Episode 17: Ruth Kelly | SAACHS

Ruth Kelly on finding her path to SSACHS and making change in the active apparel industry.

Ruth Kelly is the head of materials and materials editor of SSACHS, a design agency for performance and active lifestyle apparel, which also publishes a digital magazine under the same name. We had a fun conversation discussing her journey of leaving her corporate life to join SSACHS with her partners. As a creative fabric expert, thought leader, and educator, Ruth shares insights as to how she approaches material development, what makes a good material partner, how the pandemic has influenced design trends and sustainability, along with the necessary digital marketing tools that are needed to help connect suppliers, mills, and brands. You’ll also discover the meaning behind the name SSACHS!

Portrait of Ruth Kelly, of SAACHS
Ruth Kelly, Performance Materials Expert | Entrepreneur | Editor | Fabric Developer & Innovator

Ruth’s Interview Transcript

Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler, and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests about what inspires them to create. Why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry. My guest today is Ruth Kelly, head of materials and materials editor of SSACHS, a design agency for performance and active lifestyle apparel, which also, creatively enough, publishes a digital magazine under the same name. Passionate about performance materials, Ruth is a creative fabric expert, thought leader, and educator. She has successfully led raw materials teams in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka – and across the supply chain from performance brands such as lululemon, where she worked for seven years as materials director, to manufacturers. Ruth combines her network of connections with practical in-depth knowledge of the fabric development, sourcing, validation, and production process to make ideas come alive. I spoke with Ruth from her home office in Vancouver, BC. We had a fun conversation discussing a range of topics from how she left her corporate job to join SSACHS with her partners to how she approaches materials development. We also chat about what makes a good material partner, how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced design trends, along with the necessary digital marketing tools that are needed to help connect suppliers, mills, and brands.

