Road Test: Ministry of Supply’s High-Tech Shirts Hold Up In the Heat

Xconomy Boston — 

Summer in the Northeast leaves its mark everywhere you look. For men, that means plenty of glistening forearms, grubby necks, and painterly splotches on the backs of shirts.

We’re talking about sweat here. And if you’re walking more than a couple of blocks in any city with a hot, humid climate, you’re going to have to deal with it one way or the other.

You could go with the Don Draper method of keeping extra shirts in a drawer for quick-change operations. Depending on the office dress code you’ll see plenty of linens and, yes, even well-tailored shorts are being worn on the hottest days.

There are some more high-tech options available, too. And while the liquid-cooled undershirts worn by Nascar drivers are probably overkill, Boston-based clothing startup Ministry of Supply is tackling the hot-and-sticky days of summer by rethinking how clothes are constructed.

The company, founded by former MIT students, combines advanced textiles and unusual manufacturing processes to produce its men’s dress clothes. The idea is to move synthetics and blends way past their slick ‘70s beginnings and create a sharp-looking, cool, durable collection of duds that won’t falter after a long, hot day.

We’ve written about Ministry of Supply’s business and its clothes before, but hadn’t really tried them out. In the past few weeks, I decided to put the company’s shirts to the test with a real-world road trial that coincided with the start of the hot, humid, borderline blast-furnace that is a New England summer.

The company had no idea I was doing this—I just bought the clothes like any other consumer would, on the Ministry of Supply website and at one of the young company’s pop-up physical retail stores. Afterward, I called up co-founder Aman Advani to chat about my experience, get a little better sense of how Ministry of Supply chooses its designs, and find out what it’s working on next.

The bottom line: If you’re in a sweltering environment—and especially if you commute to work by foot and public transit, like me—Ministry of Supply’s gear is definitely worth a try. But don’t get too cute about just using their high-tech undershirt with a plain old sweat-retaining cotton button-up. Personally, I plan to buy some more stuff from this company.

Temperature: 80 degrees
Humidity: 60 percent
Skies: Partly cloudy
Wind: 17 mph

After a few days of increasingly hot weather signaling the start of the Ugh, Really? season, I’d resolved to jump into this experiment and ordered one Ministry of Supply undershirt online. It cost $38, with free shipping, and arrived a few days later. I put it to use right away.

The company’s “Atmos” shirt is constructed like an undershirt you might find at relatively upscale men’s clothing stores—it has a slightly tailored fit, with sleeves short enough to not stick out from under any short-sleeved top layer.

It’s made of a combination of fabric, 80 percent cotton and 20 percent nylon. That blend is supposed to work as a better moisture-wicking combination than other fabrics, with the cotton drawing sweat away from the body and the nylon causing it to spread out for faster drying.

The other high-tech part of the Atmos shirt is how it’s put together: this shirt is knitted in one single piece by a robot. The process has been described as a rough equivalent of 3D printing for fabric. I don’t know exactly how it works, but the result is that the fabric is more closely knit on the front and more porous on the back and under the arms.

So I threw it on, added a short-sleeved cotton button-up, and headed to work. My usual commute has three elements that make it, shall we say, an ideal proving ground for sweat-combating clothes in the warmer months. I walk a little over a mile to the subway, head underground to wait for the train, and ride for about 10 to 15 minutes before emerging from the tunnel to walk another four blocks to my office. I’m also carrying my laptop and other assorted work things in a backpack, which during this test weighed about 12.5 pounds.

This test worked as an odd kind of enticement to buy more Ministry of Supply gear: the perforated, moisture-wicking back of the T-shirt worked so well that it had passed all of the sweat generated by this overheated walk onto the cotton overshirt. Sadly, the second shirt—the one visible to the world—wasn’t quite as quick-drying as its more advanced cousin, and it showed in the form of a “ghost backpack” on the rear of the shirt.

“We’ve heard that a couple of times,” Advani says when I give him the play-by-play. “It’s not to say that the pieces don’t work independently. It’s just that there’s kind of a multiplier effect when you get the pieces together.”

The underlying T-shirt worked so well—felt cool, shed moisture, dried quickly—that I had to see how its dress-shirt companion would perform.

Temperature: 81 degrees
Humidity: 62 percent
Skies: Mostly Cloudy
Wind: 14 mph

Buying a T-shirt online is one thing, but I wanted to try the dress shirt on in person before buying to avoid any back-and-forth size change hassles. This is part of the reason Ministry of Supply has been pushing ahead with a retail-store presence in a few markets, starting with temporary “pop-up” stores. Although the company was born as an online retailer, and has even used Kickstarter to test and crowdfund new products, physical stores still play a big role in clothing.

