NEW YORK, UNITED STATES — “Shirts designed to be worn untucked.”
The tagline of the menswear brand Untuckit that’s splashed across store signage, catalogue covers and the walls of its New York City headquarters, is not particularly sophisticated, and isn’t all that creative either.
That’s very much on purpose.
“We don't want to call ourselves fashion-forward,” Chris Riccobono, Untuckit’s founder and executive chairman said one recent fall afternoon, sitting in a conference room at his office wearing jeans, white sneakers, and, of course, an untucked shirt. “We are something that you don't have to think about, and we don’t go out of style when trends go up and down. We design shirts that are meant to be untucked. It’s simple.”
This matter-of-a-fact approach to style is precisely why Untuckit is one of the biggest brands to emerge from the fashion start-up scene in recent years. The eight-year-old company’s shirts have been spotted on Leonardo DiCaprio and Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, and ordinary customers heap praise on the company on social media.
“I bought my first shirt this September. I’m happy, comfortable and people noticed. I’m Mr. UNTUCKIT now on my 4th shirt,” a typical Instagram comment goes.
The company, with its signature button-down shirts with shorter lengths, has flourished into an empire selling over 500 products, including jackets, sweaters, pants, and shoes (it also offers a small selection of women and kid’s clothes too.) It has 86 stores across the US and Canada, with plans to open its first overseas locations in the UK next month. The brand expects sales to top $200 million this year.
We don’t go out of style when trends go up and down. We design shirts that are meant to be untucked. It’s simple.
And yet, Untuckit’s meteoric rise hasn’t won it much love with menswear enthusiasts. For every glowing comment from a happy customer, there are plenty of critics. “Don't Waste Money on An 'Untucked' Shirt. Just Un-Tuck Your Damn Shirt,” reads one 2018 Esquire headline.
Others are simply puzzled as to how a brand built around an unsexy concept like untucked shirts has grown so big, so fast.
“Untuckit is the weirdest anomaly in retail,” said Jon Shanahan, a menswear Youtuber.
Untuckit blossomed by nailing simplicity
Riccobono was on vacation in Las Vegas in 2009 when he realised he was wearing the same shirt three days in a row because it was the only one that looked good untucked.
“I talked to friends and found everyone was having the same problem because everything on the market was too long,” said Riccobono, who was working as a medical sales rep in New Jersey at the time. “The demographics of men who have this problem are huge. Their shirts hang down to their knees.”
Riccobono surveyed about 500 men and discovered that many wanted to wear dress shirts untucked; the perfect length was in the middle of the fly, with pants pockets partially exposed. He teamed up with a friend from Columbia Business School, Aaron Sanandres, who is now CEO. They launched Untuckit in 2011 as an online shop with funding from friends and family.
The now-sprawling direct-to-consumer category hardly existed back when Untuckit launched; Warby Parker was started one year earlier, and Bonobos was founded in 2007. In order to obtain shoppers’ trust, Riccobono said the brand initially wanted to advertise in Vogue or GQ, but couldn’t afford the expense of traditional advertising. Instead, they spent their small marketing budget in the early days on radio advertisements during morning sports shows, and on the Barstool Sports website. The response from some who heard those first ads was incredulous.
“This is the dumbest fucking sponsor the site has ever featured,” one listener wrote on Reddit in 2013. But that commenter was in the minority; sales that year grew 600 percent.
“The allure is in the simplicity,” said Alex Fitzgerald, a manager in the consumer and retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a global consulting firm. “Untuckit wasn't selling the look of the latest fashion to wear around Soho. It was about selling shirts that look and feel good, and that resonates with half the country.”
Untuckit wasn't selling the look of the latest fashion to wear around Soho. It was about selling shirts that look and feel good, and that resonates with half the country.
Riccobono quickly realised his brand was speaking to guys like him who wanted to look fashionable but didn’t necessarily follow the latest trends. The company decided to lean heavily into this messaging.
Untuckit shirts sell for around $88, not all that different from competitors like J.Crew or Bonobos. Sanandres said its customer demographic age range is 22 to 55. Customers overlap the most with Old Navy and Macy’s, according to data compiled for BoF by Earnest Research, a data firm.
