There are few items of clothing professional women love more than a well-draped silk shirt. They’re the equivalent of men’s well-tailored Oxford shirts: classic, elegant, and versatile enough to look appropriate in almost any business context. But they’re also difficult to maintain: Silk wrinkles easily, doesn’t absorb perspiration, and needs to be dry cleaned.
Boston-based fashion brand Ministry (formerly Ministry of Supply) has heard our lament. They conducted 70 in-depth interviews with women about their workwear needs and found this common complaint: Elegant blouses that actually withstand the rigors of the modern workday—which can sometimes last 16 hours—are near impossible find. An average day might involve running to catch a bus or a train, giving a presentation under glaring conference room lights, sitting at a desk till late at night, and going for an impromptu dinner date. At the end of all of that, most shirts are a crumpled, sweat-stained mess.
Ministry gathered all of this feedback and spent two years creating a high-performance women’s work shirt as part of its debut womenswear collection, launching today. Until now, the five-year-old company has been focused on creating menswear made with cutting-edge new textiles, but cofounder Gihan Amarasiriwardena explains that when they were developing the womenswear collection, they didn’t just remake their men’s garments in women’s sizes. Men, for instance, had no use for a silk shirt. “People told us, ‘You already have all the fabrics for the men’s collection, why not just cut them for women?'” he says. “But to be true to our design process, we decided we had to go back to the drawing board.”
Their brand-new, aptly named Easier Than Silk Shirt looks and feels like silk, but is actually made from a Japanese technical fabric (i.e., a textile engineered to perform functions, like protecting the wearer from extremely high temperatures). It drapes nicely, wicks moisture, is wrinkle-resistant, and can be thrown in a regular washer and dryer. I tested the shirt on a typical Monday. This meant getting dressed at 7 a.m., taking my baby to a health checkup—where she proceeded to drool on me—wiping myself off for a lunch interview, then heading to a coffee shop to write for several hours before going to a book launch party. By the time I got home that evening and looked in the mirror, the shirt was somehow crease-free and there were no moisture blotches in sight.
When Ministry claims to “engineer a shirt,” it does not mean this in a metaphorical sense. The by three MIT students, Amarasiriwardena, Aman Advani, and Kit Hickey; the former two were trained as engineers. Every aspect of Ministry’s design process incorporates scientific thinking, from introducing NASA temperature-regulating textile technology into dress shirts to using equipment to test each garment before it hits the market. The Ministry headquarters in Boston is full of machines, including one that pulls at fabric to see how well it is able to recover from being stretched, and computer systems that offer 3D modeling of the human form.
But function wasn’t the founders’ one and only goal. They were also committed to creating outfits that looked sharp. To this end, in 2013, they hired Jarlath Mellett as design director. He previously held top roles at Theory and Brooks Brothers and has been central to designing the new womenswear line. “If we don’t nail the fit and the style—if you don’t look good—then all the technology we’re using becomes irrelevant,” says Advani.
Mellett has applied the approach he used at Theory—make a few simple, excellently tailored basics—to Ministry’s introductory women’s collection. There are just four pieces: a collared and collarless shirt for $85 each, and skinny and wide-leg pants for $140 each. The idea is to have a set of reliable staples that you can wear all year around and that you might accessorize with a scarf or jewelry.
There are other garments in the works, including a dress, but each product has a long lead time because each garment has to solve a particular problem. The pants, for instance, have 16-hour shape retention, which is important, because many slim-fitting women’s dress pants often become saggy in the knees by lunchtime. (I test-drove the trousers for one day and can confirm they retained their shape, although I wish the material had felt more organic and less like nylon.) “We always talk about how it’s easy to make something look good at 8 a.m., but it’s much harder to make something look good at 9 p.m.,” Amarasiriwardena says. “We don’t just want to sell product: We want to be at the front of your closet and create pieces you want to put on every day.”
Ministry has managed to find investors who are willing to be patient with the startup’s slow approach to innovation. It has raised four rounds of funding to the tune of $8.5 million and will use this money to expand its brick-and-mortar footprint beyond its current stores in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Naturally, this will be a deliberate process. “This is such an emotional business: We get so excited about creating these products and getting them out into the world,” Advani says. “But the engineering principles we adhere to force us to stay disciplined. You can’t rush the process, you need to go through every step and be methodical.”