Kevin Lavelle still remembers the orange shirt.
It was the summer of 2006, a sweltering July in Washington, D.C, where Lavelle was a 19-year-old intern at a political organization. Lavelle was sitting in on a meeting when a tardy congressional staffer wearing an orange dress shirt burst into the room. "I don’t know how he found an orange dress shirt," recalls Lavelle. But the color, while unfortunate, was the least offensive thing about the shirt, as it turned out. The staffer was "soaked in sweat," says Lavelle. "It was a pretty gruesome sight."
Lavelle got to thinking. He had been an athlete all throughout his teenage years, playing every sport except football, and winning a number of regional Florida golf championships. He had noted how in the late '90s and early 2000s, the whole problem of sweaty clothes had been addressed for athletes like him with the introduction of "performance fabrics," specially engineered cloth that offered a range of benefits (better heat transfer, moisture wicking). Why couldn’t the advances on the golf course be brought to bear in the office?
Lavelle set the idea aside but couldn’t get it entirely out of his mind. Years later, while working for a venture capital group within an oil company, Lavelle decided to test out his idea. He began prototyping versions of a performance fabric dress shirt. If you’re familiar with these fabrics from athletic clothes (Under Armour being one of the most popular brands), the idea may seem absurd. But Lavelle worked with special blends to achieve a look that emulated traditional cotton in appearance, while retaining the benefits of performance fabrics. He began wearing his prototype shirts to the office—"one of the most formal work environments in the country," he says, where employees wore suits and ties daily. No one noticed the difference.
That’s when Lavelle got into business. In the summer of 2012, he launched Mizzen+Main with one simple white dress shirt. In the intervening year, the company introduced several new lines. And this week, Lavelle closes a $200,000 seed investing round, including the participation of former Google employees.
Since diving into this venture, Lavelle has examined thousands of fabrics, he says, before choosing the perfect ones that suited his needs. Mizzen+Main fabrics are semi-porous to facilitate stretching, they’re moisture wicking, they can stretch in four directions, and they’re wrinkle-free. Yet they look enough like normal shirts that when Lavelle pitches his idea to people, they say, "What do they look like?" "I’m wearing it," Lavelle responds. Only upon touching the fabric—which does feel slightly different—does their disbelief subside.
Mizzen+Main may not be much more than a blip on the cultural radar for now, but that may be about to change. Lavelle paid for product placement in an upcoming film featuring Nate Parker, about a pro-soccer team that crash lands in Malaysia. Lavelle cofounder Web Smith, whose college football years helped network him into the pro sports community, has also managed to loop in several pro athletes to work with the brand, including NFL safety Malcolm Jenkins, of the New Orleans Saints. Lavelle and Smith both have big hopes for the year ahead; while the company currently has about 200 variations of the product, Smith says he’d like that number to triple over the next year. The company has just added long-sleeve T-shirts to its offerings and has plans to soon introduce a wrinkle-free blazer that you can pop in and out of a suitcase.
Mizzen+Main may just solve a sweating problem for the next generation of stressed-out congressional staffers and countless others who have to dress up, even in the heat. And whether they deserve it or not, it's also aiming to help rising D.C. power brokers—frumpy though they may be—with their fashion sense. Lavelle says the company has no plans to offer an orange dress shirt. "Orange is not in our color palette," he says.