TLQ 1.1 | The Fix: Ministry of Supply

1-to-1: Ministry of Supply & Rosenthal & Rosenthal | The Fix

BY: The Lead Editorial Team in collaboration with Rosenthal & Rosenthal

KEY POINTS

  • “We were the first brand to merge performance features with professional clothing. When you decide to introduce a completely new product category to market, navigating uncharted territory can be both an advantage and a challenge.”
  • “Kickstarter has given us an incredible platform to learn from customers and validate the market need for our products in a way that wouldn’t be possible through traditional product launches.”
  • “We have a philosophy called “Quantified Empathy,” in which we obsessively track each and every piece of feedback from our customers and feed that direct input back into our design process. It’s our interpretation of the scientific method for fashion, testing hypotheses and iterating to improve based on feedback.” – Aman Advani
Image courtesy of Ministry of Supply

We are in the third wave of the direct to consumer / digital native experiment. The game plan that Bonobos, BaubleBar and Warby Parker developed has been refined by Brooklinen, Glossier, and M. Gemi. But looking beyond the customer engagement strategies, new business models, and aggressive pricing, in many cases there is a unique differentiator that sits beyond the spreadsheet.

Companies are digging moats with their intellectual property – Techstyle’s FashionOS and Stich Fix’s heavy investment in data science are just two examples. 2019 Foremost 50 selection, Ministry of Supply is another. The Boston-based fashion brand that creates performance apparel for professionals is run as much as a tech company as it is an apparel company. Analytics and data drive nearly every business decision, with the customer at the center of focus.

In this edition of The Lead 1-to-1, Cassie Rosenthal, Senior Vice President at Rosenthal & Rosenthal talks to one of the firm’s clients, Aman Advani, Co-Founder and CEO of Ministry of Supply, about infusing technology and innovation into fashion, embracing transparency and the importance of engaging with your customer base.

Cassie Rosenthal: How did you perceive the fashion and apparel industry before you created Ministry and what prompted you to set out and disrupt it?

Aman Advani: Up until a few years ago, the way we produce clothing hadn’t changed much since the Industrial Revolution. Consumers’ lives and needs had changed tremendously over the past 100 years, yet the clothing remained largely unchanged — and very uncomfortable — especially when it came to dress clothes.

I became acutely aware of this fact when I started traveling frequently for business, spending all day in a suit and working late into the evening. I would count down the minutes until I could swap my suits for gym shorts at the hotel. At one point, I even started taking the soles out of running socks and sewing them into the base of my dress socks. Traditional clothing just wasn’t made to flex with the modern 16-hour workday.

At the same time, “athleisure” was gaining mainstream popularity. There was a clear market demand for better-performing, comfortable clothing. As an engineer by trade, I knew there had to be a way to incorporate those elements into everyday work wear. My co-founder Gihan was having a similar realization. While I was creating my “frankensocks,” he was sewing fabric from his athletic gear into his dress shirts to make them more breathable. As fate would have it, a mutual advisor at MIT introduced us and the Ministry of Supply brand was born. Today, we have full collections for both men and women and six stores around the country.

CR: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced — financial or otherwise — when you were in the early stages of growing your business?

AA: At the time we launched, the idea of a “stretch suit” or a machine-washable dress shirt was nonexistent, or a novelty at best.  We were the first brand to merge performance features with professional clothing. When you decide to introduce a completely new product category to market, navigating uncharted territory can be both an advantage and a challenge. There was no established infrastructure for our concept, so we had to start from scratch to figure out where to manufacture and how to find the right investors and employees whose experiences would align well with our new vision. There was also an educational component to the customer acquisition process. We needed to explain to our customers what we were doing and why performance professional clothing benefits them, before enticing them to try our clothing. This investment in our brand early on paid off in spades over time by forging a strong foundation of partners, people and processes that has supported us through our growth over the past seven years. But it was an uphill battle initially for sure!

CR: In addition to selling your clothes through your website, you also have six brick-and-mortar stores of your own. What made you decide to go this route and how do you see the retail landscape changing? Was it a financial decision or more brand-based?

AA: We started testing brick-and-mortar retail with pop-ups back in 2014 and found that physical stores allowed us to build relationships with our customers in a way that’s not possible online. For us, specifically, our stores are important hubs for product education. When customers feel the stretch and see the sharp aesthetic of a 4-way stretch blazer, this “aha moment” happens in a way that’s not as guttural online.

