Taking Cues From Athletic Apparel, This Menswear Line Refined Performance Fabric

Taking Cues From Athletic Apparel, This Menswear Line Refined Performance Fabric
Delivery & Logistics

PSFK sat down with Mizzen+Main founder and CEO Kevin Lavelle, who brought athletic wear’s moisture-wicking performance fabrics to the classic dress shirt

Isabella Alimonti
  • 30 november 2017

Who hasn’t sweated through a morning at a desk or, worse still, a job interview? We’ve grown to expect a little help from activewear after a proliferation of performance fabrics, most famously Nike Dri-FIT, that are engineered to cool the athlete’s body and wick away sweat. And if the enduring popularity of athleisure proves anything, it’s that being comfortable feels good. Kevin Lavelle, founder of Mizzen+Main, figured that the same should apply for workplaces that haven’t quite embraced the sneaker and t-shirt aesthetic.

Lavelle’s menswear brand launched five years ago with a line of dress shirts made from performance fabric. Since then, Mizzen+Main has expanded to slacks, sweaters, polos and, most recently, flannels, all of which are made in the U.S. The synthetic fabrics the brand uses in its apparel resist wrinkles and wick moisture as well as gym clothes, but look as buttoned up as Brooks Brothers.

Unsurprisingly, the Mizzen+Main collection has quickly become a favorite among athletes. Tim Tebow recently shot a video promo for the company, while J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans serves as brand ambassador. Lavelle estimates that 400 pro athletes and sports executives, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, wear his products. “They live in performance fabrics, and they’re traveling all the time so this is perfect for them,” he said.

Lavelle has been particular about the company’s retail strategy, building the brand through online sales but also lobbying for a physical presence at menswear boutiques, golf shops and, starting this year, Nordstrom department stores around the country. He shared his thoughts on the confluence of direct-to-consumer brands and traditional retail, and what goes into making Mizzen+Main.

On starting a menswear brand—without a background in fashion and apparel

Kevin Lavelle: I worked as a management consultant for a few years and then as an energy investment analyst, and had this crazy idea for a performance fabric dress shirt. That came in college, when I had an internship in D.C.—which taught me I never wanted to work in D.C., but it was a good experience nonetheless—and watched a guy run into [an office] building just soaked in sweat. I thought, why not make a dress shirt out of performance fabrics?

This was around the time that performance polos had become not only acceptable but mainstream on the golf course, where at first you did not wear synthetics on the golf course. Slowly, that started to change, and then the professionals started wearing it, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. So why wouldn’t you wear a dress shirt made out of performance fabrics? If the same thing could happen in the world of golf—a very, very traditional industry—why not do it in dress shirts?

The idea stayed with me for many years and I eventually decided that I’ve got to give it a shot. So I spent about a year in product development, just learning everything I could about fibers and fabrics and textiles, and tech packs and what it takes to manufacture a shirt–how much more difficult it is to make one than it is to make a thousand. I had the first prototype at the end of 2011, and we launched in July of 2012. Since then it’s just been a rocket ship; we’ve been growing extensively. We’re primarily an online brand, but we’re also carried today in around 450 stores around the country. Those are individual specialty menswear stores, green grass pro shops, and then we’re in 34 Nordstrom doors today.

We have two pop-ups: one here in SoHo, which will run through the end of the year, and one in Fort Worth, Texas, which will run through the end of the year and into January as well. It’s a great way for us to experiment in running our own retail stores and not necessarily have the long-term commitment. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of space around Manhattan and around SoHo specifically, so it gives us some flexibility to try some different things out without necessarily knowing what we’re going to do. We’ve only been around for five years, and a lot of retail leases are five to 10 years, so let’s figure out what we’re doing as a company first before we commit to [a lease that’s] longer than we’ve been alive.

It’s a chance for people to interact with Mizzen+Main as we craft our brand, rather than through third-party retailers, which—we have a lot of great partners, but it’s a different thing to experience a brand the way the brand has designed it.

On performance products and U.S. manufacturing

We have two primary fabrics and shirt collections. Our Leeward collection is a stretch woven fabric. It’s a little bit crisper, a little more like a traditional shirt. Our Spinnaker collection is super stretchy—it’s a stretch knit so just a fundamentally different fabrication. The fibers are different, the feeling is different, the hand is different, the stretch is different but, broad strokes, it’s still moisture-wicking, it’s wrinkle-resistant, you don’t have to iron it or dry clean it. Take it out of the washing machine, put it on a hanger and it’s ready to wear.

There are a lot of wrinkle-resistant dress shirts out there but those are harsh chemical treatments that are applied to the fabrics themselves. That’s why guys always complain about split elbows because there’s a treatment on there that degrades the shirt itself and gives it a little bit of a harsh hand. The wrinkle resistance and all the characteristics of [Mizzen+Main] shirts, that’s just what synthetics are. You just don’t have to worry about a lot of the same things you do with cotton with a synthetic, without putting it through chemical treatments.

