Nothing Icy about Perry Ellis’ Munsingwear Penguin Revival

For those who are interested in a perfect case study of how to revive a dead brand, look no further than Miami-based Perry Ellis International‘s revival of the Munsingwear Penguin.

On an October 2007 weekend trip to Miami’s South Beach, the two-year-old flagship company store on Lincoln Road Mall was hopping (or flapping).

Penguin was a spin off of Minneapolis-based Munsingwear, itself one of the early American clothing brands. Munsingwear was founded in 1887; Munsingwear’s history, born as Northwestern Knitting Company, was one of innovation. The company’s founder, George Munsing, took the itch out of woolen underwear by milling cotton and silk with wool. Munsingwear became a top American clothing brand. In the 1940s, it even made American-flag bras and girdles.

Today, the brand “Munsingwear” mostly connotes union suits and underwear, though the company made a wide variety of clothing including Vassarette intimate ladies’ apparel, Grand Slam sportswear and Kangaroo “pocket” underwear. Vassarette is an interesting case in itself as a diminished brand; it was, perhaps, the first Victoria’s Secret and was thought of as a high-end brand but today is mostly found at Wal-Mart.

Penguin was a sub-brand of Munsingwear, and became the golf shirt of icons like Arnold Palmer, Richard Nixon and Bing Crosby (click here to see the shirts in a vintage Key Biscayne photo with Eastern Airlines founder Eddie Rickenbacker).

By the 1970s, the Penguin brand was tired, and if traditional brand theories were to be applied by wonky brand managers, the brand would have been dead forever, as focus groups would have associated it with with out-of-fashion grand-dads of the early 1980s. But in 2002, Perry Ellis was more visionary than that, and they revived the brand. It was a hit among males 25-45, though we are sure it has a few fans in the 70-plus market too. The old guys give the Penguin street-cred.

Why did it work? The new look for Penguin was not ironic or updated at all. The logo (seen at right) was EXACTLY the same. In fact, the un-baggy feel of the Penguin shirts was in stark contrast to the rap-baggy clothes sold everywhere. It was just a good-fitting shirt in colors that were serious. What was genius about the revival: It all had the feel of Johnny Carson; Palm Springs, 1972.

The South Beach company store has a strong concept of the brand; for instance, in the back, a large color portrait of a 1970s family dominates. A clerk said that it was the head of the brand’s family. One would assume to be the family of George Feldenkreis, who turned a small importer of Cuban shirts into what is now Perry Ellis International. (Actually, a blog post comment below says it is Chris Kolbe, head of the brand for Perry Ellis. A picture from the New York opening, as well as the family photo, is here. ) This is as far away from Abercrombie as it gets, and it works.

At the shop, the clerk asked if I had grown up with the brand. Oh, no. It was out of fashion by the 1970s; by then Izod Lacoste, Boast and Polo had taken over knit golf and tennis shirts. Instead, Penguin was a brand for grand-dads, sold in those suit stores that had “sport shirt” sections. (In my case, I think I recall it being sold at the men’s store C.C. Baker on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk near Old Dominion University. And yes, my grandfather took me there.)

The clerk then said that most of the current Penguin customers didn’t actually ever wear the shirts back then; instead they had dads or grand-dads who did.

BRANDLAND USA RULE: If a company shuts down a brand because it is not attracting younger consumers, wait a generation, and start it up again, but don’t screw it up and change it. This was the case with Munsingwear’s Penguin, which came back pretty much like it was.

The next generation, when it gets older, will find the brand hip again. This is a lesson for General Motors, which unnecessarily killed off Oldsmobile. Wait a few years, and bring the Olds Vista Cruiser back. All those men wearing Penguin shirts need something to drive in.

5 Comments

  1. THe photograph in NYC store is a copy of Chris Kolbe’s family. He’s the president of the brand. the brand’s retail presence is growing in Miami..but i think its fair to say that the brand’s wholesale business isn’t that hot as the in miami store.

  2. I appreciate your identifying the person, Chris Kolbe, and family and thanks for your comment about the wholesale prospects for Penguin.

    It takes a long time to build back the equity that you had. After all, Penguin was popular and hip, but it went through a long period of being out of fashion. Lacoste, however, was popular for a long time and more recently popular, and then sorta disappeared. Penguin was hip in the 1960s, but by the 70s did not keep up with the younger market and so has a grandfatherly association. So I think it has less residual goodwill to build on than something like Izod or Lacoste, now separated. Nevertheless, it still has lots of goodwill.

    Its a hard slog. One thing I noticed at the store were the imprinted T-shirts with different versions of the penguin on them. They could easily push that more, so you would get specific shirts from Penguin New York and Penguin Miami, and use more colors rather than brown. That’s taking the brand in a more Ron Jon, Peace Frogs, Hard Rock direction, so a wholesale direction might not be the best thing until the brand is more re-established. Here’s the Peace Frogs link. Peace Frogs

    The revival of Lilly Pulitzer has been a totally niche affair at a select number of stores, but that has served it well. The other thing I wonder…the stores are east coast, west coast and Texas, but the brand has really midwestern roots, so it might resonate more if it were pushed in golf shops and such in Chicago, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

  3. I am looking for what the original packaging would have looked like for Munsingwear stretchy mens briefs looked like. I am a grad student makeng a book on vintage munsingwear underwear and any information onn munsingwear and the ads. who did them and packaging between 1938-1945 would be so appeciated.
    Contact me if you know somthing at farkel32@yahoo.com
    Robert Lewis


  4. I’m wearing Munsingwear Penguin for 50 years already since I was a Baby boy.

    Asking, where I could buy a Munsingwear Penguin Made In USA Quality, ?

    Thank you

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