In August, a strange commercial aired on television. It featured pro golfer Phil Mickelson smiling and dancing in a dress shirt, belt, and jeans. Mickelson is in constant motion, but stiffly animatronic, locking eyes with the camera often while dodging very computer-generated-looking golf balls. The effect was so oddly amusing, like a long-playing .gif, that the video also made the rounds online. Soon, it was being re-aired on morning shows, sports networks, and even CNN. The ad campaign, with an initial ad buy of just $100,000, garnered more a billion media impressions.

It was the first foray into television advertising by Mizzen+Main, a clothing company whose name conjures masts on a sailboat though it was founded and has grown up landlocked in Dallas. It's one of a growing number of apparel makers that sell work-wear made from technical materials for comfort, versatility, and durability. Mizzen+Main's shirts, socks, and other products take a nod from the booming athleisure industry--but are styled for the desk-bound.

Founder Kevin Lavelle came up with the concept behind his business while interning in Washington, D.C., which is arguably ground zero for men sweating uncomfortably in suits on hot summer days. Upon seeing one drenched commuter, he thought: My gym clothes do better than that!  What if a dress shirt could stretch, wick away moisture, and resist wrinkles, without requiring dry cleaning? Could a performance fabric be applied to sharp-looking office garb?

He had trouble finding domestic manufacturers willing to try his experiment, so instead he hired a local seamstress to make a copy of a men's dress shirt out of performance fabric. With that first version of a collared men's shirt made, Lavelle began searching for manufacturers, and for the perfect thin, slightly porous synthetic fabric that wouldn't wrinkle, and wasn't too shiny. In other words, it had to, when sewn into a dress shirt, be indistinguishable from a standard cotton button-down. After a year, during which kept his day job, he had shirts ready to sell.

But when Lavelle took them to apparel trade shows, he encountered skepticism. Was he making gym clothes for the office? Was he making an upgraded '70s polyester shirt? He disregarded the raised eyebrows and launched Mizzen+Main, a line of no dry-clean necessary, wrinkle-resistant, four-way-stretch shirts, through a website in 2012. Through savvy online marketing (funny, sharable stuff, including hashtags such as #ditchcotton, and an alternative domain, comfortable.af), the upstart brand found customers. 

A new category is born

Meanwhile, a small ecosystem of others trying to do the same thing was burgeoning. In 2012, a group of MIT students began using high-tech materials typically relegated to the gym to construct dress shirts. They dubbed their company Ministry of Supply, and raised $400,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. Three years later in London, two investment bankers quit their jobs to create a performance workwear line for women, with an eye toward sustainability and timelessness, called Aday. Another brand, Carbon38, has raised $16 million in venture and other funding since its founding earlier this decade, according to Crunchbase.

"Athleisure" was added to the dictionary in 2016, and Lavelle and other entrepreneurs think the same wave Under Armour and Lululemon caught could extend to the office. Six years into Mizzen+Main existence, some have given performance workwear a nickname: "workleisure."

"It's been an absolute explosion of interest in the space," Lavelle says. He's optimistic that in the face of competition--including from old players in menswear such as Brooks Brothers, which is dabbling in performance apparel--Mizzen+Main can continue "owning a guy's wardrobe for the office, and pushing the innovation forward." 

Growth of this new niche is difficult to quantify, because it's only a few years old. But according to Krista Corrigan, a menswear retail analyst at New York City-based Edited, it's an encouraging sign that retailers including JCPenney, ASOS, and Macy's are stocking significant quantities of workleisure products. "Performance qualities are becoming less of a nice-to-have addition and more of a requirement in modern-day workwear," Corrigan says.

Still, Mizzen+Main must overcome skepticism among consumers who remain attached to their classic natural-fiber basics. But even with that challenge to overcome, as well as steadily increasing competition, it has grown rapidly, taking two small rounds of seed investment before amassing $4 million in venture capital funding between 2014 and 2016. The company declined to disclose its revenue, but said that it has jumped by well over 200 percent each of the past several years. And Mizzen+Main's Dallas headquarters has more than doubled in size in the past two years, from 20 employees to 45. The company has additional workers at two Dallas-area retail locations, and occasionally adds a few to staff pop-up shops.

Mizzen+Main's focus hasn't been on its own physical retail presence, though. Over the past two years, its clothing has flooded into stores ranging from small golf-club pro shops to large chains such as Nordstrom, and now can be found at more than 700 locations in the U.S. The majority of customers continue to buy directly from the website; the most popular items are the white Manhattan Dress Shirt ($125) and a light blue-check performance button-down (the Hampton, also $125). Lavelle takes these basics' popularity to mean that new customers, looking for wardrobe staples or to dip a toe into workleisure, are still streaming in.

Many new customers found Mizzen+Main after the Mickelson ad went viral. Its website views went up 500 percent while the campaign was peaking in popularity. (Other athletes including Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also endorse Mizzen+Main.) Mickelson, who was given equity in the company, seems like he's adopting its sense of humor, which strikes some of the same notes as Dollar Shave Club's videos.

"I think nobody does kind of slightly overweight middle-aged guy better than me," Mickelson told a group of reporters. "And this [shirt] says exactly who I am."

 

Published on: Dec 4, 2018