The founders of Ministry of Supply (MoS) have created a high-end dress shirt from the same materials that NASA uses in US spacesuits to regulate body temperature.
One of the startup’s early employees learned about phase-change materials (PCMs) while studying spacesuit design for travel to Mars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The founders were familiar with the use of PCMs—materials that absorb and release heat depending on the temperature—in sportswear but saw an opportunity with work and dress apparel.
They reached out to Outlast Technologies, which holds the patent on the PCM technology developed for NASA, and became one of about 100 clothing brands to license it (others include Jockey and Timberland.) NASA has a long history of technology transfers—such as memory foam used in pillows—through its spinoff division.
In particular, the MoS founders wanted to used PCMs to solve the problem of how dress shirts tend to show it when men sweat.
Using thermal imaging to determine where heat is generated in the body, MoS designed shirts that incorporate PCMs, wick away moisture, and control for odors. “It’s sort of like Under Armour for dress shirts,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst with Forrester Research.“There’s not a lot of innovation in a mature category like dress shirts.”
The orange areas in the thermal image below indicate where the body generates the most heat. That’s where MoS’s Atmos shirts have the most ventilation:
After a successful Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign in 2012 and press coverage of the $98 Apollo shirt, MoS last fall recruited Jarlath Mellett, the former lead designer at Brooks Brothers and Theory. The company has raised close to $4 million and now has several menswear products—dress shirts, t-shirts, and pants—and is testing new ones to bring to market.
MoS says it takes a scientific approach, testing various color and design options on customers to determine demand, and adjusting based on feedback. Last year it decided to sell 43 pairs of aviator chinos and sold 42 of them, which led the company to order the product in bulk. “We are different from the rest of the fashion industry because we are not about releasing new products every season,” CEO Gihan Amarasiriwardena said in a NASA article.
Last year the Boston-based company had 20,000 customers, 75% of whom are in the US. It’s on track to see that number grow again in 2014. While it had intended to manufacture its products in the US, MoS moved its supply chain primarily to factories in Taiwan, Vietnam, and China “because they produce high-tech clothing better,” says MoS co-founder Aman Advani. The company is starting to do some development and production in New York City.