Medellín, Colombia, a 2.7 million-strong city nestled like a jewel in the Aburrá valley 5,000 feet above sea level in the state of Antioquia, which stretches from the Andes mountains to the Caribbean, is one of the largest in Colombia. Known as the “City of the Eternal Spring” for its year-round temperatures in the low 70s, it is also a major supplier of textiles for the United States and trademarks around the world. Ironically, though, for an underwear hotspot like Medellín, their men’s taste in skivvies is pretty tame.
“Its very interesting: Medellin is sort of the Silicon Valley of underwear manufacturers,” says Olga Lucia Oggioni, General Manager at Mundo Unico, one of Colombia’s largest domestic brands. “Many of the Colombian brands sold in the US are made there like Clever and Mundo Unico—a bunch of underwear companies. The quality and fabric craftsmanship in Medellín is very good, even though these brands are not in the Colombian market.”
It’s a twist on a familiar predicament, where export-based economies are themselves inundated with imported versions of the very same commodities they produce. “In terms of manufacturing, it’s very big,” Oggioni said. “But in terms of selling, it’s not very big.” Brands as varied as PPU, Candyman, Zylas, Picante, Clever, Jor, Gigo as well as Mundo Unico are produced in Colombia. However, most of these aren’t even on the market in the Colombian city, and those that are get edged out by larger brands like Calvin Klein and Diesel. As for designer underwear, most Colombianos put on a Punto Blanco, Leo or Gef—budget brands that are steadfast in their popularity with the male population.
The status associated with wearing a classy foreign brand is also a draw. Men “will buy a Lacoste shirt just for the crocodile to show off that they’re wearing an American brand.” The same holds true for underwear. Men in Medellín opt for a foreign logo over a local one, in an attempt to demonstrate status.
So what do paisas (the name for people from Medellín) wear? “The colors that Medellín men wear are very neutral,” avers Oggioni. “It’s black, white or beige; Colombia is much more conservative.” Colombia is still a deeply Catholic country, and this is reflected in people’s dress. But that’s not all.
“Latin cultures are missing the exposure to many fashion trends. Like in cuts, for example: the cut that sells most is 10” in Colombia” as opposed to 7” in the US, continues Oggioni. “Men in the US are more adventurous compared to Colombia at least, and I’m quite sure a lot of South American countries as well.”
This is not to say that no one gives any thought to underwear at all. There are local traditions specific to Colombia which the people of Medellín love to celebrate. On December 31st, for example, to bring good luck in the new year, both men and women wear yellow underwear. “Local shops buy underwear like crazy,” says Oggioni.
Perhaps some day the domestic market for designer men’s underwear will be as robust as the manufacturing sector in Medellín. But for now, we can only puzzle at the predicament and be glad it’s not the other way around. After all, the Colombians making all our underwear could be keeping it for themselves.
For your viewing pleasure, we’ve included some favorite shots from one of our favorite Colombian brands: Mundo Unico. Enjoy!