Ministry of Supply Puts MIT Engineering Cred Into Dress Shirts

6/8/12Follow @xconomy

There’s a startup in town that’s turning to Kickstarter—the crowdsourced funding platform—to support its newest product. The team is made up of MIT product designers, engineers, and MBAs, and has tested its technology in MIT labs, even incorporating a coating developed by NASA into its newest product

So what is that product, you ask? Men’s dress shirts.

Or in the words of co-founder and “logistics minister” (more on the titles and company name later) Aman Advani, “it’s the confidence to get through the day that’s completely driven by design.”

Yes, Boston-based Ministry of Supply is taking a product design approach to create more comfortable shirts for men to wear to work. It started in 2010 when MIT alum Eric Khatchadourian had experienced too many sweaty work shirts while commuting on the T, and asked a former fellow MIT runner Gihan Amarasiriwardena to design work apparel that would solve the problem (Amarasiriwardena had made athletic performance clothing in his earlier years.)

Amarasiriwardena (now the company’s “design minister”) and Kevin Rustagi, who had met in an MIT engineering innovation and design class, began plugging away. They turned down full time jobs when they graduated in 2011 to work on Ministry of Supply and in October sold their first dress shirts, made of existing performance apparel. Through the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, they learned about a pair of Sloan MBAs who were working on a similar project: Advani (who had his own frustrating dealings with uncomfortable work wear while traveling as a consultant) and classmate Kit Hickey. That duo joined the Ministry of Supply team earlier this year as co-founders.

The MBA half of the founding team was focused on repurposing existing fabrics for professional apparel. “Kit and I came at it from business perspective, to take what’s amazing and transfer it to a new arena,” says Advani.

But Amarasiriwardena and Rustagi, wanted to “perfect the model,” with a completely new material built specifically for businessmen’s needs, says Rustagi, that startup’s “business development minister.”

So the team has been testing synthetic fabric blends in labs and conducting analysis on the strain of a shirt on the human back, by taking two really high speed cameras, stretching the shirt, and seeing how the skin of the body moves against it. “It’s a hardcore engineering thing,” says Rustagi (There’s also less techie processes like wearing a dress shirt for a week straight to see how it holds up).

What’s the result? A fabric that’s moisture-wicking, anti-odor, and wrinkle free. It will be available later this month in a so-called premium agent shirt (I promise I’ll explain the James Bond vernacular soon enough). The shirts include a panel in the middle of the back that can better stretch with men’s movements, and fibers in the sleeves and collar that bond to bacteria and prevent the shirt from getting dirty (certain features are only available in certain shirt colors at this point). “Little secrets like that,” Rustagi says, also noting the fabric’s synthetic blend gives it “ancillary benefits” like being stain resistant and environmentally friendly because it doesn’t rely on formaldehyde for its anti-wrinkle properties.

There’s a reason businessmen don’t wear Under Armour-esque shirts to work, so to get the product up to par on the design front, the startup is using manufacturers in New York who have done work with the likes of Ralph Lauren and Express. It has also brought on DKNY founding president Denise Seegal as an advisor for some more retail-savvy feedback.

And for those who want shirts that are sweat-free, wrinkle-free, odor-free, and have astronaut-grade thermo regulation, there’s the Apollo fabric, the product Ministry of Supply is specifically pushing through the Kickstarter campaign it just introduced today.

“It’s scientifically shown that [the coating] can help alleviate changes in your skin temperature by as much as one to two degrees,” Rustagi says.

Meaning, the shirt itself can hold heat while you’re outside in the sun, and store it for when you enter a cool, air-conditioned building. Rather than immediately shivering, your body can pull heat stored in the shirt to slowly adjust to the right temperature. The material has been used before in athletic apparel but certainly not business wear, Rustagi says.

Ministry of Supply is looking to bring in $30,000 with the Kickstarter campaign, and introduce the Apollo shirts next month. Supporters can donate $95 to get a shirt (if the project is fully funded), which is a discount from the roughly $130 the shirt will retail at.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, Kickstarter is a website that allows people to fund essentially pet projects through a slew of individual donations. The projects have a fundraising goal and a deadline, and if the full funding amount doesn’t come in, none of the backers are charged. Boston-based Blank Label, which has sold custom-fitting men’s dress shirts, has looked to Kickstarter to fund a move into the women’s clothing market. Its campaign launched May 30 and has pulled in about $12,000 of a targeted $50,000, with 20 days to go.

Kickstarter could potentially solve an interesting problem for companies like Ministry of Supply and Blank Label, which need much more startup capital than say Web or mobile apps. Since producing physical products requires more upfront cash, these kinds of startups can come off as riskier investments for venture capitalists.

“In terms of fundraising, there’s a really interesting gap with product companies,” says Advani. “There’s this idea of demand and risk in a business context. People want to know there’s a demand out there because product companies are described as more capital intensive.”

For many Kickstarter campaigns, the consumer demand that surfaced far exceeded the initial goals. Like Doublefine, the video game company that set out to raise $400,000 and ultimately corralled $3.3 million or Matter, the tablet magazine project that was targeting $50,000 and pulled in around $140,000.

Ministry of Supply has some other means of support, though. The company was recently selected as one of the 125 finalist companies for MassChallenge and is nearing the close of an angel round under $500,000. Many of the investors, Advani says, decided to put money into the startup after realizing they want to wear the product themselves.

Ultimately, Ministry of Supply hopes to take its design-driven confidence into a number of men’s apparel items and is doing “very early prototypes” of other clothing pieces, Rustagi says.

“We want our customers to be able to go into a variety of situations, and always be confident, super hip, and have some technology under the hood,” says Rustagi.

Just like James Bond, who throughout his movies has gotten his wares from Q. The character is based on an actual person by the name of Charles Fraser-Smith, who worked for the British Special Ops during World War II.

And what was his cover? The British Ministry of Supply.

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