Last month, Kevin Lavelle, the co-founder of shirt maker Mizzen+Main, attended an outdoor SXSW V2V event in Las Vegas. It was approximately 90 degrees, and Lavelle should have been sweating bullets in the long-sleeved lavender and white checked button down shirt he was wearing. “Nice shirt, but aren’t you roasting?” asked a fellow party attendee. And that’s where his elevator pitch comes in. “Feel the shirt,” he said with a grin. Shockingly, it felt more like Under Armour than cotton.
Lavelle came up with the idea to make dress shirts out of performance fabric six years ago, when he was working in Washington, DC, and saw a Capitol Hill staffer walk into a meeting wearing a shirt soaked with sweat. Under Armour had taken the athletic world by storm, he reasoned, so why couldn’t those same properties—moisture wicking, anti-microbial and wrinkle-free—be applied to a dress shirt? Though Lavelle knew nothing about textiles or fashion, he and his team have created a first-of-its-kind item that has the added cache of being made in America. Lavelle shared with us his takeaways from Mizzen+Main's journey from aha moment to innovative fashion brand:
Experience is overrated. Spending several years as a consultant, “[I was] frequently in a situation where I knew nothing about the industry or the company," Lavelle says. "I quickly had to become the smartest person in the room so that I could make recommendations."
So when he could no longer contain his impulse to act on his shirt idea, it didn’t bother Lavelle a bit that he wasn’t familiar with the industry that he was intent on disrupting. He was certain he could figure out what he needed to know. In fact, he sought out a partner not with fashion expertise, but with experience in branding and marketing. Through Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), he met his partner Web Smith, 30, who was the head of marketing for Rogue Fitness in Columbus. “The real trick with anything in the fashion industry is branding and consumer psychology,” Lavelle says. And, he adds, Smith “oozes GQ.”
No, no, 100 times no. With Lavelle in Dallas and Smith in Columbus, the partners worked the phones to find the right fabric for their shirt. “Most companies would not respond to us,” Lavelle says. “We probably made 10 times the number of phone calls we expected to just to find the fabric. And we went through hundreds and hundreds of fabrics.” The goal: to make a prototype that looked no different from a form-fitting cotton dress shirt. What neither partner realized? Even a traditional dress shirt is one of the most difficult products to manufacture, given the amount of labor and the type of machinery involved. To make one out of performance fabric with four-way stretch would dramatically increase the complexity of the process.
Don’t give up. In the middle of 2012, Lavelle and Smith finally had their prototype, but that was just half the battle. Next, they needed a manufacturer. “I learned a lot about why American manufacturing has declined,” Lavelle says. “They don’t put effort into new business and if one of their big clients goes overseas, they’re done.” The factories they contacted required high minimum orders and were largely unwilling to take a flyer on a small brand with no track record. After approximately 250 calls to factories, one finally took the bait, only to delay orders so severely that Lavelle and Smith dropped the manufacturer two months later.
They were intent on keeping production in the U.S. in order to better control the process and to protect their innovation. “You can’t patent fabric,” Smith says. “The way Under Armour got to be a $2 billion company was by being first to market."
Finally, at the end of last year, Mizzen+Main found a factory in Pennsylvania that “was excited about working with us and with our potential,” Lavelle says.
Creating demand. Lavelle and Smith financed their initial production run of thousands of shirts with $100,000 of their own capital. And then, Smith says, “it became my job to make people want them.” The target market: professional men in their 30s who played sports, understood the benefits of performance fabric and were affluent enough to spend $125 on a dress shirt. Building on a small group of loyal and vocal brand ambassadors, and a few key boutiques, the brand gained a little traction last year, bringing in about $100,000 in revenue. Smith says investors have approached the company but “we’re running at such a low burn rate that we don’t desperately need outside capital.”
This year, the partners, who now have more than 200 SKUs on their website, are predicting between $300,000 and $500,000 in revenue and are planning to open a flagship retail operation in Columbus. “Brick and mortar is always a great anchor,” Smith says, “and Columbus is the retail Silicon Valley.” He envisions a hybrid business model where e-commerce, company-owned retail and distribution via boutiques may all come into play. Not on deck immediately: department stores, which are typically risk-averse and insist upon a track record of robust sales.
Wave of the future. Just more than a year into its launch, Mizzen+Main has sold products in 40 states and in seven countries without a significant advertising budget, a department store deal or an institutional investor. “This wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago,” Smith says. “People’s buying habits have shifted dramatically and because of social media, we can reach a broader customer base than ever before.”
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Photos from top: iStockphoto, Sara Simonow, Daniel Musomba both Courtesy of Mizzen + Main