James Sonzero, a Los Angeles television commercial producer, started Papi men's underwear in 1995 with about $100,000. "Papi" is Spanish slang for daddy and a term of endearment. After creating commercials for mainstream products for 13 years and watching clothing trends in clubs, Sonzero says, "I felt I was poised to launch my own product. And I felt there was a need for a Latin-identified product." Papi's start was inauspicious: A 1995 boutique trade show in New York, where the company first showed, opened during a blizzard. Nonetheless, Papi racked up $20,000 in new orders in two days.
The Broadway hit Rent used Papi as part of its costume ensemble and singer Janet Jackson and actress Rosie Perez have been photographed wearing Papi t-shirts and hats. At the time, Papi was sold mostly via urban boutiques that target Latino and young, hip clients.
In 2004, Miami Lakes-based Isaco International acquired Papi. Isaco International is a leading manufacturer of underwear, sleepwear, ties, and hosiery, most notably for the brands Perry Ellis (acting as a licensee of Perry Ellis International), Ike Behar and Equipo.
Isaco launched Papi at better department stores including Macy's, Dillard's and Belk, as well as specialty stores, greatly increasing the brand's exposure. Today Papi competes in the men's underwear market with 2xist, Calvin Klein and Emporio Armani. Papi's niche remains sexy, provocative and colorful designs and boasts a strong Latino and gay following. Papi creates Calvin Klein-esque ads and packaging and employs campaign-level models in its marketing, including Brett Novek (2007), Vinci Alonso (2008), Michele Graglia (2009),Derek Keeton (2010) and Leonardo Corredor (2011).
Beyond simply selling underwear, Papi is involved in cause marketing, especially HIV / AIDS awareness. In 2009 Papi and HIVictorious, a non-profit organization from Wisconsin, teamed up to promote a national HIV awareness campaign entitled "What If You Were HIV Positive?" In 2010, Papi designed a special collection of men's underwear for Hispanic Heritage month and championed Hispanic-American causes such as education, immigration and cultural assimilation.