I am now really pleased to be able to publish a feature on Activskin®, the legwear brand of G.Lieberman and Sons, Ltd. Activskin® legwear has a leading place in the men's legwear sector and their products are sold by many retailers, both in the USA and increasingly in Europe.
I recently interviewed Steven Katz, the Managing Partner at G. Lieberman and Sons, Ltd. In the first part of a double feature, Steven discusses the history of the company, the men's legwear market, the advantages of tights designed and made for men, and issues around the marketing of men's tights. Stay tuned for Part 2.
G. Lieberman & Sons was originally founded in 1920. Can you tell Hosiery For Men readers how the company has evolved since then?
The company was founded by my great grandfather, G. Lieberman, in 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. It was a wholesale supplier of hosiery, nightwear, and underwear, and they supplied all of the clothing stores in the area with name brands and later with their own brand Gleeson, a shortened form of the company name.
My grandfather Frank took over in the 1930s, and it remained a lucrative company. Although the Great Depression weakened the economy tremendously, people still needed socks, underwear, stockings, and pyjamas, and the company prospered during the 30s and into the war years. Some time after the war, my three uncles joined the company. My grandfather continued to work there until the day he died in 1976, and my uncles took over, taking the company to the 1990s. They decided to retire, and many of the company's accounts had disappeared, as large discount and big department stores drove out the small neighbourhood “mom and pop” clothing stores. So the business was terminated for a few years.
I had been educated in science, worked in industry in engineering management, and was a principal in a plastics consulting company here in Granville. I wanted to form my own e-commerce company at the height of the dot-com craze of the late 1990s, and wondered what I could do with hosiery, as my roots were in that business. From an online forum, I got the idea that there was a market niche for legwear for men. My wife and I researched the idea, got the family's blessing to take over the defunct company, move it to Ohio, and resurrect it as an online retail specialty company. Thus it lives on, in a different form and different place than it was originally intended, but I think my great grandfather would be proud.
Why did the company decide to move into the men's legwear market?
We wanted to pursue a niche that was not being adequately served, in order to limit competition and develop unique high quality products that could command a premium price in what is otherwise mostly a low-cost commodity market. The niche for men's legwear was perfect. It was small enough that the big hosiery mills wouldn't be interested in competing, big enough that it would interest smaller mills in being our suppliers, and of course big enough to support us.
We discussed the concept with the Hosiery Association executive director, who confirmed that there may a good niche here, and with several suppliers until we found a couple willing to work with us to develop men's products. We were also fortunate to find a web site designer who helped us get started and built our web site from scratch - shopping cart and all, and this was long before commercial web sites and shopping carts were readily available and affordable.
We planned to appeal to men who have leg circulation problems, men in sports, men who need to wear for warmth in cool weather, men who sit or stand all day, men who have leg cramps and restless leg syndrome, and men who need protection from chafing and insects, like the military in Desert Storm. This turned out to be a good move, as the market for men in all these areas provides a large enough audience to support our business.
Do you feel that tights (or pantyhose as you call them in the USA) for men are still are growing market? What are the prospects of men's tights going more mainstream?
The market for men's legwear is definitely growing, but it's still at a tiny level compared to the women's market, even though the women's market has been shrinking since 1992. A few mainstream companies in the US and Europe have tested the men's market but dropped out after concluding that it is indeed too small for them. Legwear for men has been becoming more and more mainstream over the past decade, and seeing men in opaque tights, especially with athletic wear, is now pretty common. We think this trend will continue as more and more men discover the comfort and advantages of wearing legwear.
Many men continue to buy tights that are designed and made for women. What do you feel are the advantages of tights that are made specifically for men?
Durability is the main issue. Women are accustomed to wearing a pair of sheer tights a few times and discarding them. In fact hosiery companies know that if a woman gets three wearings out of a pair of sheer hose, she'll be satisfied and buy that brand again. Men have no such expectation. They don't have the word “disposable” in their wardrobe vocabulary. They wear clothes until the clothes are tattered and unwearable. Men also, as a rule, don't take care of their nails as well as women do, nor do they wear shoes that are as hosiery-friendly. So we knew we had to be superior in durability. We've achieved this with using the best yarns we can find, and making the products big enough and comfortable enough for men, so that men don't stretch the fabrics beyond their tear strength. Reinforced toes and brief are also good features to have for durability.
Of course, another big difference is the fly opening, although not all men find that feature useful. Many prefer to sit down in the loo as it affords better hygiene and they can re-adjust their legwear when they're done. One other advantage of men's legwear is that since it is often worn under trousers, it needs to glide well or it will catch on all the minute cotton or wool fibres that protrude from those fabrics. The friction will keep the hose from staying in place and help it migrate downward. Many of our products are designed with this in mind, and they have fabrics that glide better under trousers.
Men often feel that by buying women's products they can save money, and they are unwilling to spend more for better quality products that fit better, feel better, and last longer, so that the cost per wearing is comparable or less. Once we get these men to try our products, many of them say they'll never go back to women's hosiery again!
My perception is that some manufacturers making men's tights are quite poor in promoting them, both in the media in general as well as in new marketing environments, such as social networks and Twitter. What success have you had in increasing the awareness of the Activskin® brand?
Promoting commodity products with advertising often doesn't pay, and that's why you've seen advertisements for women's hosiery all but disappear in recent years. Advertising for a niche market like ours is very difficult, as there are so many men with so many diverse reasons for wearing, that there are few areas with enough concentration where advertising is effective and affordable. We've had some success with print media when men's legwear was a new concept a decade ago, but by and large advertising is expensive and people have learned to ignore it.
Our best effort is to be found by the search engines, and so we have done a lot to increase our rankings on key words that people use to find a company like ours. That's why we have not eliminated the word “pantyhose” (used in the USA and other countries for sheer tights), a word that connotes femininity. Women wear panties; men wear briefs. We once tried eliminating “pantyhose” at the suggestion of a marketing consulting company in 2001 and almost went out of business. “Pantyhose” was not on our web site, but it was a common word for which potential customers were searching, and they weren't finding us. So we did an abrupt turnaround, put the word on all the web pages, in all its spelling variations (“pantihose”, “panty hose”, etc.) and within a week, we started to get hits by those customers wanting to find pantyhose for men.
A couple of years ago we dabbled in Twitter and Facebook, and even had our own blog, but unfortunately not much business came from those efforts. We think social networking is still in its infancy as a marketing tool and is very time consuming. No doubt someday it will mature and be better understood.
Part 2 of the interview with Steven Katz will appear shortly.