Watch Out Below! Underwear Guru Nick Graham Leads a Boxer Rebellion

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nicholas Graham has ants in his pants. Well, ants on his pants—his underpants, no less. He also has pink pigs. And big red chili peppers. And—without apologies to Fruit of the Loom—bright peeled bananas. With his manic Joe Boxer line of boxer shorts, T-shirts and sleepwear hitting sales of nearly $10 million last year, Graham has turned what once were unmentionables into a screaming success. Boasts the founder and chief designer of San Francisco's Joe Boxer Corp.: "We go where no underwear has ever gone before."

For instance, in public. Flavor Flav of the rap group Public Enemy was spotted at last September's MTV Awards sporting Joe Boxer pajamas printed with golf balls. And Michelle Pfeiffer slipped into a Boxer shorts-and-T-shirt set in The Fabulous Baker Boys. More covert converts: Sean Lennon (happy-face boxers), Ron Reagan (Statue of Liberty shorts) and Lionel Richie (a red polka-dot union suit). But it's the average Joe that Boxer is after. "Our underwear lets people express themselves," says Canadian-born Graham, 31. "Outwardly they can wear the most conservative business suit but underneath, wow! They know it's there." This marketing message is revolutionizing a heretofore mundane product. "Joe Boxer is the leader of the pack," says Tom Julian, associate fashion director of Men's Fashion Association in Manhattan.

Budding fashion power Graham has no design training—"I can't draw a line," he admits. Instead, he relies on his quirky ideas. Boxer offers such goodies as shorts that proclaim NO, NO, NO in the daylight and YES, YES, YES in the dark, and the 3D Undo-Vision line—sold with accompanying glasses. Then there's the Weekend with Ivana collection, featuring feathers over paisley. The price has helped popularize the gimmicks: Most of the 60 (per season) Joe Boxer designs sell for less than $20. As a result, Joe Boxer trails only Jockey and Calvin Klein in total sales.

Graham's early days were spent with jockeys of a different type. His father, Ewen, called Pip, sold riding equipment, and mom Nicky was an enthusiastic equestrian. Nick grew up on a ranch in Calgary, Alta. He attended Trinity College School in Ontario but skipped college. He made his first foray into outré wear when he was 17, decked out as big-bosomed cowgirl Louise Disguise for a bar band called Disguise Da Limit. Then he spent a few bohemian years traveling through England, Greece and Sweden.

It was in Greece that he met Maria Goldinger, a Swedish student whom he married in 1982. Living in San Francisco, they designed neckties ("seemed like an easy product—one size fits all") until a Macy's California buyer told Graham that fashion boxers were going to be the next big thing. With about $1,000, Graham created his first pair of shorts, dubbed the Imperial Hoser (hoser being Canadian slang for a backwoods beer drinker). Made of red plaid flannel, they sported a detachable raccoon tail—and were an instant hit.

Success, sadly, drew Graham and his first wife apart; the couple divorced in 1985. Maria, though, still heads the Boxer personnel department. "It was a natural progression, especially since they work well together," says Boxer vice president Denise Slattery. In 1987, on a visit to New York City, Nick met his current wife, painter Margo Rosengren, 35. They were married within the year, and last August Margo gave birth to their son, Christopher.

Graham usually leaves their Marin County English-style cottage before 7 A.M. in his Alfa Romeo Spider with the top down. He averages a 12-hour day, but Joe Boxer isn't exactly IBM. The 38-employee world headquarters, located above a muffler shop, houses a dog named Joe (guess which breed?) and a cat named Cat. Graham's office features moose heads, a gilt-covered mannequin and an antique bicycle hanging from the ceiling.

He hopes to maintain that funky atmosphere while taking the company onward. A hosiery line was recently launched, and Joe Boxer, already in Canada, just moved into Australia and New Zealand. Graham would like to see Boxer branch out into everything from music (he writes songs) to linens and dinnerware. To him, it's all performance. "We're in the entertainment business," he says. "We just happen to sell clothes."

—Tim Allis, Eleanor Hoover in San Francisco

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