“The customer is someone who was excited about Abercrombie or Gap in the ‘90s and wants to step up and evolve,” said Shanahan, the menswear Youtuber. “They don’t want to step out of their comfort zone, but they also can’t wear a T-shirt and cargo shorts to the office. They are tapping into a market that Bonobos and J.Crew want, but those brands are too stylish for the Untuckit guys.”
J.Crew, Everlane and Bonobos have noticed the competition and have begun to sell and market untucked shirts of their own.
Staying true to core customers
In 2014, Untuckit opened its first store in New York, following feedback from customers that they wanted to see the product in real life. It now operates 86 stores, with more coming next year, including the first outside the US and Canada, in London’s Covent Garden and Westfield White City.
It’s a huge gamble for a digital-native brand; swift retail expansion has crippled plenty of startups in the past. Untuckit raised $30 million in 2017 in part to support its brick-and-mortar operations.
While many DTC brands tend to stick to coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York City, Untuckit has stores in cities like Jacksonville, Fla. Albuquerque, N.M., Kansas City, Salt Lake City and Scottsdale, Ariz. The stores outside the biggest cities are typically more profitable, Sanandres said.
“Our customer is far broader than the typical fashion brand, so we felt we needed to go beyond the major population centres,” he said.
The company has taken a similar approach with its marketing. It spends a significant portion of its budget on ads in airline inflight magazines, and on television commercials during football games. Like any start-up, it buys social media advertising too. The overall effect is that some fashion insiders may have barely heard of the brand, but men in middle America are bombarded with Untuckit’s function over fashion messaging.
Syama Meagher, chief retail strategist at Scaling Retail, notes that while most DTC brands aim for aspiration, customers have flocked to Untuckit because it feels accessible. Its television ads don't feature men in exotic locations or practising extreme sports like many male-centric commercials; it's just Riccobono giving the same cold pitch to buy untucked shirts.
“The branding, the name, even the photo shots and art direction of Untuckit, all feel very mass-market and mainstream and that’s what resonates with most men who shop,” Meagher said. “Untuckit has a calculated, stealthy secret empire because of its mainstream approach.”
Untuckit has a calculated, stealthy secret empire because of its mainstream approach.
While nearly everyone in retail is having a hard time facing off with Amazon, Untuckit has decided to embrace the channel with a “controlled” approach, as Riccobono put it. The company has been selling old seasons’ worth of merchandise on the site at full price since last year.
“We have to be there because there are people who shop only on Amazon,” he said. “We didn't want to hide from them.”
Using Amazon as a clearance channel has helped Untuck manage its inventory, said Meagher.
"Inventory management is how brands survive, and Untuckit not being above selling on Amazon is smart,” she said. “Amazon doesn’t pose as a threat here, because they are using it as a liquidation strategy and they are still banking on in-store and online sales.”
An Uphill Battle Abroad
International expansion is where Untuckit believes it can nab new customers; following London, it’s eyeing Amsterdam, Ireland and Mexico next.
“Mature brands like Levi's or the Gap or Ralph Lauren all see 60 perecent of their revenue come from overseas,” said Sanandres. “The US is a growth market for us but going internationally would be lightspeed.”
Workplace attire has gotten more casual in the US — even Goldman Sachs allows its employees to dress down to the office now — and Riccobono said Untuckit could be the brand European shoppers turn to as the trend spreads.
“The US has gone fully casual, and in England they are getting very close,” he said.
Not everyone is as optimistic. Competing American brands that have come to the UK are Club Monaco and J.Crew, and both have found a footing in London because they are considered upscale and formal — precisely the opposite of Untuckit’s approach.
“It still sounds like quite a tough sell because it's so saturated,” said Marits Roberts, a UK-based menswear consultant. “People are definitely wearing more casual shirts with shirts and chinos, so there could be a market for it, but it will be tricky.”
Roberts added that London shoppers embrace their “British sensibility,” and prefer to buy relaxed shirts at John Lewis or Harvey Nichols. In order to change habits, a brand would have to come in with a strong message — which might just be Untuckit’s winning ticket.
“The name is quite American, and I would say that's a bad thing, but to be honest, it very well might work,” he said. “With such a cheesy name, they could get that commercial market.”