Gihan Amarasiriwardena, who trained in engineering at MIT, likes to run his apparel company, Ministry of Supply, like a tech company. When Fast Company last checked in on him, Amarasiriwardena was articulating a philosophy of apparel design that closely resembled that of tech design: rapid prototyping, constant iteration, A/B testing of products, and so on.
Now, though, Amarasiriwardena has taken his philosophy to a whole new level, having attempted a new kind of extreme performance testing. Having recently brought a new suit, the "Aviator II," to the market, Amarasiriwardena decided to test it in the ultimate way: by running a half-marathon garbed in it. In the process, he wound up setting a Guinness World Record for his finish at the Half MerryThon in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in December.
It all started, in true capitalist fashion, with news relating to a competitor. Amarasiriwardena saw that a man had set a Guinness World Record running a half marathon in a suit by another company, Indochino. Amarasiriwardena felt he could do even better, running in one of his own suits. Ministry of Supply specializes in dress clothing with a performance aspect, using novel manufacturing techniques to create garments with the structure of formal wear, but the breathability and moisture-wicking qualities of sportswear. And on top of being an entrepreneur, Amarasiriwardena was an avid athlete.
So Amarasiriwardena started training. For a half-marathon. In formal wear. He began by wearing dress pants and a dress shirt, then gradually moved up to a full-on suit.
He opted to run early in the morning in Boston, avoiding the gawking eyes of onlookers. "I didn’t get too many looks," he says. Most people who saw him thought he was running to catch a bus. "The biggest thing I had to figure out, was that I needed to get a tie clip," he says. Once, an eagle-eyed fellow runner on the road saw that this running man in a suit was wearing running shoes. She laughed and gave him a thumbs up.
Keeping up the training routine while traveling was a little tougher. While touring Asia on factory visits, Amarasiriwardena found himself with long stretches of downtime in the airport. Fortunately, the sight of a suited person sprinting in an airport is commonplace. "It just looked like I was running to catch a flight," he said, though surely an airport employee or two, seeing him run back and forth from one terminal to another, may have wondered why he was so confused about the location of his connecting gate.
Finally, the day of the race arrived. As he milled about with the crowd gearing up for the race, people kept asking him, "Hey, are you late for work?" It was funny only the first 10 times.
Soon, the race had begun, and Amarasiriwardena was off. Though people had initially dismissed him as a stunt runner of some kind, soon he was pulling ahead of the bulk of runners. "I don’t want to be beat by a guy in a suit!" he heard people protest as he ran by.
When you’re a marathon runner, you’re racing others, but you’re mainly racing yourself—trying to beat your personal best time. For this reason, as the race wears on, you tend to fall into step with someone moving at more or less the same pace. In a nearly wordless interaction, you and this fellow runner become a team of two, taking turns cutting the wind and offering shelter for the other.
This very thing happened to Amarasiriwardena a few miles in, when he and a fellow runner fell into step. They ran alongside each other awhile, until the other guy shot Amarasiriwardena a look.
"I can’t believe I’m running with a guy in a suit," the guy chuckled.
"I’m actually running in a suit my company makes," explained Amarasiriwardena. "I’m going for a record."
"That’s awesome," came the reply. "Let’s do this."
They pushed each other through the rest of the race—through the daunting hills at mile 10, and through the gauntlet of catcalls the dapper Amarasiriwardena faced from the sidelines. All the while, Amarasiriwardena had a colleague follow him with a drone camera, documenting for Guinness with certainty that Amarasiriwardena was running the entire half marathon in a suit.
And in the end, Amarasiriwardena came in at 1:24:41, just two minutes off his personal best of 1:22, and a definitive win over the previous half-marathon-in-a-suit guy (who was very gracious about it, reports Amarasiriwardena).
And how did the suit fare? This, after all, was not just a publicity stunt (though it was also that), but an experiment in user testing. Amarasiriwardena said it was mostly comfortable, though the fact that the temperature outside rose to the 50s made matters a bit hot toward the end. One thing he hadn’t anticipated was how important the elasticity of the Aviator suit pants waistband would prove to be. "It was so much more comfortable," says Amarasiriwardena.
Ultimately, he urges other designers and entrepreneurs to not shy away from extreme testing of their own products. "This suit isn’t designed for running in, but the fact that it can be done is great. You should figure out the edge cases, the extreme cases that put a product to the test," he says.