After living half our lives in athleisure apparel, which is engineered to move, breathe and flatter, workwear can feel, well, like work—something you have to tolerate whether you like it or not. And though dresswear brands are increasingly borrowing innovations from the active category, the adoption rate proved too slow for Ministry of Supply’s co-founders.
Speaking at the recent Consumer & Retail Conference in New York, co-founder Aman Advani explained why the status quo wasn’t working for him or his partners, what makes a good dress shirt and why now is a great time to launch a new apparel concept.
“We think the whole system is broken,” Advani said, referring to the product and processes in apparel retail today. In fact, the issues are such that the industry doesn’t need evolution, which might result in incremental improvement to the bottom line, he said, it needs a 10-fold overhaul. “Our excitement, as inventors and tinkerers, was to take the industry’s volatility and put it in our favor; and create something that absolutely doesn’t exist today, but needs to exist by 2026.”
And from the perspective of young professionals, the place to start was the product. Stiff, stodgy workwear was a total turn off in a world that offers such a wide variety of comfortable, flattering casual wear—so, that the two worlds had to be separate simply made no sense. That idea gave rise to the company’s “performance professional” apparel, which is sweat proof, high (four-way) stretch, easy care (no dry cleaning or ironing) and easy wear dress clothes that you actually want to don.
The brand started as so many do today, on Kickstarter where its campaign went on to become the most successful fashion fundraiser. The Ministry of Supply Apollo shirt raised $429K and became the company’s first product to hit the market.
Dress shirts, you may say, are practically a dime a dozen, but consumers have responded to the MoS knit shirt, which Advani said, takes the best parts of fashion and function and marries them together. “At 19X more breathable than a traditional cotton dress, that order of magnitude, was a dramatic shift away from typical incremental improvements,” he said.
Ministry of Supply fabrications include a NASA-developed Phase-Change Material that regulates temperature, releasing heat based on surroundings, as well as one that uses recycled coffee grinds molecularly bonded to yarn to naturally absorb odors. MoS also employs 3-D print knit merino blend sweaters.
These technical fabrics and products demand an equally innovative supply chain, which Advani describes as “a hybrid between what you’d see at a Jos A Bank and at a high-tech performance brand. Think convention meets invention—sewing machines meet 3-D printers and laser cutters. It’s a pretty amazing sight. Our factories have adapted quite a bit to keep up!”
And clearly the brand’s onto something because legacy apparel businesses keep calling, hoping to score a partnership or maybe even an acquisition. “They are very interested. We’ve received multiple offers; none that we can disclose, and none that we’ve been tempted by,” Advani said.
Frustrated, some of these same players have set out to crack the MoS code for themselves, but Advani doesn’t worry. “We’ve confirmed that many major labels have our products in their development spaces,” he said. “But like any form of art—which fashion certainly is—emulation is nearly impossible, and by the time you can, we’ve moved on.”
A big part of the company’s ability to remain ahead of the imitators is MoS’s fanaticism when it comes to data. While everyone’s talking about using customer insights, few are able to effectively analysis and execute on the findings but as a digitally native company, that skill is baked into the Ministry of Supply process. “For five years, since our launch, we’ve logged every single insight or feedback we’ve gotten, and categorized them by a variety of labels. We can tell you absolutely anything from this data – exactly what people want, what they liked or didn’t, how they use our products, and how that varies by category, country, state, etc.,” he said.
The brand refers to this customer centricity as Qualified Empathy, which allows them to glean insights but also provide education, experience and service. “Our secret sauce lies in our process, more so than our product,” Advani said. “Four-way stretch is certainly becoming ubiquitous, which is great! But it’s just scratching the surface; though we can certainly list features, the only way to truly show this is by trying stuff on, side by side.”
And like many digitally native companies, the retailer now has physical stores where men and women can easily test out the goods. The locations also allow the brand to get to know its customers better, and they aid in brand recognition. “The stores are a critical piece of [our Qualified Empathy process], as they’re collecting these live, insightful pieces of information constantly.”
—Reporting by Marie Driscoll