Luckily, since I’m in Ministry of Supply’s home territory, I had good odds of seeing the stuff in person. I headed down to the company’s experimental retail store in Boston, among the high-end shops on Newbury Street.

After figuring out the right size (I was happy to learn Ministry of Supply would reimburse for tailoring, since the sleeves of their XL standard shirt were a little too long for my arms), I paid $98 for the Apollo shirt in white.

This was the first of two button-down shirts produced by Ministry of Supply, and the less expensive of the two. It’s slightly more business-casual in appearance because of its knitted construction, which gives the shirt a nice texture and all-over ventilation. Other than needing to adjust the sleeve length at some point, I liked the fit—it wasn’t too tight or too loose, and the knitted build actually gave it some stretchiness.

Unlike the T-shirt, which is primarily cotton, the Apollo shirt is 100 percent polyester. The fabric is also infused with something called a “phase-change material,” a NASA-developed additive that absorbs heat rather than immediately reflecting it back to the body. (This technology works both ways, too—if the air conditioning at work is too chilly, the phase-change materials release the heat back to the body.)

For this test, I put on the Atmos undershirt, rolled the sleeves of the Apollo dress shirt all the way up to the elbow, and grabbed my backpack for another trip to work.

The results were, as I told my wife later, borderline life-changing. When I got into the office building after another sweltering trip through the T, I shrugged off my backpack and felt with my hand to check out the moisture-wicking performance. It had definitely worked once again, but I was apprehensive about having a big, nasty sweat mark on my back.

Once I checked it out in the men’s room mirror, I was shocked. The fabric betrayed no hint of the greenhouse effect I’d heaped on it by lugging a heavy backpack across town—not one mark, shadow, or droplet. Once in the paradise of office A/C, the shirt was dry and fresh looking in no time. It also didn’t wrinkle, and looked great at the end of the day, even after the return trip.

“You’re the exact picture of what the shirt is built for. You’re not going to get to work and take a shower,” Advani says. “But you still show up and you look fresh.”

At this point, I was kind of dreading the next too-hot day when I’d have to dodge around some cotton shirt. Then I got an e-mail from the store advertising a July 4 weekend sale, which sealed the deal. I headed back to get another shirt, this time opting for the more expensive, somewhat dressier-looking Archive button-down. It would get the same hardcore heat test and also perform well, although for my purposes I probably will prefer the Apollo for the hottest days.

Temperature: 79 degrees
Humidity: 64 percent
Skies: Mostly cloudy
Wind: 14 mph

The purchase this time was quick, since I knew which size and model I wanted. I picked a white and blue striped Archive shirt, which is woven rather than knitted, giving it a smoother texture that contributes to its more dressed-up appearance. It’s also more expensive, retailing for $108.

The Archive shirt is made of 98 percent polyester and 2 percent elastane (another name for spandex), which adds some stretchiness. It doesn’t have the heat-distributing phase-change materials that the Apollo shirt uses, relying instead on the moisture-wicking properties of the synthetic fabric. It also has very small laser-cut perforations in the underarm, which Ministry of Supply calls “nearly invisible,” for better ventilation. Overall, the shirt looks really nice—this is not the shiny, cheap-looking synthetic material of the past.

This one got the same unscientific overheated commute test, and also performed quite well on the mile-plus walk and T ride. Unlike the Apollo, I noticed a definite outline on the back of the shirt after dropping my backpack and checking my reflection once I got into the building.

It was nowhere near the level of what you’d find with a regular shirt—I kind of had to look twice—but it also wasn’t the nearly magical invisibility of the first dress shirt. In any case, it dried out within 15 minutes or so and the shirt looked great the rest of the day and through a dinner that same evening, with no wrinkles or anything.

Advani says the difference in moisture showing on the shirts is to be expected with their different construction, especially under the pretty serious conditions I was subjecting them to.

“The Apollo is more proactive in that way,” he says. “That one’s a system that’s kind of attacking a problem as soon as it sees it—let’s not even let you overheat to start sweating. Let’s stop that before it starts. The Archive is a bit more reactive.”

After all of this road-testing, I was getting pretty eager to try out a Ministry of Supply shirt that didn’t require rolling up the sleeves. Advani had some good news on that front: the startup is experimenting with two different styles of polo shirts, and thinks it’ll have some test versions available in a few weeks. If the response from customers is good, the company would plan a full manufacturing run for next spring.

If this heat doesn’t kill me first, I’ll probably grab for a couple myself.

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  • Bobbie Lefeuvre

    I really enjoyed this article. I am happy you are keeping cool. I thought you were super cool even before this shirt experiment.

  • Bobbie Lefeuvre

    ? Women’s clothing? Maternity?