In case you’re wondering where the name SSACHS came from, it’s actually a derivative of the Trossachs area in Scotland, where the SSACHS founders have close ties. As the Trossachs is a wonderful outdoor area loved by cyclists, hikers, and runners alike, it’s a great name for a sportswear and active lifestyle design company. I hope you enjoy the episode. Nancy: Ruth, thanks so much for being on Material Wise. I’ve heard so much about you and glad to finally chat.
Ruth: Well, thank you so much for having me, Nancy. I’m really excited to have a chat and share some of my thoughts and stories.
Nancy: Yeah. Wonderful. I’ve done a bit of research on SSACHS. Am I pronouncing it correctly?
Ruth: Yes, you are. Yes.
Nancy: Okay, SSACHS. Can you tell me how you got involved? It’s such an interesting business with the design and the magazine.
Ruth: Yeah. Well, it’s been an extremely exciting journey. We’re just at the beginning of that journey still. How I got involved with my two business partners, Diane and Soudi, who are both in the UK, although we’re all British, it was actually the powers of LinkedIn and connection and networking that got us together, because a bit like yourself, Nancy, we’d all been existing in parallel worlds throughout our careers, having worked in sportswear, in big corporations, the big brands. Diane reached out to me on LinkedIn and was like, “Hey, Ruth, really interested in what you’re doing. I’ve got a magazine. Would you like to be interviewed?” Of course, as a new consultant in this world, it’s always nice to have someone who wants to interview you. It comes across a lot more authentic from a PR marketing point of view. So, I jumped on a call with Diane and, law of attraction, we just hit it off so well that it morphed into an amazing conversation. I wanted to say an interview, but it wasn’t an interview or a job application, it was just a really cool conversation. We realized we had so much in common that I actually came off that call being invited to join the team and head up the materials section of the magazine. So yeah, it was just having this lovely feeling of, oh, these are a great bunch of people they’ve got, they’re trying to do exactly what I’m trying to do, and isn’t it so much better to be part of a network and part of a team rather than trying to do everything by yourself?
Nancy: Absolutely. It just brings me back to, maybe we’ll come back to this, but one of the articles that you wrote for the magazine on collaboration and how important it is and how you can often do so much bigger things with it, and even though you have different strengths, but when you bring it together, it’s really powerful.
Ruth: Yeah. I always try and go back to the teachings of Richard Branson, because he always talks about that not one person can do everything and be super strong in everything. So that’s one thing I’ve learned is to be aware of what your strengths are, and also be aware of maybe where you’re not so good or you don’t enjoy things, and having that confidence to be able to let other people take the leads who are amazing at that, and then that’s where it’s so much better as a team.
Nancy: Absolutely. Was there a kind of a defining moment where the three of you… I mean, you had this call on LinkedIn, but I know you had worked with some very big brands in the past. Were you head of materials with some of these brands? Was there a time where you just said, “Okay, I’ve had it, and I want to do something on my own?”
Ruth: Yeah. Well, I wasn’t head of materials, but I was a director for lululemon. You know, like any big brand there is especially, I think, as well, when you work for a publicly traded company, there’s obviously another set of responsibilities and pressure to keep, quite rightly, well, you could argue about that, but that’s another podcast, but there is this pressure, anyway, to provide newness and more, more, more profits. Having been working like that for seven years, it’s exhausting. It’s super fun, but there is an element of what I call a hamster wheel. Oh, here we go again. Here’s another season. And those seasons seem to be getting shorter and shorter and you’ll feel like yourself and your team have pulled out a miracle or done something really amazing, but it’s never good enough. It’s always like, what’s next, what’s next. So maybe that’s the cynic in me, being in the industry a little bit more, but I think coming into the twilight of my career, shall we say, not at the beginning, you start to look at things differently. So, it’s, okay, what can I actually do for myself to really create the life I love? It was a big thing for me having to break those shackles of the monthly salary. So, being able to step out of that and, okay, how can I create financial stability for my family in a different way, in an entrepreneurial way? That is super scary, that is, and it’s taken me many years to get the courage to try and do that, but I found it’s extremely freeing when you do. You know, you kind of now think of, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” Right? But it’s been in that mindset of, “Oh, I always need to work for someone else. I need to get that salary to come in,” especially when we’ve all got responsibilities, et cetera. So, yeah, I think that was part of the drive, and the drive to also try to make a change in the industry. You know, we can all sit and complain about, oh, I don’t like the fact that there’s all this pressure, or that things aren’t sustainable, or that I don’t feel I have a life, or I’m not producing great products. We can all get in complaints, but for me, it’s also, how do you be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? So also stepping outside of that enables you to have different conversations because you don’t have to put that on that layer of working for a company and have to apply their filter to everything.
Nancy: Absolutely. It’s very frightening, I know, but so rewarding. I have a feeling it will be interesting to see when we come out of the pandemic what will transpire with company work, what people do. I think a lot of innovation, or I hope lot of innovation, comes out of this situation, not just in product ways, but just personal ways as well. I listen to podcasts a lot, and yesterday on my walk I was listening to Brene Brown and Daring Greatly. I’m just like, “Oh yeah, that’s why I did this.” I know it’s scary, but.
Ruth: Awesome. I mean, I was fortunate enough to see her speak. She was one of the keynote speakers at the lululemon Leadership Conference and she is amazing. She’s so much fun, as well. I think she was a little bit scared that she was coming to lululemon and that people were going to be, you know. Then, this was quite a few years ago, so early on in her public speaking career, so I guess she’s had her some experiences where maybe she tried to be a little bit goofy and people didn’t kind of get it. But of course, the lululemon team was totally into it and she had the whole room up dancing. Yeah, she’s awesome.
Nancy: Oh, she’s funny. Maybe we can get a little bit more into materials now. So how do you think materials influence design?
Ruth: Great question, Nancy. Yeah, this is something where it’s, to me, it’s a symbiotic relationship. I talk a lot about, with designers, what comes first, the chicken or the egg, and it can be both, right? So often it’s that influence of you pick something, you pick this material up, you have this tactile, it’s visual, experience. As a designer, you can get excited, you can start to visualize how that can transpire, how that can be used in a design and how it can create something that is going to, especially in sportswear, provide a soul and a function, and, okay, it might sound a little bit pompous, but actually enrich someone’s life by making them feel good, by making them not have to worry that they’re going to get caught out in the rain when they’re on a run. So, yes, you can pick up fabrics and have that very visceral relationship with them and that can spark the design process. But then equally, there’s also the other way to look at things, the other side of the coin, where as a designer you might have an idea of something that you want to create and you can’t actually find the exact thing either visually or aesthetically that you want, or performance wise, that you need. That’s super fun as well, being able to work with a designer and help draw out their ideas, especially as they’re the experts, maybe, in apparel design, and you’re the expert in developing the fabrics and being able to do that. I’ve also worked on other aspects where when I was at lululemon I did, a few years ago, a reflective embroidery collection. I was really interested in how that whole design and development played off each other. So, the whole project came to light because we were trying to innovate in the area of reflectivity. So, when you’re out on a run, especially in the fall in the Northern hemisphere, you want to be able to feel safe, and with reflectivity, it’s very technical, there’s a lot of limitations as to what you can do. I had this idea, it was two o’clock in the morning, using my background from the intimate apparel world, I thought, ooh, what about taking this new reflective yarn that’s very difficult to knit or weave because it’s super stiff and applying that to an embroidery technique which is not normally used in sportswear. I kind of thought, hmm, I knew I couldn’t go to the design team and explain this because they kind of wouldn’t get it. They needed to see something. I could see it in my mind, but I knew they needed something to actually see. So, as a side of desk project, went along and persuaded a company that I noticed was an embroidery company. “Oh, hey, if I can get you some yarn, would you just be interested in just doing me a little sample?” They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, sure. No problem.” So did that. Then when I showed it to our creative director, he was like, “Yeah, just go for it, Ruth, that’s awesome. Just go for it.” Then it was the question of working with the design team to be like, okay, this is the potential, how can we actually engineer what we need to make the best use of this technology? So sometimes you also get into that realm where they are both influencing each other, and so that you’re doing the development of the material at the same time as the development of the garment. So that was super interesting to be able to make these adjustments on the fly as we fit the garment. Oh, we need that embroidery to go a little bit more up there. Let’s alter, let’s tweak, that design. So that’s super cool as well.
Nancy: Yeah. It’s symbiotic how you work together, and you really need both so one can feed off the other. What do you think is important to you when you create a fabric? Obviously, the yarn, what the fabric has to do, but do you just have like these brainstorms that maybe come from design or just like, “Oh, I have got to have an invention here?”
Ruth: Yeah, it’s a bit of everything. You know, for me, it’s like lots of different plates that you’re spinning at the same time. So, you have to have a real appreciation and a desire to produce something that’s aesthetically beautiful or handsome, or whatever that can be. That’s really important because you could be an amazing technical person but create something that just doesn’t look or feel great and nobody’s going to want to wear it. It doesn’t matter how great it is technically, especially when you’re putting something next to skin. Then the other thing is, being a bit of a geek as well, a bit of a technical nerd, as you said, it’s about getting into that detail of the fibers, the yarn, the number of filaments that’s in there, the construction, the finishing, the amount of stretch, all these different parts of the recipe. It’s a bit like baking a cake that you’re playing around with, and it’s fascinating how they all inter-react to the good or detriment of the overall finish. A third element is also the commercial aspect that you need to ask, is this a commercial product? What does that mean? How can I get that into mass production? Then, of course, don’t forget sustainability as well. So that’s a very important new fourth place that we need to keep in there. Am I producing something that is going to be sustainable? I mean, that’s a whole other debate, but at least am I producing something that is going to be part of someone’s closet for a while. It’s going to be durable. It’s going to be something that they’re going to treasure. That’s really important to me as well.
Nancy: Speaking of sustainability, it means so many different things to so many different people. What does sustainability mean to you?
Ruth: Well, I think the first important thing to think about is from a design point of view. Because we can talk about circularity of design, we can talk about recycling, et cetera, et cetera, but as I said earlier, it has to be sustainable in terms of it has to be something that we all produced and that it’s going to be treasured and loved. Because if you think about circular design, or end of life, you’re talking about you’ve already built in this obsolescence into the garment. You’re already thinking about end of life. But what if something was so treasured, such good quality, that it isn’t wearing a way, but also it isn’t becoming obsolete because it’s no longer in fashion or it’s no longer considered aesthetic? I don’t know, maybe I’m an idealist, but I think the more that we can do to that, that is going to be huge, and we definitely need to look at our level of consumerism. So, I think, yes, everything else is part of the solution. Recycling, biodegradable, waterless dying, using renewable energies in factories, like all of these are super, super important, and we also need to look at the amount that we consume and the amount that we produce. So, for me, it’s about producing better and producing less. That doesn’t necessarily go with a consumerist or a capitalist culture, so again, we’ve got this…right?
Nancy: Yes. No, and I’m hearing that from other guests on the podcast. I think that’s a fabulous trend. We all have too much stuff and if we can buy better and wear longer, that would be better. But you’re right, consumerism. When you’re designing all these different seasons, you have to keep coming up with something else and something more and something more. So, it will be interesting to see what happens. How do you think the supply chain has been helping brands with their sustainable efforts?
Ruth: I think that’s a really good question. I think there’s good and bad. I wouldn’t even say bad, it’s just really hard. You know, it’s hard for us all to figure out and to really tell the authentic stories. People, quite rightly, are cynical about, “Oh, it’s just greenwash. Oh, here we go again. “If I look at the mill, say, and they do a better job than others at telling the stories. It can be confusing because sometimes their salespeople aren’t always maybe the best technical and don’t know the story themselves. One thing I’m sure you’ll appreciate, Nancy, that can be super confusing is even something as simple as the recycled yarn. The fiber supplier manufacturer might have yarn beyond the plant and might give it their own brand name, and then the mill wants to give it another brand name, and then everybody gets really confused, you know? I found out fabrics that I had been working with for years, have actually got a component of a Serona yarn, and I didn’t even know, right? So, I think we can do a lot better. I think, certainly from the mill level, people are really trying to do good and they are really trying to help the brand. You know, it’s been tough for them because when we started these conversations years ago, it was always about price and people wanted the sustainability aspect but didn’t want to pay anything extra. Now, that price difference is still there, but it’s becoming much, much smaller. It’s going to be interesting to see in terms of smaller dye batches and things like that, how we can carry on. Because there’s so much waste with minimums and lot of dead bolt stock, that type of stuff. There are some great group buying platforms that are out there now for smaller brands or people where you can actually buy our redundant stock, so that’s a good thing. But yeah, still lots to go. Of course, some great research that’s going on at the moment in different materials, looking at adjacent industries and looking at their waste and can that be used as a feed stock? So, I think, yeah, it’s a very complex journey, and we’re just at the beginning and there’s no silver bullet for any of us in this.
Nancy:  Yeah. Just trying to do the best that we can.
Ruth: Yeah, and just ask questions. I always say to people, be curious. Stay with the mill, but ask questions, be curious, be cynical, just keep asking and asking, and that’s how you learn.
Nancy: What do you think makes a good textile partner when you’re looking for materials or you’re developing materials?
Ruth: The number one thing is open and honest communication. I mean, I’m assuming here that you’ve got the technical know-how, right? That’s a big. So, I think it’s finding the right person who fits your business, okay? So, there are different suppliers that will work with different brands or different manufacturers, so it’s understanding their business model and seeing if it fits in with yours. If they are geared to produce big runs and that’s what you’re looking for, awesome. If you want somebody who’s smaller and flexible, great. You always have to do your research to understand what their business model is, but also what they’re specialist in. Because a lot of mills, and I’m just talking about fabric mills here, specifically, but it goes the same for any textile partner, be it when you’re going further upstream looking at fiber or day stock chemical partners, is understanding what they’re best in the world at, right? Because they might have a wide portfolio, but they’re really good at this, okay? Maybe that’s what you want to focus in on. But as I said earlier, it’s that open, honest communication that is huge. It just makes life so much easier. It’s also obviously up to yourself to be super clear on your expectations so that when it goes wrong, it’s often, as it always is in human life, about different levels of expectation and people not being clear on either side. Which when we’re dealing with different cultures, different time zones, that can be super difficult. Especially when you are at the beginning of a relationship with somebody it’s a bit like dating and it takes a while to get to know each other, but then hopefully after a while, you’re in a situation where you can be truly honest. Even when you’re having to deliver bad news, which happens all the time, the partner feels that they can do that and it’s also going to be okay. It might not be the news that you want to hear, but they feel that they can actually explain the situation and give possible solutions and that you can work together to solve that. Right? So, I think another thing that really good textile partners do is they do their research. They really understand their customer’s business and they’ve done their research. I’ve, throughout my career, sat through and, oh gosh, I don’t even want to think about how many times I’ve sat through it must be thousands of presentations and people sharing their range and you just know that they haven’t even looked at the store, they haven’t looked at the product. They’re just trying to hit all bases. I get that. I get that there’s also the stuff in the store that was maybe things that were developed two, three years ago. They don’t necessarily know what’s in the pipeline or where businesses is changing. But really good ones do help the brands, help the retailers, make that connection of, oh, this is how I can use this product in my collection. This is the potential.
Nancy: Right. Help come up with solutions to your problem.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah.
Nancy: Exactly.
Ruth: So they might have this like amazing new fabric or new technology, and they’re saying to the brand, oh, we’ve been in the store, they might reference a particular garment that they’ve got, and they’re saying like, “This could be your next wild in the wind jacket.” Right? This could be, I don’t know what that is.
Nancy: It’s very good. I like it.
Ruth: I know! Wild in the wind. But yeah, they might have even made a comment or done some sketches. Again, it’s just planting that seed and helping them make that connection. Because I often say to people who are presenting to the big brands, you forget, these people that go in from meeting to meeting, they might’ve been in meetings for 90% of their day. They might not even have had a chance to go to the bathroom or eat anything. It’s hard to change gears sometimes and suddenly get into that space, you know? So, you’ve almost got to do their job for them and make it easier as to how they can see the runway. You’re laying the runway out for them.
Nancy: What textile brands and mills do you think are doing a good job with innovation right now? Am I putting you on the spot?
Ruth: Yeah. I don’t know. Obviously, we’re at a confidentiality point in time a bit, right? That’s always a difficult one. So, there’s lots I could say there, but, yeah, I’m a bit loathe. I can give a little taste of what we’re doing at SSACHS is I put a curated list of my favorite fabrics for spring and summer ’20, and we’re just in the process of getting those photographed. We took into account the ISPO color trends and things like that. So, yeah, it’s my favorite fabrics that I think I’m really excited for sportswear from in there.
Nancy: Well, we’ll have to just wait and look at the magazine or online. We’ll have all that information in the show notes, as well.
Ruth: Awesome.
Nancy: So how do you think the pandemic has influenced design trends in technology?
Ruth: Oh, massively. You know, obviously, stay at home has really influenced my field of expertise in technical sportswear. Look at fashion, right? People don’t need a nice new dress to go to a wedding, maybe, or they don’t need that prom dress, unfortunately, or whatever. So that’s a real obvious one. I think it’s accelerated and amplified what we were already seeing. We were already seeing this extension of comfort. So using all of that expertise that has been around in the world of intimate apparel, swimwear, sportswear, for many years, understanding what comfort, what movement of the body is, and the interaction between fabrics, the interaction between the body when it sweats, all of that, we’re just seeing that further being amplified in terms of if you’re nonactive. I was saying inactive. We’re always active. We’re always moving. But in terms of non-true high level sportswear, so that comfort, you know? But also, not losing anything in terms of aesthetics. So yes, back in the day, we always had our big baggy sweats or whatever that you would never be seen dead in, but there is so much more of this fusion of function and fashion and comfort now, and I just see more and more of that. It’s interesting, from what I observe the industry has become very polarized. People are either doing really well, especially if they’ve got this kind of model and if they are doing e-commerce, and then you’ve got others that are maybe struggling so much. It’s going to be really interesting. As you said earlier, the innovation has been in how people work and processes, how they are using digital tools to develop. It’s going to be an interesting journey to see how it goes on. Of course, I don’t think we’ll really know until the beginning of 2021, because a lot of the collections were all in the pipeline, so some were canceled, as we know, some were rearranged, so we won’t actually know the true fallout of what’s happening until the beginning of 2021, as well.
Nancy: Right. Right. What digital marketing techniques will remain, do you think, to help suppliers connect with mills, brands, post-pandemic?
Ruth: I think it’s been interesting. You look at the virtual trade shows, I think, that’s happened, it’s not been completely easy. There’s been limited success. I know I felt bombarded as an attendee, and a lot of the pure joy is about the networking, is about the touch and feel of the fabrics. Yes, there’s been some great talks and webinars, but again, we all start to feel bombarded from that. I’m not so sure how that’s going to carry on, I’ll be really honest. There is an amazing company down in LA called Preface who operate in the fashion space. They took a very novel approach and decided… Sorry, to back up, they’d just started to do some what they call boutique trade shows out of LA and New York. When the virus hit, they decided to have a different approach and to actually present the season, or present the show, in a box to their customers. So, they didn’t even try and do a virtual show. They didn’t even do a webinar series. They did a series of talks, of panels, of workshops if people wanted it, and they delivered in a box to their customers a pre-curated collection of fabrics, of colors, of some of the smells and things to influence over the season all with a sustainability aspect of it. I thought that was super smart and really worked for that segment. That was a different way to approach things.
Nancy: It’s almost a bespoke effort, like they were customizing.
Ruth: Absolutely, yeah.
Nancy: I wonder if that’s going to happen more.  It’ll be interesting to see. I’m hearing the same, that trade shows, I don’t think these virtual shows, as hard as organizers are trying to make them happen and I give them so much credit, they are just not quite the same. They’ve had to work so quickly to try to develop these platforms, so it must be very hard on them. Ruth: Yes. Nancy: You kind of touched on this a little bit, but where do you think performance apparel trends are heading? You know, you mentioned you think that fashion as we know it might be dead, but if you had your crystal ball, where do you think performance apparel trends are heading?
Ruth: Well, I think from everyone I speak to, whether it be men’s, women’s, whatever, comfort is still a thing. That’s not going away anytime, just more and more of it. I think there’s going to be, again, more on the sustainability side. There will be more things that are actually coming to commercialization. Again, all these amazing things that are happening – take natural dyes for example. Because they are available, right? You can do that, but how can you really ensure that you take the variability out of them? So, there are people working on that and there are people working on bio-plastics. I mean, we all know about mushroom leather and all those sorts of things. I see that there’s going to be more and more of that. I think it’s going to be interesting when we look at when people start to think about microplastics and what’s happening there. We have already seen fabrics being engineered that claim to have less microfiber shedding into the waterways. I think that’s a huge area that people will start to really see some solutions there. So, I think it’s going to be super interesting. Everybody, from what I’ve… not everybody, but a lot of people, what they are wanting to do is to have, their ideal textile would be something that has the true performance, a full performance of a polyester or a nylon. Well, actually the performance of a polyester, the handling of a nylon, and look of a natural. Right? And completely sustainable and biodegradable. So, if you could do that, you’re on the way.
Nancy: Okay, get at it, Ruth.
Ruth: Yeah, okay. Right?
Nancy: Well, I know you’re not only a material developer, you’re a writer, a yoga teacher, lecturer. I mean, I was going to ask you if you weren’t doing any of those things, what would you be doing?
Ruth: If I wasn’t in any of those things, what would I be doing? That is a great question. I think I would be either an archeologist, because I’m just a bit of a history geek. I love anything like that. Maybe, though, I don’t know if I could sit for hours and hours in the dirt. My other choice, to go from dirt to water, would be a Marine biologist.
Nancy: Interesting. Interesting.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah. I used to teach scuba diving for many years, and I just love being in the ocean, so I think that would be the opposite.
Nancy: Oh, well, there’s still lots of years left, Ruth. So, what have you indulged in during COVID-19? Anything?
Ruth: Well, apart from the odd glass of wine and the odd chocolate, which I think we all have, what have I indulged in? I’ve indulged in my garden, my yard. That’s been awesome, just being able to spend time out there and getting a bit of fresh air. Working with the family, playing with the dog, and lots of reading. I’ve had lots of time to do lots and lots more reading, as well, which has been great.
Nancy: That’s great. Yeah. Well, it’s been difficult, but there are some silver linings for sure.
Ruth: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Nancy: Well, Ruth, I can’t thank you enough. I really enjoyed our talk. We’ll put information on SSACHS on our show notes. I hope that we can meet in person sometime soon.
Ruth: I hope so, too. Thanks.
Nancy: Thanks, and have a really great vacation. Okay? Ruth: Thank you so much. You take care. Bye, now. Nancy: You, too. Bye.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • For more information on SSACHS design agency and magazine, please visit https://www.ssachsagency.com/

