In the early 1900s, the British government created a special department called the Ministry of Supply to create gadgets and equipment for the British Special Ops. In a building in downtown London, a curious mix of craftsmen, tailors, scientists, and military experts got to work outfitting secret agents for espionage missions. Their top secret inventions were the stuff of epic spy novels: rumor has it, they invented suits that could secretly record conversations, briefcases with hidden compartments and pens that could be used as weapons. The character Q in the James Bond stories was modeled on a former head of the Ministry.
On Newbury Street, in Boston’s trendy shopping district, a shop appeared last year bearing that same name, Ministry of Supply. Inspired by the British government agency, a team of MIT grads decided to start a company that incorporates the latest technologies into a line of sharp, fashionable men’s suits. “We see our customers as James Bonds out there on a mission,” says Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and CEO of Ministry of Supply.
The company now sells sleek fitted men’s shirts that use NASA-developed materials that store heat away from the body when you’re too warm and releases it back when you get cold. Jackets are coated with a polymer that make water to bead up upon contact, so that it isn’t absorbed into the fabric. Socks are made from fibers infused with reclaimed coffee grounds that miraculously eliminates odors.
Of course, integrating technology into clothing is fairly common these days, especially in sportswear. Moisture wicking fabric, which has been widely used since the 1980s, has been incorporated into everything from winter fleeces to sports bras. And San Francisco-based crowdsource-clothing company, Betabrand, recently launched a line of work-appropriate yoga pants for women that have been selling like hot cakes.
In this emerging market of high-tech clothing, Amarasiriwardena hopes to set Ministry of Supply apart by focusing just as much on style as performance. While his suits will keep guys sweat-free at the office and stink-free on dates, he hopes the designs will also be able to stand their ground against top menswear brands. As he did market research before launching the company, Amarasiriwardena observed that his target market of professionals, twenty-something and thirty-something, care more about looking good than generations that came before. “Men’s fashion is not a four-letter word within the millennial generation,” he says. “Guys want to look sharp now and there is a focus on tailoring and fit. They don’t want to wear their dad’s parachute-back dress shirt.”
The dress shirt was, in fact, Ministry of Supply’s very first product. In 2012, Amarasiriwardena and his two other co-founders launched a Kickstarter to fund the Apollo shirt, which brought in $429,276 from nearly 3,000 backers. “We focused on the dress shirt because it is one of these essential pieces of our wardrobe that has been largely forgotten when it comes to innovation,” Amarasiriwardena says. “Cotton Oxford shirts are still set in stone, so we wanted to imbue them with the technology that we’d seen in our outdoor clothing and sportwear.” In their product development process, Ministry of Supply used a thermal imaging body mapping technique to better understand how skin generates heat in response to different environments. They also used strain analysis to see how bodies move throughout the day. With this data, they invented the Apollo shirt, which stretches with the bodies and adjusts to body temperature. It is constructed from the same materials used in NASA spacesuits to deal with extreme changes in temperature.
While Amarasiriwardena doesn’t anticipate any of his James Bonds to necessarily go into space in the Apollo shirts, he does believe they will come in very handy on summertime commutes to work. “We all know what it’s like taking the subway in the summer,” he says. “Even if you took a shower at 7 a.m and were feeling fresh, by the time you get to the office you’ve already sweated through your clothes. Then, you realize the AC is on at full blast so you start to shiver and wish you’d brought a sweater. You start the day a step behind.”
In 2013, the Atlas dress socks brought in an additional $204,601 on Kickstarter. This is when investors started to come knocking, landing Amarasiriwardena and his co-founders $1.1 million in seed funding from venture capitalists and angels. Last year, Ministry of Supply launched a full-fledged website as well as the first brick and mortar store in Boston. And just this year, they opened a pop-up store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco’s Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood that will stay open till June.
For the new company, the future, it seems, is now.