About eight years ago, Gihan Amarasiriwardena’s friends bought him what he wanted most for Christmas: a giant roll of Tyvek, an industrial synthetic commonly used in construction or protective gear.
But to understand why a teenager would want such an unusual Christmas gift, we have to rewind a little further. Amarasiriwardena is now 25, but since childhood, he had always liked to take things apart and see how they worked. When he was in the fifth grade, he took apart a Texas Instruments calculator in order to fix it for a teacher. He did such a good job that the principal hired him to fix 20 other calculators that summer, leading him to discover a manufacturing defect that he wrote Texas Instruments about. The company donated replacements for the entire school district.
Later, Amarasiriwardena became an avid outdoorsman and athlete, and he began to take an interest in how performance materials like Gore-Tex were made. A hacker by nature, he wanted to build high-tech clothing himself. In an early attempt at a DIY polar fleece, Amarasiriwardena sandwiched a layer of spray-on adhesive between two layers of fabric. The only problem was that the plastic membrane wasn’t breathable, so he began sweating profusely when he wore it. This led to an interest in Tyvek, that strong, synthetic, and–crucially–breathable material.
By now, Amarasiriwardena’s interest in hacking together his own performance clothing had already spawned a precocious business (he was still a teenager). Only, Amarasiriwardena was having trouble sourcing enough Tyvek to help experiment with designs. He began lingering around construction sites, then dumpster diving when the coast was clear. “Don’t tell the USPS this,” Amarasiriwardena confides, but Tyvek mailers from the local Amherst, Massachussetts, post office may have had a habit of going missing around this time.
It’s inevitable, of course, that a mind like Amarasiriwardena’s would spawn a business, and so it has–Ministry of Supply (“Performance Professional Apparel for the Modern Man”), which launched two years ago and just released its latest product, highly engineered pants the company calls “Aviators.” The company was a Kickstarter darling last year, offering what became the most funded fashion product at the time (an ask for $30,000 yielded $430,000).
What’s perhaps most curious about Ministry of Supply, though, is the way that an apparel company has decided to run itself more like a technology company. Of course, in a sense, Ministry of Supply is a tech company–like Mizzen+Main, it deals in performance fabrics, and it has an interest in the latest in manufacturing processes, including “robotic knitting.” But in its conception, its design process, and how it interacts with customers, Ministry of Supply arguably has more in common with the likes of Apple and Google than with J. Crew or Uniqlo.
“We invent products based around use case,” says Amarasiriwardena (words fashion execs probably don’t often spout). “We’re interested in solving customers’ problems.” He gives an example: the Manhattan professional who, come winter time, has to navigate between seemingly Arctic and Saharan extremes–from a warm apartment to the freezing street, down to the crowded subway, back to the freezing street and finally to an overheated office. No traditional shirt can help in such a situation, which is why Amarasiriwardena and his team studied which moisture-wicking fabrics would be most helpful before launching their performance dress shirts (like the Apollo 2 dress shirts, which run $98 on the site).
Another way Ministry of Supply behaves more like a tech company is with a feature Amarasiriwardena calls “labs.” Essentially, what it amounts to is limited beta testing for new clothing design. Whereas a legacy clothing brand may simply design a shirt, make a best guess about what will sell, and then mass produce it, Ministry of Supply involves the consumer earlier in the product life cycle. The company will prototype a limited run of a certain product (perhaps 50 to 200 units), sell it to customers, and solicit feedback. (Since these customers are aware they’re essentially beta testing a shirt or pair of pants, a sizable percentage–around 35-40%–respond, says Amarasiriwardena.) Rather than rush into costly blunders, Ministry of Supply can then decide what decides a full run, and what will never advance beyond that beta-testing stage (a recent, softer version of a moisture-wicking shirt just “didn’t have the structure customers wanted,” says Amarasiriwardena).
Amarasiriwardena, who on top of his history as a hacker has an engineering background from MIT, likens the process to “A/B testing,” so common in web development–the practice of presenting two designs and simply seeing which performs better with customers. “It’s almost like natural selection,” he says. “Instead of saying we’re going to dictate what is the ideal design, we’re allowing the market to help us design our product.”
These are just a few of several ways Ministry of Supply decided to depart from the traditional apparel design process, as Amarasiriwardena explains in greater length in response to a question on Quora. “As an engineer diving into the apparel industry, I learned what the typical ‘design process’ is in the fashion world and came to believe that it was broken,” he wrote. “It’s plagued by extremely long lead times, there is little room for iteration, and, products are pushed to market by designers who have little or no contact with the customers who will be wearing his or her clothing.” Amarasiriwardena isn’t blundering into his assertions without any expertise from the fashion world: Ministry of Supply’s design director, with whom Amarasiriwardena developed his new model, is Jarlath Mellett, a renowned fashion designer who headed up design at Brooks Brothers and Theory.
Still, is this hacker overreaching, by telling fashion’s old guard how to, in the words of Tim Gunn, make it work? In the end, Amarasiriwardena is just doing what he did back in the fifth grade: pointing out a flaw in a manufacturing process. And if he’s right about what’s gumming up the works in fashion, he may achieve far greater results than free calculators for a school district.