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Sourcing Scoop: Three Things Ministry of Supply Focuses on for Success in Sourcing

When a company opts not to make technology more wearable, but instead to make wearables more technical, it’s onto something much of the rest of the apparel industry still isn’t: rather than creating something new and hoping to sell it, Ministry of Supply is honing in on something already in demand and elevating it into something consumers both want and need—whether they realized it or not.

In the Boston-based startup’s case, being founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students had something to do with bringing that practical mindset to an industry hard pressed to innovate and creating high-performance technical workwear that’s been a fast success in the sector.

So if that’s the thought process a scientifically-minded startup brings to the world of apparel production, what’s its approach to supply chains?

Company co-founder Aman Advani says there are three simple rules Ministry of Supply stands by when it comes to its supply chain: buy finished goods, focus on market pull instead of product push, and take heed of how vendors embrace and address their capabilities.

While the points are seemingly straightforward, many traditional players in the space have yet to hit on a supply chain approach that works as efficiently as this.

Ministry of Supply’s supply chain ethos

Above all, when it comes to its supply chain, Ministry of Supply errs on the side of buying finished goods.

“Let people do what they’re good at,” Advani said. “We have some incredible agents who also double, in most cases, as mills, so it’s kind of just letting them help run through the process and take on some of the risk with us of running these really big and complex supply chains.”

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Most of the company’s sourcing happens in Japan, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the U.S., with Honduras up next for consideration.

The second focus for the now 7-year-old startup, is letting the market dictate what it wants, rather than the other way around as has long been the practice in apparel.

“When we started doing our sourcing, the last thing we wanted to do was just go out and see what’s there, hope for the best and take what they give us,” Advani said of the company’s initial experience with suppliers. Instead Ministry of Supply outlines its goals and guidelines and what it wants to accomplish from a sourcing perspective, and then considers whether it’s getting that or not. “Sometimes it exists and we’ll happily use it. Most of the time it doesn’t and we have to start down a bit of a development path to get it exactly right, from either a fabric standpoint or a make standpoint. So those are the two things we think about: let the experts do what they’re really good at, and start with a market pull, start with a real customer need.”

From there the company considers capabilities. And not just whether a supplier can or can’t deliver on something it needs, Advani explained, it’s more of a mindset than a skillset.

“If we find out that we want to use laser perforations on a dress shirt, a traditional dress shirt, the factory probably doesn’t have a laser cutter. But the mindset that says ‘hey look, that’s not a wildly expensive piece of machinery or difficult to learn, let’s go in and buy one together, or you buy one and we’ll pay for it over the course of the next few thousand shirts,’” is the kind of partnership thinking the company looks for. “It’s kind of a bold and daring mindset that says we don’t know what the future holds but we’re going to go figure it out together.”

Technology’s role

Ministry of Supply, known for the Shima Seiki Wholegarment knitting machine that spits out nearly-finished 3-D printed sweaters (what the company calls 3D Print-Knit) in its Boston store, has big bets on additive manufacturing and its ability to carry apparel forward to the future.

“It’s really kind of this whole idea of the future of manufacturing, the future of sourcing, where it’s on-demand production,” Advani said. “If you wanted small batch it’s certainly fine, there’s no kind of MOQs, MCQs because it’s all done per piece. It’s going straight from yarn to garment right in front of your eyes.”

The concept of 3-D printing apparel has divided the industry between the more traditional thinkers who believe if the machine can’t knit garments beyond the basics, its ability to upset the industry will be limited, and the forward-thinkers who believe if today’s machines can 3-D print T-shirts and sweaters, it’s only a matter of time before consumers are shopping online solely for garment patterns and then 3-D printing their clothing in the comfort of their own homes.

Ministry of Supply is in the latter camp.

“We just think there’s something so special there and it’s still kind of largely untapped, it’s still a minuscule portion of total global apparel output—it’s not even on the map,” Advani said. “But it’s something we continue to put a bet on, continue to believe in, continue to think there’s something really interesting there, and we just don’t know when or how but we intend to be front row, or even better, on stage driving the process, bringing it to life.”

Performance product

When it comes to product, Ministry of Supply is invested in creating things like what it calls “your personal thermostat,” also known as the Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket.

The company shipped the first iterations of the jacket late last year after pre selling last February, and the ratings have so far been rave.

One review for the jacket on its website said: “I dont [sic] even remember what it is like to be cold anymore. I love the jacket so much. Def the best clothing purchase i have made in my life…” And another said simply: “It’s a stylish heated jacked [sic]. What more do you need to know?”

The garment, Advani said, “responds to your preferences to actually heat the jacket to get up to exactly the right temperature.”

More scientifically, the website notes, “At the core of Mercury are three lightweight, flexible carbon fiber heating elements. At just 1mm thin, you’ll barely notice them when they’re not powered. A smart thermostat reacts to your body and environment, providing up to 10 watts of heating power nearly instantaneously.”

Mercury will be a work in progress for Ministry, which will continue to iterate as it uncovers what could further advance the garment. The thinking going forward, Advani said, will be about how to give garments extra functionality that’s either situation specific or around the clock.

“What we’ve done that’s special with the jacket is we’ve taken a conversation on wearable tech and instead of saying how do you make technology wearable, we’ve kind of said: how do you make wearables more technical? And by taking that approach you’re going to start to think of a real scalable impact on fashion that directly integrates traditional clothing or silhouettes with this complex technology out there,” Advani said. “It’s just full on machine learning.”

The next frontier

It’s easy, Advani said, for startups to get caught up in the startup mindset when it comes to looking ahead, which the company is working to avoid.

It’s “this sort of ecosystem that we’re in where you think about channel strategy and you’re talking about business growth and investment and going international and all this kind of stuff, and I think our answer has really kind of settled into: make great product,” he said.

And that’s where the bulk of its investments will be focused—into making product that its creators are still surprised to see come to fruition, which is part of what keeps consumers’ attention in an oversaturated, generally under-stimulating marketplace.

“What we are is not an e-commerce brand. What we are is not just a fashion brand playing a fast fashion game. What we are is a technology company who happens to making clothing and uses the power we’ve built with the team to manifest itself [so] we can reinvent clothing,” Advani said. “So our answer would be crazy to be anything but how we make better and better product that meets your needs and some needs you didn’t even know you had. That’s what we’ll see coming down the pipeline, certainly some that should be headline worthy and others that will just be quietly in your closet ready for daily use.”