We buy some fabric from LA and some fabric from North Carolina, and then also some from Taiwan because, the stretch woven in particular, no one in the United States makes stretch wovens in this capacity. I wish that we could buy it here but literally there’s no manufacturer that even tries to make our Leeward fabric here in the U.S.

So we bring fabric from all over the world into Philadelphia and New York—we’re in four or five factories right now—and then we do all of our cut and sew work here in the U.S., so it is cut and sewn here in the United States. Then we do our distribution out of Dallas. We are always working with our mills to try and consistently improve the fabric itself and the process and make sure that we’re getting consistently the best quality and the best consistency.

On sustainability in the fashion industry

By their very nature, not having to put [our shirts] through the dryer and not having to send them to the dry cleaner makes them a much more eco-friendly product over the long term. There are some eco-friendly dry cleaners, but mostly it’s a pretty harsh process. And then the energy saved by not having to put them through the dryer—we’ve never quantified it, but that actually would be a fun experiment to say how many megawatts of energy we’ve saved over the last five years for our customers.

Also, the places we buy our dress shirt fabric from are bluesign certified, which is an international certification to make sure they’re following accepted [environmental] protocols. We visited the mills that we work with overseas and domestically; at the end of the day, bluesign is something that we feel comfortable standing behind.

The next phase beyond that is something we continue to look at in terms of recycled polyesters and others, but we have smiled at the dollars and energy saved by not having to go to the dry cleaner—both the mental energy of having to go to the dry cleaner and also the actual energy of putting what guys wear day in and day out through those processes. That’s something that we stand behind, but it’s not something that we really push people to say this is an eco-friendly, sustainable product because you won’t bring it to the dry cleaner—that’s just one of the added benefits.

Especially with the non-iron treatments on some of the cotton shirts, if you wear the shirt once or two to three times a month—if you think about the rotation of a standard guy’s closet—you’re going to bust through those shirts before too long because the elbow is a weak point. We see it online, we see customers saying, basically, ‘I only wore brands xyz, I’m tired of splitting elbows, I’m going to go get Mizzen+Main.’ Not having to throw out your shirt certainly has its own component of sustainability as well.

On retail channels: direct-to-consumer, department stores and more

I knew from the very beginning that consumers would be what drove the long-term value creation for Mizzen+Main, and that consumers would change the industry’s perception of performance fabrics in traditional menswear. The first few trade shows we went to, we were basically laughed out of the building. Everyone said no one will ever wear this product, or maybe some of those people who don’t know what they’re doing would wear it—very dismissive. But we just kept showing up, and our customers we buying it online and continuing to buy it online. We got our first two wholesale accounts, and then at the next show we got two more, the next show we got four more and after about two and half years we were in 30 retail doors across the country.

Somewhat naively and somewhat stubbornly, I was very focused on having a presence in the wholesale industry, in the boutique and specialty world, because I knew how important it would be for people to feel the product and be able to try it on. Some of our customers have no qualms about [saying], “Performance fabric dress shirt, that’s awesome, I’ll try that.” And they know if it doesn’t work they’ll just send it back, because it’s free shipping and free returns—that’s kind of what it takes to run an online brand today.

Something tipped in 2015. By the middle of 2015 we were in 100 retail doors, and then it just kept going. As I said, now we’re in 450. At the end of 2016, we’d had enough momentum in the specialty stores—I think Nordstrom had just kind of been waiting to see, will they survive, and what [does] the growth of the brand look like, and what’s their following online? All of that was the virtuous circle with Nordstrom being really the star on top or the icing on the cake, to say, this is the ultimate industry blessing. We’re in 34 Nordstroms today and we’ll be in 50 at the end of the year, and we started in two at the beginning of this year. It’s working. The product is driving traffic to Nordstrom doors because people want to go see the new styles, they want to touch it, they want to feel it.

We’ve been very respectful of our partners in wholesale and our retail partners because we don’t discount [on our own site]. We’ve been committed to that from the beginning because as an American-made brand, I can’t afford to start eroding the margins to an unsustainable level. For most retailers, they’re fighting the brand every day because the brands are doing the same thing but much cheaper online, with free shipping and no sales tax for a lot of them. Retail accounts are really enthusiastic about our partnership because [we would not] rather have you buy online because we make more money.

We want every guy in the world to have 10 of these shirts in their closet, and that does not happen through one channel. It happens through golf and online and Nordstrom and retail partners, pop-up shops and eventually maybe our own store. So we’ve always wanted to be available to all of our customers wherever they might be able to find us.

Mizzen+Main

Who hasn’t sweated through a morning at a desk or, worse still, a job interview? We’ve grown to expect a little help from activewear after a proliferation of performance fabrics, most famously Nike Dri-FIT, that are engineered to cool the athlete’s body and wick away sweat. And if the enduring popularity of athleisure proves anything, it’s that being comfortable feels good. Kevin Lavelle, founder of Mizzen+Main, figured that the same should apply for workplaces that haven’t quite embraced the sneaker and t-shirt aesthetic.

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