Ministry of Supply Meets Millennial Demand with High-Tech Work Gear

10/8/2014
Plenty of companies encourage employees to think outside the box, but only a few seem to dispense with the box altogether. One of these is Ministry of Supply, which uses high-tech materials and high-tech manufacturing to make comfortable, functional, attractive business clothes.

The company’s CEO, Gihan Amarasiriwardena, was fascinated by materials from an early age and started an outdoor-clothing company while still in high school. He went on to study materials engineering at MIT and to intern in the UK at Loughborough University’s prestigious Sports Technology Institute, where companies such as adidas and New Balance conduct advanced research. Working in an office made him realize that his business wardrobe was nowhere near as functional as his athletic wardrobe.

Before graduating from MIT in 2011, Amarasiriwardena met two business-school students there, Kit Hickey and Aman Advani, who were also interested in high-tech apparel. The three decided there was an unmet need for business clothing that performed more like outdoor gear — and they launched Ministry of Supply to meet that need.

Form and function
“A lot of our customers are young, urban, active professionals,” Amarasiriwardena explains, “and they have fluid boundaries between work and life.” Generation Y-ers don’t want to go home after work and change into casual clothes, he says; they want to go for a bike ride or out for a meal with friends, and they want the same clothes to serve for all occasions. They want to be comfortable at work, too; having been brought up wearing Nike and Under Armour, “now they have that same expectation of moisture wicking, aesthetic materials.”

Amarasiriwardena believes apparel should meet two needs — utilitarian and expressive. He and his co-founders have the deep technical knowledge needed to get the utilitarian part right. To make sure they nailed the expressive side, they hired the former head of design for Brooks Brothers to oversee design for them.

They started by manufacturing very small batches of men’s dress shirts, experimenting to perfect both the fit and the manufacturing techniques. When they sold shirts to business-school friends who were moving into professional jobs, the response was tremendous. Encouraged by their friends’ enthusiasm, they decided to launch their flagship product, the Apollo shirt, as a Kickstarter project in 2012.

“We looked at Kickstarter as a community that values technology and design, which are our core principles,” Amarasiriwardena says. “We thought there would be an amazing early adopter crowd.”

He was right — the Apollo raised $430,000 and proved to be the most-funded fashion project on Kickstarter at the time. Kickstarter didn’t just provide seed money; it provided product testing and feedback as well. Over several months of testing, Ministry of Supply was able to improve the shirt’s fit, design a better collar, and get ready for mass production of the Apollo.

Though the company has since received funding through more traditional sources, it’s keeping the idea of prototyping and testing small batches of clothes with early adopters. The Ministry of Supply website includes a “Labs” section which allows customers to order products that are still in development. Currently, Labs features two polo shirt designs; a third of the first batch was sold in less than a week.  “It’s a great way to test at a smaller scale,” says Amarasiriwardena.

At present, Ministry of Supply sells its products only through its website and, briefly, through a pop-up retail outlet in Boston. Other channels may be added soon.

Space-age fabrics
Ministry of Supply custom-designs and custom-manufactures a fabric or a combination of fabrics for each product. It uses technologies, such as robotic knitting, that allow for the creation of non-uniform fabrics — for example, the Atmos shirt blends cotton and nylon so that the inner layers contain a higher percentage of nylon (to wick moisture away from the skin, which makes the wearer feel cool) and the outer layers contain a higher percentage of cotton. The small amount of nylon in the outer layer helps spread perspiration across the surface to avoid concentrated stains.

The polyester fabric used for the Apollo shirt incorporates phase-change materials that NASA originally developed for astronauts’ space suits (it later made the technology available for public use). Phase-change materials are blends of polymers that melt and freeze at temperatures close to skin temperature. When the wearer goes outdoors in hot weather, the polymers melt and absorb energy, cooling the skin. When the wearer goes back into an air-conditioned office, the polymers freeze again, releasing energy and keeping the wearer warm. Hollow polyester fibers enclosing the phase-change polymers keep the shirt from turning into a puddle in hot weather.

Other fabric innovations include imbuing fibers with coffee grounds — which, because they are composed mainly of carbon, act as a “magnet for odor molecules,” according to Amarasiriwardena — as well as coating fabric surfaces with electronegative materials to make them water resistant (a technique usually applied to raingear) and weaving in spandex fibers to maximize range of motion (a technique not ordinarily used in men’s business clothing).

Even the orientation of fibers within fabrics is carefully engineered. Ministry of Supply uses the same techniques that aerospace engineers use to determine how an airplane wing will deflect in flight —only they’re figuring out how fabric moves, stretches and strains as the wearer moves. Then they orient the fibers to make sure they move in the right directions. “Our goal is to create a second skin,” Amarasiriwardena says.

Beyond fabric, Ministry of Supply uses design and manufacturing techniques that help make clothes movable and comfortable. Many of these techniques have been pioneered in outdoor apparel and aerospace — in fact, Ministry of Supply is working with some of the manufacturers in the Patagonia supply chain. Lightweight knitted panels are used as vents, with their placement based on thermal maps of the body. (Unlike athletic apparel manufacturers, which often make vents into design features by using contrasting colors, Ministry of Supply makes its vents as inconspicuous as possible.) The Archive Dress Shirt’s underarms have laser perforations — reinforced to keep the shirt from ripping — to enhance airflow. “The laser makes really clean cuts and gives a subtle ventilation that would be harder to do otherwise,” Amarasiriwardena explains.

Dress shirt collars are constructed using a thermolamination technique that fuses layers of fabric together. The result is a lightweight, comfortable collar that returns to its original shape without the use of stays. Thermolamination is also used to join pieces without stitching, thus reducing the weight of the garment. And three-dimensional robotic knitting allows engineering drawings to be translated into garments with a high degree of precision.
“The innovation is in the intersection of materials, manufacturing, and a deep understanding of the human body,” Amarasiriwardena says.  n

Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and technology.
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