opening Thursday on the Mall of America’s first floor north is its first-ever devoted only to men’s underwear.
It is much smaller, just 1,600 square feet, than the company’s normal stores that carry a broader assortment of workwear for men and women, shoes, jackets and accessories. Its Bloomington store at 98th and Lyndale is 14,000 square feet, by contrast.
The Mall of America store is a prototype that Duluth Trading may take to other malls and locations. As ever, Schlecht’s goal is to entertain.
The Museum of Man that is interspersed among the boxers and briefs is a sendup of museum solemnity. It has placards of Amazing Ball Moments: “Yes, history really can be a ball,” and “How does it feel to go Buck Naked?”
To advertise “Buck Naked” skivvies that are meant to feel like a guy is going commando, the store has a “Nothing Sensation Stimulator.” Shoppers can thrust their hands into an empty, clear plexiglass box to experience the feeling of wearing nothing.
A mural by Minnesota artist Adam Turman features Duluth Trading’s potbellied man named Buck wearing nothing but Buck Naked underwear. To reinforce the company’s Minnesota heritage, he is holding a spoon and cherry while underwear-clad loons fly near the Duluth Lift Bridge and a boat with sails puffed out in the shape of boxer shorts.
“Duluth Trading is one of those great clients who took me along for the ride,” Turman said. “It was fun.”
The prototype represents another example of Duluth Trading’s aggressive growth strategy. Eighteen months ago, the chain included 34 stores. With new stores opening this week, the count has almost doubled to 60. That has led some analysts to question the wisdom of such rapid growth. In fiscal 2018, the company’s net income flattened to about the same as 2017.
The company, which originated in Minnesota 30 years ago and is now based in Belleville, Wis., was founded by brothers Bob and Dave Fierek, who designed a tool organizer called the Bucket Boss. Their shop for years floated on the Lake Superior waterfront, and they never opened a brick-and-mortar location.
The company was sold to Fiskars in 1996 and since 2001 has been owned by Steve Schlecht, who is the interim CEO after Stephanie Pugliese left earlier this year to join Under Armour. In addition to Bloomington, Duluth Trading also has Minnesota stores in Duluth, Fridley, Red Wing and Woodbury.
The firm’s irreverent marketing of men’s underwear has been followed by only a few competitors. Saxx Underwear now sells boxer briefs with a “ballpark pouch” and suggests on its website that a person “gift a pair” of underwear for the holidays because “you can’t actually grow a pair.”
For many men, underwear is no longer a three-for-$10 purchase. Manufacturers in recent years have innovated with bright colors, elaborate patterns and high-tech synthetic fabrics that reduce moisture and odor. At Duluth Trading, prices for a single pair routinely range from $20 to $30 for boxer briefs with flair and high-tech function.
“We’re not looking to compete with Kohl’s or Walmart on the basics,” Schlecht said. “We just want people to have fun in our store and stay a little longer than they might otherwise.”