Episode 15: Best of 2019

The Best of 2019 –
Highlights from our guests

Happy New Year! While in production with our new 2020 line-up of episodes, we wanted to share some highlights taken from my conversations with last year’s smart and talented guests whom I was honored to have spent time with. We discovered that sustainability is still a huge topic. While it means many things to different people, sustainability is no longer a trend, but a business approach that’s here to stay. We also learned how collaboration throughout the entire supply chain lifts individual businesses and the industry as a whole. We catch a glimpse into the future with digital manufacturing, robotic tailoring and smart textiles. The thread that ties my guests together, is that they all believe it is an exciting time to be involved with materials. I hope you enjoy!

Jay Adams, Co-Founder of Brass Clothing
Louisa Smith, international textile trend consultant
Portrait of Gihan Amarasiriwardena of Ministry of Supply
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply
Emily Walzer, editor and co-publisher of Textile Insights
Elizabeth Whelan, Founder and Principal at Elizabeth Whelan Design
James Morin, COO, President of Sales at Flowfold

Episode 14: James Morin | Flowfold

James Morin on how a small Maine-based company turned into an international brand

James Morin, COO and president of sales for Flowfold – a brand of minimalist gear made with some of the strongest and lightest of weight materials – gives us insight on how he’s helped build a small Maine-based company into an international brand. In this episode of Material Wise, James shares how he and his team have formed collaborative partnerships with suppliers, retailers, ambassadors, and non-profits to make Flowfold the thriving company it is today.

