Bawbags: Success story that helps men’s health

Harry Judd, Danny MacAskill, and Freeski team members Murray Buchan and Anna Vincenti. Picture: Jon Savage
Harry Judd, Danny MacAskill, and Freeski team members Murray Buchan and Anna Vincenti. Picture: Jon Savage
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Fresh-packed snow all around and a fresh breeze around the Baltics, enough to make even the toughest free skier, snowboarder or even simply après ski ligger feel chills in X-rated places best kept well under wraps.

Former Great Britain ski team member Midge Whyte had his fair share of days on the slopes when the chills from outside sometimes meant frosty bits on the inside.

But it wasn’t until the Edinburgh skier’s downhill career was over and he started to wrack his brains for something else to do, that his thoughts turned to an idea that turned out to be simply pants.

In a brainwave moment, the former Alpine ace hit on producing a range of men’s undies that would not just keep things temperature-controlled down below, but would also appeal to image conscious street sport fans – and raise a smile.

Since then Bawbags boxer shorts have gone on not only to become an Edinburgh success story, but to raise awareness of men’s health, deliver vital cash for cancer research and, through sponsorship programmes with elite winter athletes, are even helping set some of the coolest members of Team GB on the slippery slope to the Sochi 2014 Winter ­Olympics.

That’s not all. For the brand has recently evolved into a global phenomenon, with a branch of the business in Germany, stock flying to New Zealand, Canada and Australia and ­bizarrely, more than 40 shops in Dubai stocking Bawbags.

The idea that the quirky pants – which feature funky colours and clever fun prints – should be going down a storm in the desert seems at odds with the brand’s distinctive Scottish humour, from the name “Bawbags” to the straight-talking packaging with its light hearted “Keep ’em tidy” and “May contain nuts” warnings.

Yet according to Midge – real name Alan – the international market has embraced the name with a smile, helped along the way by a certain hurricane.

“There were a few who didn’t initially get the humour,” he admits, recalling the brand’s launch six years ago. “Then Hurricane Bawbag came along, a name which I like to think we might have inadvertently had something to do with.

“Hurricane Bawbag trended at number one on Twitter and our sales on the website went through the roof. Thirty million people around the world all of a sudden became aware of the word ‘bawbag’ and if it didn’t mean anything to them initially, then it soon did.”

Boosted by hurricane power, sales of the undies soared – turning what started as a fairly tentative idea thrashed out between Stockbridge neighbours Midge and Colin Reid and then perfected over a few pints in their local Hamilton’s, into an Edinburgh success story.

At its heart is the brand’s fun ­approach to a serious matter – raising awareness of testicular and prostate cancer. “Guys find that part of their body amusing,” says Midge. “They just do. So it made sense to have a bit of a laugh but at the same time making a serious point.

“There wasn’t any particular personal reason behind wanting to do something that tied in with men’s health and charity,” he adds. “It started with a general message on the packaging and once we started to sell stock, we began donating a share of the profits to charity. Now we donate what we can every year.”
The firm – which has its warehouse in Livingston and sells about 200,000 pairs of boxers a year – is currently working with the Orchid Charity, the only UK organisation of its kind to focus specifically on male cancers. It’s more than only a financial arrangement – recently Midge travelled to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to learn in person about the vital work done there.

“We have a very strong connection with them. We made a video which is very tongue in cheek and very much along the lines of Bawbags humour, geared towards our target audience and aimed at getting the message over about cancer and how important it is to ‘check your baws’.”

Indeed the Bawbags humour is similar to the wry “near the knuckle” style that Irn-Bru has employed with great success. And while some might find it a little “direct”, according to Midge many customers are parents of relatively young teens who get a kick from its naughty humour.

“We realise there is a balance to be struck, so we’re just on the edge,” he adds.

“Although we did have one of the busiest independent shops in Glasgow tell us they had an elderly woman who saw Bawbags on display just inside the shop, and who shouted through the door that it was ­disgusting.”

Not that he or business partner Colin, 51, who are neighbours in Clarence Street, set out to offend anyone.

Midge had been merely looking for a new business idea after years working in the ski business and was thrashing out suggestions with Colin, who has connections within the clothing industry, when Bawbags took shape.

“It was seven or eight years ago now, when the kids were starting to wear their jeans slung down so you could see the top of their underpants,” explains Midge. “But they were wearing Calvin Klein boxers which is like a yuppy college kid brand and didn’t fit right with the dirty image of street skateboarding.”

Colin’s clothing trade connections helped identify suppliers in China and Turkey, while artist Robbie Hasta from Bruntsfield developed the striking designs – dazzling brightly coloured leopard prints, cartoon-influenced graphics and comic images.

Since then, celebrities like Harry Judd, the Strictly Come Dancing star of McFly, various footballers and rugby players have embraced the brand, while fans of street sports, such as skateboarding and BMX, have also adopted the Bawbags style, including members of the Clan cycle stunt team led by Danny MacAskill.

But the brand isn’t just about quirky humour, insists Midge. Its products make use of high-tech silky feel fabric designed to cater for serious athletes.

“It’s not so much about the warmth of a fabric, but its breathability. If you’re working hard, then everything gets damp and sweat can make you cold and uncomfortable,” adds Midge. “So what our products do is try to get that moisture away from the body. A lot of our market is among skiers and skateboarders. At first people say they feel like girls’ knickers. Then they put them on and love them.”

Their links with “street” and winter sports go further – Bawbags has also branched into sponsoring skateboarders, BMXers and some of the new breed of so-called “fridge kids”, the free skiers whose fearless gymnastic skills will amaze spectators at next year’s Winter Olympics.

The firm has ploughed a five-figure sum into sponsoring the Great Britain Free Ski and Snowboard teams and also supports local freestyle stars Murray Buchan and Anna Vincenti. It means that once Team GB takes to the slopes in Sochi, at least a few members will be powered from behind by a city business that is pure pants.

If that fits in with the Bawbags humour, perhaps we should all be grateful that Midge and Colin didn’t actually succeed in securing a Cook Islands’ web address for their brand’s website. “We discovered that if you register through the Cook Islands, you get the web address that ends “We paid for it, but it never happened. I imagine there’s some guy on the Cook Islands, enjoying not responding to us. “Maybe,” he laughs, “that’s just as well.”

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You’d be nuts to ignore it

• Bawbags has made men’s health a key element of its branding operation.

• It supports Orchid, set up in 1996 by Colin Osborne, a testicular cancer survivor. Orchid aims to educate men about specifically male cancers and help fund vital research.

• According to the charity, more than 43,000 men will be diagnosed with a male-specific cancer – such as testicular,

prostate or penile cancer – in 2013.

• Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men aged

from 15 to 45. Early diagnosis is vital, and just as women are reminded regularly to check breasts for lumps, men are encouraged to carry out regular self examination.

• Prostate cancer – which Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has received treatment for – typically affects men aged 65 and upwards. An estimated one in eight men will develop prostate cancer.

n Penile cancer is a relatively rare condition and its affects 500 men in the UK a year. It is a slow-growing cancer and, again, if caught early, survival rates are good.