On June 6, a team of MIT alumni launched an online fund-raising campaign that they hoped would boost the apparel company they started last year, Ministry of Supply. They hoped to raise at least $30,000 to start producing a men’s dress shirt that uses high-tech synthetics to regulate heat — and an antimicrobial coating to minimize odors.
“Absolutely, we were nervous” about hitting the goal, admits cofounder Aman Advani. To get there, they needed to collect $1,000 a day of preorders for their new Apollo shirt over the month-long campaign on the fund-raising website Kickstarter — far more than what the Boston company was selling on its own website.
But by July 11, they had raised almost $430,000 from 2,541 individuals who wanted to be the first in their offices to show up with a shirt from Ministry. And the surprising success of the campaign may have put the company on the path to becoming the next hot apparel brand.
It goes without saying that this is not the sort of company that MIT — or Boston — typically produces.
One of the Ministry founders, Gihan Amarasiriwardena, designed outdoor gear as a teen growing up in Amherst, making everything by hand, and selling about $1,000 worth of gear to his friends. “I was a Boy Scout,” Amarasiriwardena says, “and I used to create jackets and sleeping bags with materials like Tyvek and ripstop nylon.”
When Amarasiriwardena met Ministry cofounders at MIT, they started wondering why new materials so often got introduced in the world of sporting gear — think of Gore-Tex — and so rarely in the realm of business apparel. “We wanted to position ourselves at the corner of performance wear and high-end men’s apparel,” says Advani.
Ministry made its first batch of 100 shirts in October, while two of the founders were still in school. Fifty were the “Agent” dress shirt, and 50 were a $30 undershirt they dubbed the “performance base layer.”
The shirts are made of a polyester knit that resists wrinkling and “pulls sweat away from your body,” Amarasiriwardena explains. An antimicrobial coating kills bacteria that can cause odor. A panel on the back of the Agent shirt incorporates Spandex to help it stretch, for when you’re bent over bike handlebars or reaching up to an overhead bin.
“The idea is that you get to work looking sharp even if you’ve biked there,” says Advani, “and you get there on time because you didn’t have to iron your shirt before you left.”
They named the company after a British government department, now defunct, that supplied weapons to the country’s military during and after World War II. The most famous head of the British Ministry of Supply was Charles Fraser-Smith, who inspired the character of Q in the James Bond novels and films. (Fraser-Smith put miniature cameras into cigarette lighters, and made pipes that could conceal secret documents.)
“Think of Q’s labs creating your clothing,” says cofounder Kit Hickey. “We wanted to create a story around the brand, and this idea of the person wearing it being secretly incredible.”
But venture capital firms weren’t swayed by the story. “They didn’t quite get why we were building a consumer products company,” says Advani.
Still, the company managed to raise a few hundred thousand dollars from angel investors earlier this year. They started working on a next-generation shirt they dubbed Apollo, in part because it uses a “phase-change” material similar to what NASA uses in space suits.
“It’s kind of like a battery for heat,” says Amarasiriwardena. “If you’re outside on a hot day, it’s pulling heat away from your body, but when you go into an air-conditioned building, it gives heat back to you.”
They unveiled the Apollo as part of the Kickstarter campaign; anyone who pledged $95 would receive one. Online publicity in TechCrunch, Popular Science, and Forbes helped the campaign blow past its original goal, Hickey says. But the company’s next challenge will be getting those early supporters to buy other products from Ministry — perhaps items like socks, pants, and sportcoats. The company is planning to open a showroom at its street-level offices in the Leather District next month.
I’ve been wearing a white Agent shirt from Ministry — the predecessor to the Apollo — on and off for the last month. I like the cut of it, and the stretchiness of the fabric. I also appreciate being able to throw it in the washer and not have to worry about ironing it. (The savings from not having the shirt professionally laundered is a bonus.)
But the edges of the cuffs and collar seem to attract dirt in a way that cotton shirts don’t. And the feel of the polyester creates that fuzzy, static-y sensation against your skin. I may buy an Apollo shirt to give that a try, but as someone who has happily worn cotton dress shirts for years, I’m not yet a convert.
Launching a new apparel brand successfully “is a one in a million shot,” says Greg Selkoe, chief executive of Karmaloop, a Back Bay e-tailer specializing in trendy merchandise. “But trying to bring something smart and high-tech to an existing category of clothing is sort of what Nike and Under Armour and Lululemon have done. You need to have that angle and that story about what makes it special.”
In a previous era, Ministry of Supply would be angling to get ink in men’s magazines like GQ or Details. But today, their plan is to leverage their Kickstarter supporters as an army of ambassadors — or perhaps more appropriately, a stylishly clad corps of would-be James Bonds — to help spread the word about their products. We’ll see how it works in September, when those first Apollo shirts start shipping.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.