James Morin, COO, President of Sales at Flowfold

James’ Interview Transcript

Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler, and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests about what inspires them to create. Why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry. 

My guest today is James Morin, Chief Operating Officer and President of Sales, at Flowfold – a brand of minimalist gear made of some of the world’s strongest and lightest materials entirely made in the USA. James joined college friends and Flowfold co-founders, Charley Friedman and Devin McNeill in 2016 to help propel the then Maine-based craft-style company into a full-blown commercial operation. Flowfold got its start in 2010 when Charley, who was working in a sail loft at the time, stole scraps of racing sail cloth out of the trash to make wallets and bags that could keep up with his daily commutes by boat, bike and on foot.

After making a number of well-received products for friends and family, enough word was spread that he knew he had a good thing going. Today Flowfold’s distinctive line of wallets, backpacks, and totes – designed for everyday adventures – can be found at leading retailers across the country, and its fastest growing market, Japan. They are also sold online direct to consumer via its eCommerce site at flowfold.com. 

Sustainability is built into Flowfold’s DNA and it does its part to keep materials out of landfill. Over one third of its materials are recycled and Flowfold works to cut down on material waste through smart manufacturing. The company strives to secure the most sustainable fabrics they can that are made in the USA. 

James shares how Flowfold got its start and how the company has grown through successful collaborations with key partners such as L.L Bean, Japan, Maine International Trade Commission, and a slew of brand ambassadors, which all demonstrate how a small Maine-based company can become an international brand.

Nancy: James, thank you so much for being a guest on Material Wise and inviting me into your new headquarters.

James: Thanks. Excited to be on.

Nancy: Well thank you. So I’d like to start by just getting to know a little bit about you, and about how you got started. So how did you join Flowfold?

James: So, I actually met Devin and Charley who are the two co -founders of Flowfold in college at the University of Maine. And we, like a lot of your quintessential entrepreneurial stories, it was kind of broken stope type of start. Where we did it part-time and we would take time off from work and go to trade shows. And we did that for about five years, where we sold things on Amazon and then went to a couple of trade shows. And it wasn’t until 2016 that we went full time. We raised a little bit of money and went full time and that’s when I joined them, and we haven’t looked back since.

Nancy: Wow, that’s great. So, when did you say that was 10 years ago?

James: Well, gosh the LLC was officially started in 2010. So we just have our nine year anniversary in May. So May of 2020 we’ll be 10 years. But, we were a quarter million in revenue in 2016 right. It was very much a hobby. And we went … we are now, and we may talk about this kind of transforming from that craft style company to a full blown commercial company. And that’s where we are now.

Nancy: So what’s your role within the company?

James: I’m well, I mean head cook and bottle cleaner, right? I think my official title is COO and President of Sales. And Devin, Charley and I have three principles. We are all very siloed. And so, Devin kind of handles our HR, handles our books. He’s our CEO and indeed a Commander in Chief. Charley’s our Chief Innovation Officer. He handles our manufacturing and sort of procurement and resources development. And then I handle sales and operations, and really manage the key relationships, and project management around some of our initiatives that we have here.

Nancy: I see. Did you ever think that you’d be in the position you are now? I know you’re an outdoor guy.

James: No, I never did. I went to school for… I was pre-med. I was going to medical school and thank God I failed the M cats. Because I don’t think I would have been that… At 18 years old you sort of don’t know what you want to be. I mean, at 30 years old, I don’t think I know exactly what I want to be to the long-term. But, I’ve always known that I want to be a leader of people. I want to be involved in a company that really gives me a sense of fulfillment. So I didn’t know it would be here, but I feel like I’m exactly where I belong.

Nancy: That’s great to find that your hobby has become your passion, and your passion has become your business. So Flowfold’s platform is designing minimalist gear with function and durability in mind. It’s also very lightweight. Do you think this is still the trend going forward?

James: Yeah, I think minimalism is actually … probably, if you look at sort of the SEO, it’s probably trending now more than it was when we originally started the company. You look back to when Charley really kind of first started. I’m not going to say stealing, but it probably was stealing actual scrap sail cloth out of the trash can at the sail loft. He had a very simple idea. I mean, he lived on an Island in Maine and had to commute from that Island to the Maine shore every single day. And he needed gear that could kind of keep up with that. With the bike, the boat, the car, all sorts of the four seasons of weather that Maine presented.

James: And so he found a problem that he saw. Which was that the quality of products wasn’t there. And you look at a lot of the legacy brands out there right now even. But especially 10 years ago, it was this go for the summit ethos, right? You need to make the most technical gear in order to be relevant. And our audience, we saw they weren’t going to climb Everest. But they were going to go on a day hike, take a selfie on top. And then the next week, they were going to go for a picnic or go to a music festival. And they didn’t have a brand or a product line that they felt they could use for all of those different adventures. And that’s kind of where we stumbled on this idea of minimalist gear for everyday adventure. Right? An everyday adventure can be walking your dog, or it can be finding a local trail somewhere. So, that’s kind of where we are. And I don’t think that trend is going to go away anytime soon.

Nancy: No, I agree. I think that everything I’m hearing as well is buy better, buy less, buy a piece of equipment that you can take on many different activities. And I was just listening to a … Oh something On-Point. Yeah. It was On-Point where this fellow had just written a book about buying second hand. That’s not the name of it, but it was going about how we need to continue on the path of just buying better and wearing it and using it more.

James: Well, yeah. I mean, sustainability obviously right now is a buzzword. And it’s important for brands, Flowfold included to be thinking about how they can be more sustainable in their everyday business practices. But it’s interesting United By Blue is a leader in the space, in the outdoor industry. But even then they came out and they, they had a huge push of big initiative around a new product line that was recycled plastic.

James: And you have to be careful as an advocate. Even if you try and do something right, there’s always going to be people out there that say you’re not doing it right enough. And there are consumers who were quick to remind United By Blue and everybody that, recycled plastic is still plastic. And one of the biggest issues around the garment industry is this idea of single use, right? People are buying clothes and not wearing them and the creation and making of clothes is a very wasteful product, when it comes to using of water. And so, to your point about secondhand reusing and figuring out that is probably the single best path towards sustainability that we can get to. And I’m anxious to kind of see how the industry adapts to that.

Nancy: Yeah, I know. Well I think everyone’s just thinking about it and that’s a big start.

James: You’re right.

Nancy: Telling stories is a big part of your brand platform. And I’m just wondering how important it is, or I’m wondering how materials fall into your brand’s story.

James: Yes. Storytelling in general is important because that’s how you’re going to get people’s attention. And I think, when it comes to material, it’s funny you say that because I’ve never really thought of it this way. But that’s probably our first story, or if nothing else it’s the first chapter of the story. Material is how we start, I don’t believe that we are a materials company. But at that being said, the essence of Flowfold was the recycled sailcloth wallet, that’s how we started. Before we took a pack to Kilimanjaro, before we came up with recycled cotton, organic cotton, recycled polyester. Before that, it was recycled sailcloth. It was the sailcloth that was reserved for the ultra-elite sailboat, kite surfers and sail boaters. And we were repurposing it for a very simple product, the wallet.

James: And, there are plenty of people that said that the world doesn’t need another wallet company. But we were passionate about what we were doing, and I knew it right away. Actually your listeners can’t see it, but this wallet right here that I’m holding my hand is 12 years old. It’s the first wallet that Charlie ever made for me. And it’s not even Flowfold brand. It’s our first company name, which from a marketing perspective made no sense. No one knew how to spell it, or say it, or all those things. So it doesn’t even have Flowfold on it. But this wallet, I keep it, I continued to use it because it’s a reminder of sort of how we started, where we started from. And that kind of keeps us grounded in remembering our roots because I think it’s, you have to be authentic. Your stories have to be authentic. And so remembering where that first chapter was, that’s our foundation. And now we continue to build off that.

Nancy: That’s great. I did not know about that little tidbit about the name of the company. Or how did you come up with the name Flowfold? I digress here a little.

James: No, it’s okay. It’s sort of a … if you asked Charley, he’s going to tell you he came up with it in a dream…But Flowfold is actually a geological term. And it’s over time, when you have layers of rock under extreme heat pressure, it creates what’s called a Flowfold. Which is basically rock flow and what it means to us. And what it meant to Charley at that time was this idea of something as strong, and as rigid as rock can have some innate sources of flexibility, right? It can bend, it can wave, it can flow and that’s sort of how our materials are. I mean the sailcloth material that we started with … Again, you’re talking about that first story, it’s an extremely rigid material. It’s very challenging to use. In fact, you can’t make large products out of it. You can’t make bags out of recycled sailcloth but you can make a wallet. And so this idea of the strength, the flexibility. That sort of I don’t know, dichotomy or playing with words. That strength the flexibilities is what that word means to us and even though it’s a geologic term.

