words REBECCA JAMIESON DWYER photos BECKI MOSS
With their joyful prints, time-tested designs and commitment to doing business differently, iconic underwear brand Thunderpants has been helping keep the New Zealand manufacturing industry alive for almost 30 years – one pair of supremely comfortable undies at a time.
If you’ve ever experienced the unique rage that comes from wearing a pair of ill-fitting, uncomfortable, synthetic undies all day, then you’ll probably understand the enduring success of Thunderpants, who’ve been keeping their fans in dopamine-inducing, cheerful, ridiculously comfortable undies, crop tops, swimwear and more for almost three decades now.
Founder Josie Bidwill had her first flash of inspiration for Thunderpants while studying fashion and textiles as a mature student and being tasked with creating an item of lingerie. “My friend Victoria had previously been making some undies, so I started there and expanded on the idea,” she recalls. “I set about making a pair that would be comfy and hardwearing because my new status as a student (who no longer earned a salary) meant I didn’t have the financial ability to replace garments unless I made them.” The pair began gifting their undies to friends, and the positive feedback was loud and resounding, with the brand being officially launched in 1995.
Those early days of the brand affectionately known as Thundies were enjoyable and chaotic, with loved ones being roped in to help with packaging the products and being paid in underwear. “We had a small factory in the spare bedroom with a cutting table and sewing machines, and we did all the printing at Polytech because it was better set up, space-wise,” recalls Josie. “We had to do everything, but it was all good fun and somewhat exciting.”
However, perhaps typically for that time, Josie and Victoria struggled with trying to persuade their bank that this women-focused product was something the world wanted and needed: “The most challenging part was trying to persuade the all-male bank managers to back us with an overdraft. There was only one who could see the logic in women making comfy and durable underwear for women,” Josie says.
The great thing about working as sisters is we are largely on the same page about things, and when we aren’t it all blows over quite quickly as the bond is very strong and the love overrides everything else.
Victoria eventually left to concentrate on her career in television, and Josie was joined by her sister Sophie who had a background in fine arts and plenty of energy and enthusiasm for the brand. The creative duo work well together and complement each other with their different strengths and weaknesses. “The great thing about working as sisters is we are largely on the same page about things, and when we aren’t it all blows over quite quickly as the bond is very strong and the love overrides everything else,” Josie says. “I love working with my sister. Our aesthetic is similar, our humour is similar, our approach to life is similar, we are similar.” And these similarities aren’t relegated to their professional lives: “We have been known to go into a cafe independently but on the same day, make the same joke and order the same food, probably wearing the same clothes! We also like to travel together, so all in all it works really well for us,” she adds.
top LONG-STANDING THUNDERPANTS EMPLOYEE NGAIRE bottom THUNDERPANTS FABRIC
As well as being family-owned, the company operates much like a large extended family, with a ‘people over profits’ philosophy that has meant many of the Thunderpants staff are true veterans. “Mish who works with us has been with Thunderpants for over 20 years, Geoff around 25 off and on, Helen around 10 and Ngaire around 12,” Josie says. “We work to live; we don’t live to work. Family, health and enjoying life are more important than many hours at work. The team at Thunderpants have all put in the yards, so now as we reach an age when we are all thinking about future retirement, it’s great that we can all take the pressure off and continue to slow down and enjoy what we have built.”
This compassionate, considered approach is also extended to their customers, particularly those who are marginalised and feel invisible to or neglected by mainstream underwear brands. Over the years, Thunderpants have incorporated many different people into their brand campaigns – including queer and non-binary people – and have recently phased out all gendered language from their website (undies are now described as ‘flat-fronted’ or ‘pouch-fronted’, rather than ascribed to a particular demographic). Although this has garnered predictable negative feedback from a few bad apples, Josie is proud to be helping all Thundies customers feel seen. “The degendering of our website really struck a nerve with a few people who felt they needed to moan to us about other people’s issues, however, the positive response from those who were truly affected by it far outweighed the negative,” she says. “We are happy to put ourselves out there as a voice for those that often get some backlash. We have seen a lot of this in the gender area, and – as women who do not conform to society’s idea of what beauty is – we are very comfortable in this arena.”
In response to a changing world, Thunderpants have had to change and adapt over the years, educating customers and bringing them along on their journey. This commitment to pivoting when necessary is firmly built into the Thundies brand, with Josie remarking: “The world and those in it are changing at quite a pace. I had never sent an email when I started Thunderpants, and now we sell totally online and have a business partner in the USA that we’ve only met by email and online.”
One major change was deciding to shut down the wholesale side of the business to focus on other avenues. “The cost of our various accreditations combined with the ever-increasing price of production meant it became impossible to continue wholesaling. We removed our product from over 100 stores, closed our own store and started to sell only online,” Josie explains. Another recent change has been moving some of their cotton production to Australia through Good Earth Cotton: “Good Earth farms regeneratively and looks to science alongside experience for knowledge. This aligns with our ‘keeping it local’ policy, but also with our understanding that it will be science that helps us navigate our changing world and the challenges of climate change.”
One of Josie’s biggest takeaways from her many years in business is that it’s possible to reject the hustle mentality that society tells us is the only way to run a brand. Instead, the Thunderpants philosophy is ‘slow and steady wins the race’. “We are not fast movers – in fact, quite the opposite,” she reflects. “In the very early days, we were approached by Oprah Winfrey’s people to be on her telemarketing show, which launches brands with a great furore. The whole concept sounded hideous to us and beyond the sort of production that we were comfortable with – it certainly did not fit with the slow approach that we liked.”
Many days I only wear things that are made by us – and that gives me the same pleasure as eating a meal that has come from your own garden.
Another example of this philosophy in action was a recent interaction with a customer: “I was talking to a customer in store about how we might trade in the door that we had been using as our counter for the last eight years for an actual counter, and he very quickly remarked that we shouldn’t, as things like the door counter were part of our charm,” she says.
So, as someone who surely has an impressive suite of underwear options to choose from each day, what style does Josie consistently reach for? “The original undie is my favourite, although I do enjoy the sky rise in the winter and have taken to wearing undershorts as undies in the hot summer months,” she admits. “I’m constantly wearing the straight-leg pants whenever I need trousers, and I love my togs and the bra crop. In fact, many days I only wear things that are made by us – and that gives me the same pleasure as eating a meal that has come from your own garden.”