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How four Concordians cracked the code to comfortable men’s underwear

Manmade’s founders have taken their online boxer-brief enterprise from startup dreams to Dragons’ Den success
April 28, 2023
By Ursula Leonowicz, BA 97

Three men stand next next to each other as they hold a fourth man laying horizontally. They are all smiling and wearing black baseball caps with an orange logo. The team behind Manmade, from left to right: Roberto Rebelo, Philip Santagata and Anthony Ciavirella, carrying Robert Marzin.

So much of branding is about words. And so many of the words used to sell men’s underwear are smile-worthy.

“Supporting a man’s wellness by strengthening his foundation,” is just one of the tag lines for Montreal’s Manmade boxer-briefs, co-founded by four best friends from city’s Little Italy neighbourhood and Montreal North borough.

In 2020, entrepreneurs Philip Santagata, BComm 14 (finance), Roberto Rebelo, BComm 15 (accountancy), Robert Marzin, BComm 14 (finance), and Anthony Ciavirella — all of whom studied at the John Molson School of Business — left their jobs in the financial sector to fulfill their dream of creating the world’s most comfortable boxer briefs.

“We all just hated the bunching, the swampy thing, the riding up,” Ciavirella said in a 2022 television interview on the company’s origin story — a classic in the business genre of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

A 10-month mission to find the perfect fabric produced a prototype made of Modal, derived from the beech tree. “It’s three times softer, three times more absorbent and three times more breathable than cotton,” added Ciavirella.

Things took off when Manmade — whose business is entirely online — was featured in fall 2022 on season 17 of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, where, via a hilarious pitch — the founders got what they were looking for in terms of investment, exposure and mentorship.

Endorsements then followed from former Montreal Canadiens players Chris Nilan and Shayne Corson, radio personality Tony Marinaro and singer-songwriter-photographer Bryan Adams, providing another boost to the brand that is still chasing its white-whale spokesperson: Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds.

From a startup position that included $80,000 of the founders’ own money, initial sales allowed Manmade to secure financing from the Business Development Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal and PME MTL.

Initially starting off with 10,000 pairs of black underwear in 2021, the team quickly scaled up to producing 100,000 units and launching three more product lines: blue boxers, as well as sports socks, T-shirts and soap.

The brand’s main clientele is men that are over the age of 40. Sixty per cent of its customers are men and 40 percent are women. “When we started doing our research, we came to the realization that a lot of women buy men’s underwear,” says Rebelo. “We realized that they enjoy doing these things for the men in their lives.”

Manmade now banks on word of mouth, cheeky social media and personalized customer service that includes handwritten thank-you cards and videos as well as quick delivery.

“Robert and I had businesses before enrolling at Concordia; I actually dropped out of CEGEP to open a family-owned restaurant, but I realized that I did not know how to operate a business from a financial or accounting side,” says Rebelo of the training and insight he gained at the university. “So, I decided to take a few years to go back to school.

“John Molson teachers like Michel Greiche and Samie Ly definitely played their part.”

The company differentiates itself by offering a minimal selection to focus on maximum quality, and plans on launching a navy-blue boxer brief this spring.

“We are well aware of our constraints, and managing our SKU [stock-keeping unit] count is something we focus on to avoid hitting a ceiling where we can't keep all SKUs in stock,” adds Rebelo.

“The more SKUs we launch, the more cash we need to tie up in inventory, the more warehousing we need, the less efficient we become at order fulfillment, and so on.”

As for each Manmade co-founder’s personal secret to success, they prefer to express it in the form of their favourite quotation:

Santagata: “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” – Robert H. Schuller

Rebelo: “Change isn’t made by asking permission. Change is made by asking forgiveness, later.” – Seth Godin

Ciavirella: “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

Marzin: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” – Samuel Goldwyn

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