Nancy: It’s a great name.

James: Thank you.

Nancy: It is. Even though, I like-

James: It’s a little hard to say sometimes.

Nancy: You mentioned the recycled sailcloth – where you find those materials are at sail lofts or how do you procure them?

James: Yeah, it used to be out of the trash can, but as we’ve scaled obviously. We work with mills at sail lofts to at times get hundreds of yards of this material that may have the slightest bit of a discrepancy in the material. That we then will up cycle or recycle because it’s not fit for those quarter million dollar sails. And the best way for your listeners who aren’t familiar with the material, it’s a laminate. And so, it takes several individually not strong materials, right? A very thin layer of polyester, a very thin layer of nylon or Mylar depending on the material that you’re using. And some inner fibers that might maybe be very strong, but they’re just fibers of carbon fiber, Kevlar and it’s laminated together. And it’s the perfect example of the, the strength is in the sum of the parts, right? So you take these three individually, relatively weak fibers, you laminate them together and you have a very strong and durable fabric.

The issue is if one of those fibers is even a millimeter out of place and the whole kind of lot can be thrown away. And that’s when we will come and we’ll buy the material for 50 cents on the dollar, we’ll keep it out of a landfill. And to this day, our sailcloth line is still … we never, we don’t buy virgin material. It’s 100% recycled or up cycled material. And when there’s plenty of it to go around, but there are situations where a color, will be a small batch or a limited run because we won’t get it back again.

Nancy: That’s interesting. These are racing sails, right?

James: Correct.

Nancy: It’s not just your typical basic sail-

James: It’s not your typical day sail kind of sail. Correct.

Nancy: And I understand that you use some other materials for your bigger pieces in your packs. Can just talk a little bit about this.

James: Correct. So we actually have worked … at this point, we worked with the mill quite a bit and the actual makers of this. And that own the technology around creating these patterns with the inner fibers. So it’s a patented process, it’s actually off patent now. But it’s, we’ve worked with them and, the issue with the sailcloth is that the outer face of that is Mylar. So it’s very … for your listeners, it’s almost like shiny. It’s plasticky it looks like, and completely waterproof and it’s fantastic to resist, the UV radiation that would degrade a material over time. So it’s great for sailboats, not great for backpacks.

So we’ve worked with the mill and we’ve kind of uncovered some changes that you can make if you replace that outer Mylar finish. For example, with a small thin layer outer nylon. Now all of a sudden you have a fabric that has a much softer touch and it’s a fabric that you can create bags out of. And that fabric is no longer called sailcloth anymore. It’s called an outdoor fabric VX 42 or VX 21 for people that are familiar with the space. And that outdoor fabric is not just used exclusively by Flowfold, but it’s used by other brands. And it’s got the same sort of strength and tear resistance, and abrasion resistant materials as the original sailcloth. But it’s got a much softer feel, and it’s much better for backpack. So we use that and of course we’re exploring some other adaptations of this technology as well.

Nancy: When you mention exploring, leads me to thinking or asking where you do source materials? Or if where … I don’t want you to really reveal your sources, but where do you turn to, to learn more about new fabrics and trends and trade shows or?

James: Yeah, trade shows you could. I mean you, right? I mean I have an Excel spreadsheet, which is a … and I call it my pool of champions. And you’ve always been on there from a textile perspective. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s important to stay on top of these trends. And the textile industry is certainly a place where there is knowledge to be found. And we don’t consider ourselves to be experts in textiles, but we want to stay up to date with certain trends. The issue, and I know you didn’t ask this, but we may get into some of the challenges that we face. We’re 100% made in the USA company. We’re proud of that, and there are advantages of that, but there are disadvantages. A lot of the technology, a lot of the information, a lot of that knowledge that we just spoke of actually isn’t domestic.

And so some of your most sustainable fabrics, some of your highest technology fabrics aren’t originating in the United States anymore. So it can be challenging because of the FTC guidelines. You need to source your materials domestically even if you’re taking the raw material. The raw materials also have to come from United States. So we source all of our materials from the United States now. That continues to be the plan, but we’re putting more pressure on our vendors, and our textile manufacturers to push the limit and find ways to get more sustainable fabrics made in the United States.

Nancy: That is a tall order, it’s hard. So I know you’ve recently, not brand new, but recently formed a collaboration with distribution in Japan, and I just loved looking at all the videos on your website. They’re really well done. So what prompted you – what you call a small company in Maine but becoming much bigger – decide to go to Japan?

James: So in some regards it was a convenient accident, right? We didn’t necessarily approach Japan first. The Japanese distributors are very active, very progressive in their sourcing. And so they come to the United States, they go to a lot of trade shows, and we first met them at Outdoor Retailer. And that was step one, meeting them and having those conversations. Step two was evaluating the market in general. And what we found is I think that the Japanese market, I forget the name, and shame on me because I just went there – but there they have a term specifically that’s very similar to minimalism and it’s a term in Japan. They taught me, but I forget it now. But it basically means waste not, don’t be wasteful. And it’s even a stronger lifestyle principle there in Japan than it is in United States.

So I think this idea of minimalism is very important to them, small lightweight products. And then I didn’t truly realize how good it would fit. It wasn’t till I actually stood in the streets of Tokyo, and realize that the commuter in Tokyo doesn’t have room for big packs. It’s just so busy. There’s so many people within such a small square footage of space that you need these small sling bags, or fanny packs, or everyday day packs, mini backpacks. That the consumer in Tokyo uses because there’s just simply not enough room for the big backpacks. And so it was incredible to see the products being used, not just our products being used, but other products in the space being used. And it’s great to see a culture embrace minimalism, embrace not being wasteful. But also Japan more than any of my other international markets still embraces many United States products. They value our quality and so as a result of those three things, we’ve done well in that marketplace.

Nancy: I can see the minimalistic values between the two cultures. So I know that you also … L.L Bean is one of your big collaborators and L.L Bean has a store in Japan. Are your products in the L.L Bean Tokyo stores?

James: They are actually, there’s I believe 27 stores in Japan, which a lot people don’t know about. Japan and L.L Bean is probably, I believe a six to seven figure, no nine figure, thinking about a hundred million dollar business for L.L.Bean. They’re very big and they’re growing fast and I was able to meet with their team in Japan and learned a tremendous amount. They’re extremely firm. Actually I got to drive in the bootmobile in Tokyo, which is a bucket list item I never thought I would be able to do. But we actually have some exclusive products that are only found in L.L.Bean Japan that aren’t found in L.L.Bean domestic stores, which is because of the market, right? The mini backpack, the large fanny pack. Those things are actually in Japan, not US marketplace because the markets are different.

Nancy: I was just going to ask you if you saw market differences in consumers.

James: Absolutely. Our wallets in Japan have zipper pockets as an example because they still use coins for currency. Our wallets in Japan are a little bigger than our wallets in United States because the yen is a taller bill note than our bank note rather, than then the United States. So we have to make some changes. But it’s a worthwhile sort of change to our product line because it’s probably our fastest growing. I will say in 2020 when we’ve just started to do and finalize our forecast, I think that our Japanese market is going to be the fastest growing market for Flowfold in 2020.

Nancy: Wow. That’s something.

James: It’s exciting.

Nancy: Yeah. Very exciting. Are there other international locations you’re looking towards? I would think Scandinavia has kind of a minimalist?

James: Yeah. Europe in general is a miss for us so far, it’s been overlooked. I think Canada has some challenges with packaging and bilingual constraints. There are certainly some opportunities, but at the same time, when you’re a growing company, you really have to kind of double down on what you’re doing well. And for us right now, we have law of diminishing returns, if we try to spread ourselves too thin. So, our focus at least for 2020 is going to be obviously the United States and then Japan. And then if we have other distributors within other countries that want to partner with us, we’ll explore that. But it’s going to have to be a very good reason to do so.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s great. Focus on what you do well and make it better.

James: Exactly.

Nancy: I really … there was another quote that I saw in a place. I don’t know where I read it, but an article you mentioned that it’s possible to be a small Maine company and become an international brand. You’ve done that.

