Ministry of Design

Published in Collective Hub issue 42, February 2017.

This FASHION company is run like it’s a tech start-up. The result is smart BUSINESS ATTIRE that’s engineered for PERFORMANCE.

Aman Advani hated his socks. Like, really hated them. At the end of a long day at work as a consultant, his business socks feeling damp and his shirt stained with sweat, he’d always wonder, ‘Why can’t I just wear my running gear?’ At home, he’d cut the soles off his dress socks and sew sport socks on the bottom to make them more comfortable.

Kit Hickey, an avid weekend rockclimber, had a similar train of thought. Why couldn’t her weekday workwear be as durable and designed for high performance as what she wore on her outdoor adventures?

Gihan Amarasiriwardena wanted a dress shirt that would stay fresh and crisp after commuting to work by bike. As a product design intern at IDEO, he had observed the rigorous product development and testing processes applied to the design of medical devices. Why couldn’t the same engineering principles be applied to a clothing line?

Fortunately, the trio crossed paths while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011. Aman and Kit were at the Sloan School of Management, and Gihan was studying chemical engineering. A professor introduced them, and they immediately got to work prototyping the perfect men’s dress shirt.

Dubbed the Apollo, the shirt featured heat-regulating fabric technology borrowed from NASA space suits. It also included moisture-wicking properties and odour control, and was designed to move with the body while staying crisp and fresh. Initially rejected by venture capitalists who wanted to see a proof of concept, in 2012 the trio set up a Kickstarter campaign aiming to raise US$30,000. It spiralled faster than they had imagined, raising US$6000 in the first 24 hours, eventually hitting almost US$430,000. It was official: Ministry (formerly Ministry of Supply) had launched with a bang.

Athleisure has since become so ubiquitous that in 2015 the term was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But Ministry’s mission takes athleisure a step further, producing clothes that look professional, but are as comfortable as sweats. No one is quite sure what to call it – fashion tech? Performance professional? No matter the term you use, Ministry’s particular brand of workwear is striking a chord with customers.

“They want something that can take them from the bike ride commute to the office, to drinks afterwards,” says Gihan. “People don’t want to be held back by their clothes.”

Four years and nearly US$6 million in funding since that first Kickstarter campaign, the Ministry line now includes a couple of suits, a variety of shirt styles, merino wool jumpers, basic T-shirts, a polo shirt, chinos and, of course, socks. In 2016, the brand sent out more than 100,000 garments to customers.

Last September, after two years of research into womenswear including 70 in-depth interviews with women, Ministry rebranded and also launched a womenswear line featuring pants that don’t sag around the knee, and blouses that don’t require dry-cleaning or even ironing. It’s not a huge range, but that’s because each piece has gone through rigorous testing and development to ensure it’s optimised for comfort and movement.

It’s the opposite of the fast-fashion mentality consumers have grown used to.

“Our design cycle is a lot longer,” says Gihan. “It’s perhaps more similar to a car company. When you look at Tesla or BMW, it takes them three to four years to develop a car. You can design a product and launch it very quickly, but when you want to test it and build functionality, it takes a while.”

It all starts with taking a detailed look at how the human body works. Before designing a new garment, Gihan and the team use a range of body mapping techniques to help determine how it could be constructed. Thermal imaging shows where the body produces the most heat; suggesting areas where a lighter fabric or vents might be useful. Strain analysis shows where the garment needs more stretch in order to move with the body, and whether the fabric returns to its original shape after being stretched.

“In the case of the sock design, we mapped out the pressure profile of the foot,” says Gihan. “We also looked at how the foot generates heat, so we could figure out where you needed cushioning and also where you needed some ventilation.”

Then the team look at materials and manufacturing techniques. Gihan specialised in material science at university, so many of the fabrics Ministry use are made from scratch. The yarn used in the socks, for example, is fused with an extract made from coffee beans that helps absorb odour. The fabric technology they licensed from NASA, known as Phase Change Materials, draws heat from the body to limit sweating and then releases it again when it’s cooler. When it comes to manufacturing, robotic knitting techniques allow the company to create a garment out of just one piece of fabric, varying its weight to be lighter or perforated where ventilation is needed, and heavier where more coverage is required.

The final phase of the design process is one that will be familiar to anyone working in tech: user testing. Ministry has a small group of customers who beta test new products and give feedback, allowing the company to make further refinements before they are released into the market. It’s a vital step that Gihan believes is missing from the fast-fashion mindset.

“The issue is there’s no feedback,” he says. “They’re pushing out new products, but not taking insights from what’s working well and using that to iterate their product.”

There’s one more way that the company tests their designs, something Gihan calls ‘extreme user testing’. To highlight the way Ministry products borrow ideas from athletic performance apparel, last year Gihan ran a half-marathon in their Aviator suit. Part extreme testing, part marketing stunt, the race was registered with the Guinness Book of World Records and Gihan was filmed by a drone the whole way to verify his attempt. Clocking in at 1:24:41, Gihan set a new record for running the fastest half-marathon in a suit – though he was two minutes shy of his personal best.

“It’s funny, a lot of people ask if it was staged,” he says of the photograph the company released after the event. “That is actually the finish line. That’s why I look like sh*t! But the product held up. You don’t see sweat stains; neither do you see any straining. It really moved with the body, and that’s something we’re proud of. After an hour of that intense wear, you can imagine how it would stand up through a regular workday.”