It was a big year for underwear.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 70% of American workers were doing their jobs from home, which meant, for many of them, a chance to dress down. Way down.
Enter: Arq, a McMinnville-based underwear company, specializing in simple undergarments for adults, babies and children.
Arq is a break-out star of pandemic-era Instagram, the place where many people turned when stores shut down, where fashion advice comes from regular people and “regular people.”
The company went from about $180 thousand in gross sales in 2018 to about $7.5 million in 2020.
Once you start looking, it feels like Arq is everywhere.
Case in point: A stranger asked me recently if the bright pink tank top I was wearing was Arq.
“Yep,” I said, only slightly embarrassed to be wearing something so instantly recognizable.
“I’m wearing the matching underwear!” she said.
The basic cotton undergarments — bras, tank tops and underwear — are comfortable, simple and knit and sewn in the United States from organic cotton. For people who have spent a year in extreme emotional distress, mostly at home, the appeal is obvious.
“Some of us have hugged for the first time,” Abigail Quist, 37, Arq’s founder, said on a recent Friday afternoon, at Arq’s headquarters in McMinnville.
“Because we’ve grown so fast,” Quist said, “we’ve hired people over the past year.”
Now that her staff is fully vaccinated, they were getting together in person, some of them for the first time.
Quist’s employees, some from McMinnville, some who work remotely from Portland, were gathered at the clean, bright warehouse/office space/photo studio/future retail space. Some were packing clothes into paper mailers. Some were taking pictures. Others were working on customer service and social media.
Quist’s husband, Jefferson Quist, 38, an immigration and criminal defense lawyer and now Arq’s CFO, was working at a desk in the office, separated from the studio area by a few windows.
Quist grew up in McMinnville and she and her husband are happy to be back in town, running a growing company while homeschooling their three kids, ages 7, 8 and 11 with grandparents nearby.
Arq started in 2015 as a small line of kids’ clothes. Quist isn’t a fashion designer by training. She studied art at Brigham Young University — “Church school,” she noted, “but it’s not my church anymore,” — but she learned to sew from her mom and grandma and was making clothes for her own children.
One of her popular items was a “throw-back” set of underwear and a camisole. When she introduced the adult version in 2018, “it eclipsed everything,” Quist said.
She didn’t mind. Underwear, she said, is the one thing you don’t thrift.
“You wear it close to the body,” she said. “You wear them out till they are gone.”
That first underwear line sold out. They made more and it sold out again.
According to Quist, the company grew from four employees before the pandemic to 11 now, excluding Quist. Sales have grown exponentially, and production has increased at the Los Angeles sewing house where fabric is knit and garments are sewn, to meet the demand.
“2018,” Quist said, “We did about $180 thousand. 2019 we did about $1 million. And 2020, we did about $7.5 million in gross sales.”
It’s not a surprise that the year that changed everything also changed the way Americans dressed.
For many women, after years of thongs and underwire bras, it was a relief to wear clothes that didn’t hurt. Arq aficionados like Sam Milholland, 32, a Portlander whose Instagram page focuses on plus size fashion, said she loved the brand for the comfort of the garments, especially while working from home.
But it isn’t just comfort. As the pandemic halted classic forms of commerce and small businesses struggled, many people began to rethink the way they bought, well, everything.
Los Angeles-area poet, content creator and fashion Instagrammer Arielle Estoria, 29, said that during the pandemic, she found herself reevaluating her whole closet.
Instead of wearing clothes that were determined by office life, she said, people were now allowed to wear “the things that bring us joy, and not because it’s trending or cool.”
For many, that meant taking an interest in every aspect of the clothes they chose — a shift from “fast fashion,” like Forever 21 and H&M to “slow fashion” and small, independent brands.
For Estoria, Arq was part of her entree into the world of slow fashion. She discovered them, she said, a little before the pandemic began in earnest, just as she was becoming more purposeful about the clothes she was buying.
“I became very intentional about where my money goes,” Estoria said.
“It’s not just consuming,” she said. “You’re contributing.”
“I am investing in these pieces and hopefully these pieces are investing back in me,” she said.
This idea, that fashion and consumerism can be a symbiotic relationship between company and consumer, is the perfect outgrowth of the pandemic’s constraints on businesses and the way Instagram users engage with fashion.
I spoke to four influencers about their relationship with Arq and nearly every one was “influenced” themselves originally into buying Arq. And a lot of that has to do with representation.
The company’s page is full of well-lit bodies of all sizes and skin colors, from newborns to older women with long, gray hair, frequently in their studio, in their trademark underwear — high-waisted with a lot of coverage in the back — and cropped undershirt-style tank tops and bras that harken back to the cotton training bras of middle school.
Bri McDaniel, a 30-year-old photographer based out of Seattle, is one of the people on Arq’s Instagram page.
“I found out about Arq on Instagram when I was pregnant with my second kid,” McDaniel said. “One of my favorite influencers wore a lot of their underwear, and I decided to check them out.”
Since that discovery, she has modeled and done photography for the company. She remains a fan.
“Representation is so important to me and they are doing it right,” McDaniel said.
Arq goes all-in on all kinds of diversity. Unlike some trendy clothing brands, with sizes that go up to an extra-large that would barely fit the average American woman, Arq is serious about inclusive sizes ranging from extra extra small to 6 extra large. And the models represent that range.
For Estoria, the people wearing Arq in those pictures drew her to the brand.
“If I’m not represented,” Estoria said, “if my followers aren’t represented, I won’t buy from them.”
Influencers who are not typical fashion model sizes are doing a lot of work for Arq.
“What really influenced me to make my first purchase was seeing a photo of Jordan Underwood,” said Angela Alba, a 27-year-old Instagrammer who lives in Brooklyn.
In that photo on Instagram, Alba said, Underwood was wearing an Arq set in Bubblegum.
“They looked absolutely radiant in the set, and it was so nice to see a body that looked like mine wearing cotton basics,” Alba said. “I’m a size USA 26, so it’s tough to find high-quality clothes in my size without graphics or frills on them.”
This chain of influencers has been a crucial element in Arq’s success, and Quist knows that.
“We would have to try to be in Bergdorf’s,” she said, if there were no social media. “And I have no foot in the door at Bergdorf’s.”
And Instagram is not just a way to get the word out, but a force that has changed the course of the company. It was the community of followers, said Quist, that encouraged her to make the sizes even more inclusive.
“I was happily pushed farther and farther,” she said
And Quist said she was serious about making sure the company wasn’t just using diversity as a promotional tool, but that it informs every aspect of the business. Towards that goal, Quist said the company was about to undergo a diversity, equity and inclusion audit.
“I know that there are blind spots,” Quist said, and she is looking forward to an outside company looking through all the company’s paperwork materials and helping to identify those.
“We’re still growing,” Quist said. “We need to have systems in place that are as fool-proof as possible right now.”
As far as where a growing underwear company will go as the pandemic winds down? Arq released a couple of new items in late June — a new bra style and a leotard. The bra was completely sold out in three of the five colors within 30 minutes, according to Marissa Boone, Arq’s marketing director.
Those were the first new styles dropped since 2019. And more new styles are in the works, including unisex briefs and boxer shorts.
For now, Quist wants to stay in the undergarment lane. She doesn’t think that should be a problem, even as the pandemic ends and more people need to put real clothes on to leave the house.
“People still wear underwear under their clothes,” Quist said.