James: Well, the world is smaller now in many ways than it was 15, 20 years ago. And I have full conversations with my partners in Japan. Granted it’s at 12 o’clock for me and it’s at 6:00 AM for them or whatever or what have you, whatever the time changes. But I have that ability to have these conversations immediately and be able to react. And it’s shocking how fast I can ship prototypes and samples to Japan. We’re talking days, right? It’s no longer months anymore and awkward conversations. So it’s a small place and there are also individuals in our organizations in Maine. If you’re fortunate enough to know about Maine International Trade Center, the fact that my friends and folks at MITC. There are grants out there that help small companies go in to introduce their products and brand into new marketplaces. And we have leveraged that quite a bit.

Nancy: That’s been a great asset for many. Thanks, we’ll put that … the organization of the show notes for those that want to know. So you also had done such a great job with telling your story across many different platforms, on social media, your brand ambassadors. So can you tell me a little bit about that? Is it helped because Flowfold is not just direct to consumer, but wholesale too. So, maybe that’s two different questions. How does your marketing speak to each of your channels of distribution?

James: Well, okay, so I’ll break it down. I think to, we’ll kind of go over those channels, right? So we have I would say three main channels, but I’m actually going to introduce a fourth for the first time. But the first channel that we have that we’ve already talked about is that international distribution. Which in many ways is actually one of the simpler models because they order annually, right? So twice a year, large orders, you ship it and you kind of forget it and then you let them as the distributor, because of course you give up some margin. But they will then control the brand effectively in their space, in their country. We have domestic wholesale, which we’ve also discussed, which is the partnerships with L.L.Bean and Urban Outfitters, REI, et cetera. All the way down to your small mom and pop shops on the corner, local markets which we still really enjoy supporting.

The third is obviously the direct to consumer play, which is flowfold.com or Amazon depending on where you want to list your products. Theoretically it could be brick and mortar if that was part of your strategy. It’s not part of Flowfold’s strategy to have brick and mortar. The fourth, which we may or may not get into, is sort of a B2B model. Which is putting a local businesses’ brand on your product. There’s sort of a promotional market and it’s a very large industry in and of itself. But what’s exciting for us is that we are seeing a trend of companies wanting to use mainly United States products for promotional items, willing to spend more. So it was no longer giving their employees or events the cheapest product available with like swag, but it’s about giving away really high quality product. So there was an opportunity for us to expand.

James: But back to marketing, I think that the key there is how does it differ per market and excluding the international play because we don’t honestly control that marketing as much. But the other channels, the marketing is nearly the same and it has to be because the omnichannel that we’re dealing with right now. The consumer is extremely educated and they don’t care where they see about your brand. It may be on Instagram, maybe L.L.Bean’s catalog. It may be at a trade show or at a fair, they need to immediately see who Flowfold is and know what they’re about. And they don’t want to necessarily be confused depending on where they see it. So your marketing and your branding has to be consistent again around idea of authenticity. So, the branding is fairly consistent and no matter what channel we’re talking about and the key points that we list on our website, you’re going to see on our packaging as in the wholesale marketplace, right? So it’s very consistent across the Omnichannel.

Nancy: It makes it easier.

James: It does make it easier.

Nancy: The lines have certainly blurred. So everyone’s a consumer these days. You have a number of ambassadors around that I noticed on your website. And they’re great for telling stories as well.

James: Right. And I think, you look at sort of who’s in the driving seat from a consumer perspective right now? And millennial, again another buzzword, right? But millennials now, Gen Z coming up behind them, they’re going to be the future buyers. And as millennials get older, myself included. But as they get older, they’re starting to get more situated within their lives, within their jobs, with their having … if they’re having a home, they’re getting their mortgages now and under control. And they’re going to be the ones that are determining what’s purchased and what’s not purchased. And this generation, millennials and Gen Z has been advertised to you more than any other living generation, right? Every single day you will look at your phone, you may have 200, 300 notifications of people pings, vibrations, things trying to get your attention.

A lot of this is advertising and so in order to cut through that, you need … UGC, right? User Generated Content, the modern day consumer right now does not want to hear from me as a brand. They want to hear from their peers and so that is what’s so important around this idea of, I’m going to use the word ambassador. Because I think influencers has been a bit inflated. And I think that we’re going to see that bubble burst. Then maybe even very soon as Instagram and Facebook as they create new social platforms or alter their social platforms to become less pressurized places. Instagram is already talking about removing the number of likes that a photo gets. This is going to impact the influencer marketplace and we have seen that where you want to be is in what’s the micro influencer area. These individuals that have one to 10,000 followers that those followers respect what they have to say. You get enough of them talking positively about your brand and that’s going to be how you can become relevant in the mass scale.

Nancy: Yeah. Thanks for clarifying that.

James: Sure.

Nancy: I think it’s important. Again, authenticity is so important for your brand ethos, right?

James: Correct.

Nancy: So, there’s another organization that you’ve told me about that I’d like you to talk a little bit more about because I think it’s so important and it’s called Women United Around the World. Can you share a little bit about that?

James: Sure. It’s another example of collaboration in many ways with different goals, right? I mean the collaboration with L.L.Bean is a joint collaboration to learn from each other or to come up with new products. And of course there’s some revenue aspect behind it, and we both want to see growth in our product lines. The collaboration of Women United Around the World was very different, and it was more of a … we talk about story, talk about authenticity. And it’s a great question because everything gets wrapped into one. And we believe strongly in this idea of manufacturing, allowing people to make products in the United States. And what Women United Around the World does, it’s a local organization here in Portland, Maine. Which trains female refugees how to sew so they can go on find gainful employment. And what we decided to do was originally going to be a very small project.

We were just going to give them a very simple template, a simple product design, and we were going to donate all of the raw materials, the zippers, the fabrics, the liner material, everything and have them sew us some bags. And then what we’re going to do is we’re going to take those bags and we were going to sell them on our website, because it’s very challenging. And this organization is not designed to market and to sell. And to get products in front of people. And so you make it, we’ll sell it and we’ll donate 100% of the proceeds, 100% of the revenue right back to the organization. What we found was quite astonishing because it was extremely well received. It was important to us. We didn’t realize how important it would be to our audience.

We sold out of the bags. They made 50 bags. We sold out of them in a weekend before the press release came out. When the press release came out. Then all of a sudden people came in on our website and were donating money. Well, there’s no bags, but I’d still love to buy one anyway. I just want to be able to donate money. So they believed enough in the cause. And so that was sort of really imprinted, this idea of being authentic, being true to what your ethos is as a brand. And your customers were either going to agree with you or disagree with you, but if you’re authentic about it, then they won’t be upset. Even if they don’t agree necessarily, they’re not going to be upset. But if you stay authentic, that’s going to be how you maintain customers for a life really.

Nancy: Yes. So I thought I’d ask just a few personal questions-

James: Sure.

Nancy: Not too personal-

James: It’s okay.

Nancy: So we can know a little bit more about you James. But, so I know these are all your favorite children, these special pieces, and it’s hard to name your favorite child, but what would you say your favorite Flowfold piece is?

James: It’s hard not to say the wallet just because of … I’ll say the wallet. And it may sound like a pop up, but I’m going to give you an extinct very simple example as to why the wallet is so important to me. I have the opportunity as a result of my position for the company to travel all over the world. And when I … it doesn’t matter what airport I’m in, what state I’m in or what country I’m in. If I’m in line and I pull out my wallet to pay for a coffee, or a movie ticket, or a bus ticket, or train ticket, or what have you, and there’s somebody, anybody within a 10-15 foot radius that also has a Flowfold wallet, it’s the most remarkable thing that happens. They’ll take their wallet out of their pocket and they’ll hold it above their head.

And I know your listeners can’t see right now. They’ll hold it above their head like, there’s this kismet relationship. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know that I’m one of the owners. They don’t know that I went to college with the two founders, they know nothing of that. They just saw me with the Flowfold wallet.

And what’s so beautiful to me about that is a couple of things. One, the mark of a good brand is that you know who the brand is without seeing the title, right? So no one … for the logo of Flowfold wallet is on the inside of the wall. No one can see that or read it. When I take my wallet out immediately, people know it’s a Flowfold wallet. And so that sort of kismet relationship that I have with every other person in the world that has a Flowfold wallet is really important to me. It is our equivalent of the Jeep Wave or the holiday simulate where they take their hand off of the handlebars. That’s the Flowfold wallet wave. And that’s why the wallet is so important to me. So it’s by far my favorite child, but I love them all.

Nancy: Oh, that’s so cool. It’s like you’re part of the family or club, sorority, fraternity, whatever. So, and I know that Flowfold is your true love, but are there some brands that you just think are killing it right now or doing really good job?