We dedicate a large amount of time and capital to the training of our sales staff to ensure that customers can walk in and learn everything there is to know about each of our products. We also work to bring our technology to life in stores via engaging experiences. For example, in our Boston store, we installed a 3,000-pound 3D knitting machine to produce personalized 3D knitted jackets on demand in 90 minutes. In our Santa Monica store, we installed a thermal mirror to capture customers’ personal heat profiles, and worked with Nimbly, a local on-demand manufacturer, to produce sweaters with personalized, targeted ventilation in the areas where each customer needed it the most. These types of experiences help us forge stronger connections by bringing customers into the production process and giving them an opportunity to physically touch and see the technology behind our garments—like an open kitchen restaurant.

CR: Ministry of Supply was born out of your experience at MIT, so how have technology and innovation shaped your brand and are they one in the same?

AA: Our entire brand is based on this concept that clothing can be “Scientifically Better” — and as MIT-trained engineers, we’re the best team for the job. From shape-shifting textiles to coffee-infused, odor-absorbing socks to AI-powered jackets, we’re constantly using the newest technology to push innovation in fashion forward.

We run our company more like a tech company than a typical clothing brand. One embodiment of this philosophy is our experimental design unit called LABS. This program is similar to a concept car approach: we design, build and test our most cutting-edge and experimental garments via small batches, tinkering with new materials, technologies, silhouettes and manufacturing processes. Then, based on customer demand and feedback, we decide how to alter the design, whether to adopt it into our full collection and how we can apply learnings across our entire product line.

CR: What are some of the ways you leverage data and analytics to improve your product offering and enrich your customers’ experiences with the brand?

AA: It surprised us how little the apparel industry utilized customer feedback to optimize products when we first started designing clothing. The needs of the customer seemed to be lost, both in fast fashion’s race to market and in traditional fashion’s 18-month lead time.

We have a philosophy called “Quantified Empathy,” in which we obsessively track each and every piece of feedback from our customers and feed that direct input back into our design process. It’s our interpretation of the scientific method for fashion, testing hypotheses and iterating to improve based on feedback. For example, before we launched our Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to formally hear from customers early on in the design process. We received hundreds of customer comments. From those comments, we determined that our women’s jacket was too short, so we actually changed the design and elongated the jacket by a few inches before launch.

CR: How important is community to your brand following and how do you go about connecting with them and raising brand awareness?

AA: We are fortunate to have a really supportive community of customers behind us. To connect with this crowd, it’s not just about engagement through product launches, but through product education as well. For example, we launched our blog Scientifically Better to give customers a deeper dive into the technology in and behind our products. Most recently, we’ve been walking people through our process as we work to become carbon-neutral as a brand. On our site, we outline exactly how we are tackling the initiative, what stage we are in now and what’s next. Like I mentioned, feedback is crucial to our development process, and we consider the relationship with our customer community as paramount to our success.

CR: Kickstarter has always been an important part of your business strategy. It’s given you a platform to successfully launch new products and a way for you to connect directly with your customers and brand loyalists. How does Kickstarter figure in to your broader financing and funding plan, especially as you continue to grow?

AA: Kickstarter has given us an incredible platform to learn from customers and validate the market need for our products in a way that wouldn’t be possible through traditional product launches.

We introduced our very first product on Kickstarter in 2012, and at the time set the record for the highest-funded fashion project, exceeding the goal by over $400,000. This experience not only validated our hunch that people wanted better-performing dress clothes, but also connected us to a budding community of future brand loyalists.

After a hiatus of a few years, we returned to Kickstarter in 2018 to launch Mercury, the first-ever intelligent heated jacket. Because the jacket was the first-of-its-kind, we wanted to leverage the platform to validate demand for the product and garner feedback on the design before officially launching it to the market. It was a tremendous success — once it was live on Kickstarter, the jacket shattered our $72,000 goal, raising more than $600,000.

While we have no immediate plans to launch another product on Kickstarter, it’s an enormously valuable platform for our brand and has helped us to build the supportive and engaged community we have today. As a venture-backed company with seven years of experience, we use Kickstarter less as a fundraising tool for our core business, but more to test experimental products and engage with customers.

CR: If you were giving advice to a young entrepreneur today, what would your best piece of wisdom be looking back now?

AA: An investor once told me that it’s not about convincing non-believers — it’s about finding believers. Starting a brand from scratch takes a lot of focus, so it’s incredibly important to put blinders on to the people who will never “get it,” and nurture the community that has your back. This applies to both customers and your internal team.