The Period Underwear That Couldn’t

Unusual advertising for THINX panties underground inside the Union Square subway station in Manhattan, New York City
Photo: Ira Berger/Alamy Stock Photo

On the morning of Monday, January 29, employees at the period-underwear brand Thinx knew something was wrong when they were invited to a last-minute, company-wide Zoom meeting. CEO Meghan Davis logged on and quickly got to the point, reading from a script: The company was being “integrated” into its corporate owner Kimberly-Clark, the company behind Kotex and Kleenex, and significant layoffs were coming. By the end of the day, the Thinx team was decimated. On a team of 109 people, 95 were losing their jobs.

There was a catch: To be eligible for severance packages, all the employees would need to stay on for three months, until May 1. Around five people were offered jobs to continue to work on Thinx, but as Kimberly-Clark employees. (If they declined the job offers, they sacrificed the severance.) Kimberly-Clark executives told employees that even after May 1, Thinx will look largely unchanged to the outside world, at least for now. And a previously planned collection launch is still on for April.

But behind the scenes, the Thinx that employees once knew — the innovative and sometimes controversial direct-to-consumer digital brand with a feminist mission to playfully destigmatize periods — was dead. In fact, it had been dying for the better part of two years, according to four current and former employees that I spoke to last week, who asked to remain anonymous. They fear Kimberly-Clark will eventually close or downsize Thinx’s website.

“There was a time when we were the ‘It’ girl of period underwear,” said one former employee. “And then we just stopped doing the things that people liked about us.”

A representative for Kimberly-Clark declined to comment on the company’s plans for Thinx but said the brand will benefit “from Kimberly-Clark’s deep category expertise and global scale.”

In its ten years in business, Thinx weathered more than the usual behind-the-scenes drama, even compared to the many other highly visible direct-to-consumer brands that struggled under the weight of sky-high expectations in recent years. In 2017, a former employee sued co-founder and CEO Miki Agrawal for sexual harassment, alleging she touched employees’ breasts and was frequently nude in the office, among other inappropriate behavior. Agrawal stepped down as CEO, declared herself instead the “She-E.O.,” and said the accusations were “baseless.” (The suit was settled in 2017.)

By then, Thinx had established itself as one of the most promising brands in a wave of disruptive digital consumer companies. Its sales were growing quickly even with minimal investor funding, and it sold a genuinely innovative new product — period- and urine-absorbing underwear. Its branding was bold and distinctive: Early ads featured an image of a grapefruit that suggested a bloody vagina. Other campaigns highlighted the stories of transgender men. After Agrawal stepped down in 2017, Thinx kept growing and expanding when a new CEO, Maria Molland, took over. She hired the first HR team and launched Thinx in its first mass-market retailers, including Target and Walmart. She grew the team and opened a new office on the west side of Manhattan, where conference rooms were named after pioneering women — “Notorious RBG” and “Eve Ensler.”

A Thinx ad in 2021. Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx

In 2021, Thinx’s revenue peaked just shy of $100 million, according to a former employee. “We had the best product on the market,” said another. “We wanted to be the Kleenex of period underwear.” Molland was heralded as the woman who “saved” Thinx from the brink of girlboss-induced disaster.

In February 2022, employees celebrated when Kimberly-Clark bought a majority stake in the business. The team hoped the consumer-goods giant would help Thinx grow in big-box stores where its other brands, including Poise and Huggies, are ubiquitous. As often happens after such deals, in the months that followed the acquisition, many of Thinx’s most important leaders, including Molland, the COO, and the creative director, received their earnings and left.

But since the acquisition and the management turnover that followed, employees claimed Thinx has struggled to balance staying true to its taboo-breaking roots while building a Walmart-friendly business. Last year, Thinx’s revenue dropped 30 percent year-over-year to $60 million. One problem, employees alleged, was Thinx’s advertising, which had once often included images of blood stains, transgender models, and models with visible physical disabilities. In recent years, Thinx’s campaigns became more focused on appealing to what one employee called a “fictional midwestern woman” who was turned off by images of women in their underwear touching each other. The shift had already started before the acquisition as Thinx worked to build an audience outside big cities. But employees said Thinx was still “speaking out in certain ways,” including joining other female-led brands to support abortion rights in a New York Times ad in 2019.

The changes became more obvious in 2022, when one of Thinx’s television commercials featured a domineering mom as she began to show her anxious teen daughter how to insert a tampon. An older sister interrupts them, banishes Mom from the bathroom, and gives her sister a pair of Thinx underwear. “Mom won’t have to show you how to use them,” she says. Some employees felt ads like these did little to destigmatize periods and seemed to attack moms, theoretically Thinx’s new target customers. An ad for Thinx’s incontinence underwear, targeted toward women who identified as “secret leakers,” had a similar tone. (“You can’t Kegel your way out of this,” said the spot.) Several of the employees I spoke to were confused about the company’s direction beyond rejecting strategies that had worked in the past. “[It was] a lot of listening to what consultants said instead of to full-time employees,” said a former one.

Then in January 2023, news broke that Thinx had paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused the company of misrepresenting its products as nontoxic because its underwear carried trace amounts of harmful chemicals known as PFAS. Commenters flooded Thinx’s Instagram comments with angry messages. “Typing Thinx into TikTok for a number of months was so depressing,” said a former employee, one of several people who wanted Thinx to respond to the many questions raised by the settlement. Kimberly-Clark “really underestimated the weight of something like this on a cult brand like Thinx,” said the employee. “We had been so vocal with people up to that point.” Employees were also frustrated when they saw their competitors, including Knix, deal with the same allegations and address them directly with their shoppers. (Thinx does have a page on its website affirming its products are not made with PFAS, but it doesn’t explain what the chemicals are, or that they are widespread in water, air, and food.)

Around the time the settlement news broke, the brand also removed a lot of the language from the site that could be considered legally risky, like “leakproof,” employees said. Thinx had registered its underwear as medical devices with the FDA and needed to wait to substantiate such claims until it finished official testing. “The amount of things that we could say really got squashed,” said the employee. As a result, much of the educational content on the site, which helped customers understand how the underwear worked, was wiped, too.

Thinx also had pricing issues. At $35 a pair, the brand’s underwear was simply too expensive for many potential customers. Meanwhile, mass-market competitors like Aerie and Hanes were rolling out their own cheaper period underwear, using slogans like “leakproof” without needing to satisfy FDA rules. To better compete in Target and CVS, Thinx introduced a $17 version of its underwear in stores. Just after the settlement news broke in early 2023, Thinx started selling the $17 pair on its website, too. Employees worried the strategy confused customers who couldn’t differentiate between the two options. “All the research said not to do it that way,” said a former employee. “Without really good solid messaging to tell you the difference, people just didn’t get it.” Online revenue plummeted.

As the months passed, employees said they felt leadership stopped listening to data and their employees. Once upon a time, Thinx held regular meetings where all employees could voice ideas. When the brand was behind on its sales numbers in 2020, for example, the CEO at the time held a companywide meeting and asked everyone to split into groups and brainstorm ideas. “We beat our projections by $10 million [that year],” remembered a former employee.

As the business suffered in 2023, there were no such meetings, employees said. “Everyone was just being handed directives without enough money, without enough personnel to execute, and with no real belief that it was going to work out because it went against all the data that we had,” said a former employee. “The culture just completely died, and that was what was most heartbreaking.”

The Period Underwear That Couldn’t