James: Yeah, I mentioned United By Blue. I think that they’re doing a really good job with an eye towards sustainability. I thought Smartwool is doing a really nice job Allbirds with wool sneakers, right? They’re just some innovators out there that I find extremely interesting. And it’s in the outdoor space in particular. I really think that you’re finding more and more companies have an eye towards this sustainability and future generations, and the impact that they have and getting people outdoors. And I think that’s really main outdoor brands. If you want to call that a brand in itself it’s obviously something that I’m very passionate about. So anyone that’s doing their best to get people outdoors, they’re going to get a big old hat tip from me.

Nancy: That’s great. Nice shout out to Maine Outdoor Brands. So you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got a lot of things going on. What keeps you up at night?

James: Gosh well, I mentioned one of the challenges from Flowfold. One of the challenges is I want, or I hope that we can get some of that technology back in the United States as far around material innovation, fabric, innovation, manufacturing. And outside of that I just think that the political landscape right now in 2020. I think 2020 granted I’m 32 years old and I haven’t seen that many cycles. It’s probably just going to be one of the more interesting political years of our lives to see what happens with the presidential election. And I keep in politics society, I want to make sure that what happens at Flowfold is in the direct interest of the Flowfold employees. I just really hope that there’s not some sort of governmental shift that will impact our business model.

I don’t believe there is. And in the sense that we’re being very cognizant of that. We aren’t going to be impacted necessarily by tariffs. In fact, right now tariffs are probably helping us because it’s driving the cost of outsourced products up and keeping them more in line with domestic made products. But that’s I guess it’s a really high level, big answer. But just politically, I think 2020 it’s going to be really interesting year. And I just care so deeply about the Flowfold employees. I don’t want something existential, something that has absolutely nothing to do with our brand, really impact their livelihood. So knock on wood, don’t think it’s going to happen. We aren’t dependent on government policy necessarily, but I certainly hope things just stay even keel.

Nancy: Yeah. Amen. And again, you’re someone who pushes yourself. So it’s hard for me to even think what you’re going to come up with this answer. But how do you get out of your comfort zone?

James: Well, I think … I’m not sure if you’ve heard me, but I’ve been an advocate for mental health for several years now. I think if you look at entrepreneurs, the suicide rate among entrepreneurs is very high. Higher than obviously the general population. And so, I still go to therapy every month. Doesn’t matter. It was really interesting. We had just launched the L.L.Bean Boot Collab. Just launched it. The Outside magazine came out and wrote … as I’m walking into therapy, Outside magazine article pops up on my phone, which called the Bean Boot collaboration perfect. Right? I think of the title of the article was The First Collab in 107 years and it’s perfect.

I remember that because I went on Instagram and I said, look, this is probably arguably the best business moment of my life. I haven’t had kids yet, haven’t gotten married. This might be the single best moment in my life. And I’m walking into therapy and I took that moment. It’s probably one of the most well received sort of Instagram stories or posts I’ve ever had. Because it was important to remind people that therapy necessarily isn’t for people that are sad or in a sad moment it’s about sort of, I don’t know, it’s like brushing your teeth, right? It’s emotional hygiene and that’s out of my comfort zone. When I first announced publicly that I had sort of battles of the anxiety, and had been on medication for having anxiety that was way outside of my comfort zone and it still is even talking about it now, it’s still because of pride, right?

I’m a Franco American, I was raised to be prideful, talk about these things. You rub dirt on it. Don’t cry. But it’s important for people to know when they see me and they see me go on to Kilimanjaro, testing bags, and they hear me talking about the success of Flowfold, and I look like I always have it together. It’s important for people understand that, that’s not always the case. And so you asked a question about what keeps me up at night. One thing that does bother me or what I wish would change around this idea of mental health is that we all kind of stop sensationalizing this idea of lack of sleep as an example, and you’re going to have a lot of entrepreneurs telling you the Elon Musk thing, right? If you work 16 hours a day for everyone that works eight hours a day, then you’re going to be dealt with the amount of work.

It’s simply not sustainable. If you … the reason why Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and these guys are able to work 16 hours a day is because they love what they do. And the reason why I don’t have a problem staying in Flowfold for 12 hours a day is because I love what I do. And if you’re working 16 hours a day and you hate what you do, you’re not going to get anywhere ahead of somebody working eight hours a day and love what they do. And that’s an absolute promise. But the messaging around it right now is flawed and it’s driving a lot of people to overwork, not finding fulfillment in their lives, not diversify their happiness. So, whenever I have a chance I try to encourage that.

Nancy: Thanks so much for being transparent about that James. That’s so important, I agree. That’s another personal hygiene, mental health, and also sleep it’s very important. So thanks so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about that we haven’t covered?

James: No, I’ll end with this. It’s, we are coming down to a Black Fridays, Cyber Monday, the holidays and this is not a pitch for me directly, but it is I learned this yesterday, it’s called black Friday because it’s a time of year where a lot of small businesses go from red to black, right? And I wasn’t aware of this but it’s important. If you have the ability, try to get out to your local shops, support your local makers if you can. And it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a purchase. Go online, write a review, say that the customer service was well done, or say I owned a product and it’s been a really good product. Those reviews, when we talked about user generated content, pure reviews, those can be a really big impact on small business. So go out there and support your local makers. It’s going to make a big deal for them.

Nancy: We’ll do. Okay. Well again, thanks so much and I enjoyed speaking with you.

James: Thanks.

Nancy: Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.com and please subscribe, rate and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again and until next time, take care.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • United by Blue: https://unitedbyblue.com/
  • Maine International Trade Council: https://www.mitc.com/
  • Women United Around the World: http://www.womenunitedaroundtheworld.org/home.htm
  • Maine Outdoor Brands: https://maineoutdoorbrands.com/

Episode 13: Gihan Amarasiriwardena | Ministry of Supply

Gihan Amarasiriwardena on inventing apparel that drives the industry forward

Gihan Amarasiriwardena is the co-founder/president of Boston-based Ministry of Supply, a sleek and modern brand of performance professional apparel that launched in 2012. Gihan shares how he and his colleague, co-founder/CEO, Aman Advani, both MIT students at the time, shared a desire to create professional apparel that had the same performance benefits as their favorite athletic pieces. We learn how the brand got its start, the significance of its name and the role materials, attention to design and fit play into each and every piece to make the apparel scientifically better. www.ministryofsupply.com

Portrait of Gihan Amarasiriwardena of Ministry of Supply
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder/president of Ministry of Supply

Transcript: Gihan Amarasiriwardena Interview

Nancy: My guest today is Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply, a sleek, modern brand of what Gihan calls – performance professional apparel.

Gihan and colleague, Aman Advani, who is CEO and co-founder of Ministry of Supply, created the brand out of their mutual desire to invent professional apparel that was scientifically better than anything on the market. They wanted the apparel to have the same performance benefits of their favorite athletic pieces – moisture/odor management, temperature regulation, stretch and durability – while looking suitable and stylish for the workplace.

All this began when Gihan and Aman, both students at MIT at the time, were hacking their own apparel prototypes independently of one another. Gihan was cutting up running shirts and making dress shirts out of them and Aman was taking the bottom out of his Dri-FIT socks and sewing them to his Gold Toe socks. A MIT professor recognized that they were both working on the same problem and introduced them to each other.

In 2012, Boston-based Ministry of Supply launched with a wildly successful Kick-Starter campaign introducing its Apollo shirt that features the same phase- changing or temperature-regulating materials used by NASA astronauts in their apparel. 

With sustainable performance and a contemporary aesthetic in mind, the brand has expanded into a full collection of professional apparel for men and women designed to comfortably fit and move with your body.

To attest to that, Gihan and his fiancé have set the Guinness World Record for fastest man and woman to run a half marathon in a suit (a Ministry of Supply Suit, of course).

Today, Ministry of Supply has six stores located in major cities across the U.S. in addition to is online site. The stores play a critical role in educating consumers about performance materials and apparel – encouraging them to try on a product and learn about it. The company also publishes a blog called ScientificallyBetter.com that helps explain materials so people can be better educated when buying apparel. 

In our conversation, Gihan shares more about his background, how Ministry of Supply got its name, the brand’s sustainability views and the community it has built. He also gives us a glimpse into the future of the brand’s design development – specifically the use of active textile tailoring where garments can be robotically tailored after the fact. 

I want to apologize in advance for the sound quality of this episode. We had some technical difficulties with the equipment when recording in the Ministry of Supply store and you will hear some interference. The full transcript of our conversation are in the episode notes on the Material Wise website along with links to several of the organizations and blog Gihan calls out.

Thank you so much for listening! I hope you enjoy!

Gihan, thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful store on Newbury Street, and for being a guest on Material Wise.

Gihan: Thanks for having me.

Nancy: I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about your background and how you got started in design.

Gihan: Yeah, I grew up as a Boy Scout here in New England, and I was going camping pretty much every month. One of my favorite things was to go to EMS or REI and kind of peruse the performance gear racks. I fell in love with Polartec and with GORE-TEX and used this gear on my kind of monthly camp out. Over time I started thinking, it would be interesting to start making my own. With a couple of my friends in my troop, we started taking Tyvek actually, and laminating that to fleece and making our own windproof breathable fleeces.

Actually, our very first ones , we were actually taking trash bags and laminating them to fleece, and we quickly realized the value of waterproof breathable membranes instead. It was kind of that first introduction to performance materials.

I just kind of fell in love with the idea of using materials to unlock performance. When I went to college, I studied chemical and biological engineering at MIT and I thought I wanted to startup – kind of like an outdoor gear company or performance materials company, and with most things, there’s a kind of a point of inspiration and a pivot. Living in the city – moving from rural, Amherst, Mass, to Boston – I realized that there was this opportunity to bring that performance to what you could wear in the city, what you could wear to work, and I wanted to bring that performance to what I could wear every day.

Nancy: Wow, that’s great. Yes. I’m sure you did. Plastic isn’t that waterproof, or isn’t that breathable, excuse me. Was there a defining moment that made you feel as though there was a need for performance and casual apparel or actually call it work apparel?

Gihan: Work apparel, yeah, so we focused on creating a category we called performance professional. Having run cross country and track from middle school all the way through college, I witnessed the transition from cotton running shirts from Dri-FIT to Under Armour, and seeing how big a difference that made. It was night and day. In the same realm, that was kind of as we were going into our professional lives, realizing that technology hadn’t ported over. People were still having sweat stains, lack of stretch, and  they selected to dry clean and iron their clothes every day. These are things that had been solved before in other sectors, but it hadn’t been ported over (to professional work apparel).

My co-founder was actually challenged with the same problem. Aman was a consultant and he had been going to client sites every week and fly out every Monday morning.  For him, his challenge was socks. He would actually take Nike Dri-FIT socks, cut the bottoms off of them, sew them to Gold Toe dress socks. So ,we were finding, we were both kind of hacking apparel. I was cutting up running shirts, making dress shirts out of them, and we were both at MIT, and he was at the business school, I was in engineering school, and one of our professors said, “You two are both kind of peddling your prototypes, working on the same exact problem,” and he introduced us. So yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

Nancy: Oh my God, that’s so serendipitous.

Gihan: Yeah, yeah. We’re very lucky. That’s where that kind of experiences of materials development and then also kind of use case kind of came together and that was the impetus for brand.

Nancy: Oh, that’s amazing. Speaking of the brand, how did you come up with the name Ministry of Supply?

Gihan: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Our company name, Ministry of Supply, is actually inspired by, if you’ve watched James Bond movies, Bond always goes and sees Q before his mission starts and Q gives him his gear. It turns out that Q is based on a real person named Charles Fraser-Smith and his cover was the British Ministry of Supply, and he designed gadgetry and clothing for the British Special Ops. We kind of see ourselves as Q’s labs designing gear for people on a mission.

Nancy: I can just see it. I did not know that. That’s really interesting. You started with men’s and now you have women’s, as I’m seeing in the store, who is your customer do you find?

Gihan: Yeah. Our core customer is really we never really a single demographic, but rather it’s a lifestyle, often times, of a person in their career who’s at that point where they’re looking to connect the different parts of their day, whether it’s staying fit, it’s their personal pursuits, and also their family – and then that they’re really passionate about their work as well. Previously we would have different outfits for each of those different spheres. Kind of the goal of MOS, is that our clothing can become a tool to connect those different parts of the day.

I mean, there’s this constant story that we hear over and over again, and it sounds like it’s not, but it’s actually, it’s a true one that we hear all the time, which is, I get home from work at 6:30, and my kid goes to bed at 7:30, and there’s 60 minutes there. If I’m spending, 10 to 15 of those just changing into a T-shirt and jeans, that’s 25% of my time lost. It’s those moments that the product really stands out. We think that as you go from a red-eye straight to the work day and it feels like you’ve been wearing sweat pants on the flight, and then you feel fresh and you look sharp when you get to the office and stuff. Those are the types of things, those moments, where the product really makes a difference.

Nancy: I’m seeing it more and more where, we can talk about this a little bit later, but wearing more, packing less, having things that have multiple applications, and the whole athleisure side, but then there’s probably a word for professional apparel that can … I don’t know if it’s commuter apparel, whatever. Ministry of Supply got its  start online – and now you have how many stores?

Gihan: We have six stores across the US, plus our online store.

Nancy: Wow, congratulations.

Gihan: Thank you.

Nancy: How do they benefit or complement one another?

Gihan: Yeah, we started online, but one of the things that we realized was we’d always had these popups, and that there was this incredible interaction that happens when you only have the little store that customers can looking to see the product, they can feel it, they can try it on. For a lot of our customers it’s about dissuading any doubts they had about what does this feel like? These are materials that are not cotton, it’s not always just traditional wool suiting. These are materials that have great four-way stretch. A lot of times people are wondering, is this going to look as sharp as my suit that I have in my wardrobe? These are amazing moments to see firsthand.

We also think an important part of our role as a company is to educate people about performance materials and performance apparel. That’s what our stores are really meant to do. It’s really about being able to try a product on, but also learn about it. Our stores play a critical role in that. That being said, our stores all stand on their own two feet and that’s something that we think is important. That in a time where there’s a lot of questions around what’s the role of retail, we want to make sure our stores have a purpose, and in our six locations they are really driving the market there. That’s something that we thought is real important.

Nancy: That’s great. It’s like coming in for an experience that they might know about the product but then actually, with the brand, but to come in and to feel it and touch it because fashion can be more emotional or the shopping can, but there is a real technical story to it, which needs some explanation, but not get so bogged down with it. Speaking of materials, which we have a mutual love for, before we get into sort of the materials per se, I’d like to talk a little bit about the design. Are there any important design principles that you and your team follow for the collection?

Gihan: Yeah, I mean, when we think about our process and our development, one of the key things is we believe in what we call quantified empathy. It’s this process that we’ve developed, which is really about starting our design process rooted in customer challenges or opportunities. We have these eight tools, ranging from customer interviews to the fact that every single interaction with a customer through email or through Facebook and others, what we’re doing is we’re basically categorizing those comments and understanding, was this a fit issue with our product? Was this an issue with regard to durability? We can basically understand which of our products have opportunities for improvement. We think of ourselves a little bit more like a car company where we have a few key models that we iterate each year, and that we improve rather than trying to kind of redevelop everything from scratch each time.

The reason that’s important is that when you’re doing a completely new style, sometimes you’re not necessarily building off of the knowledge of the previous version. You can see here in our store, we have mostly blues and grays, kind of traditional selects, but with these tweaks that kind of reinvent them. What we want to do is kind of create the foundation of your wardrobe, the pieces that you can rely on that you can build your outfit on. That’s kind of the mantra of the design.

Jarlath Mellet, he’s our Design Director. He was formerly Design Director for Brooks Brothers, Theory, and so you can see it in the style of our products. They have really clean, modern, contemporary, but at the same time, our fit is really one that’s really meant to kind of move with your body. That’s a different element of our garments. We don’t look at fit just from a, what does that look like on a mannequin when you’re standing straight, but look at fit in terms of how does it feel and how does it look as you’re moving and we think that’s really important.

Nancy: Absolutely. I know – you can ride your bike in your suit on the way to work if you want and still look fresh when you go into the office. It also gives you opportunity to accessorize as a woman. You can wear these lovely, rich colors but accessorize with something that will make you personalize it.

Gihan: Yeah.

Nancy: How do materials come into play? I mean, obviously you’ve done a lot of studying and work on your materials.

Gihan: There’s kind of a couple of pillars of challenges that we’ve looked at. It’s moisture management, it’s mobility and stretch, it’s ease of care, so does it look good throughout the course of the day? Does it cause wrinkles? Then also, what does it look like when it comes to out of the wash, out of the dryer? We’re really trying to minimize care. We look at these lenses as ways of improving the materials. I’ll kind of use a couple examples. One of our more key products is our Apollo dress shirt. It’s the one that we started the brand with. It is a dress shirt that is a knit material and then it’s basically a polyester yarn with a paraffin wax core. That paraffin wax can actually, it’s a different type of paraffin that melt and freeze right around your skin temperature, and through a process called phase-change.

It’s called phase-change material. Basically, if you’re walking outside and you’re going to grab coffee, it’s hot out, it’ll actually melt and through a melting process absorb your excess body heat. Then when you come into kind of like an over A/C’d office, it actually freezes and releases that heat back to you. It’s kind of like a rechargeable battery for heat and it works automatically, and it’s built into the core of all of our Apollo shirts.

Nancy: That’s what you started with your Kickstarter, which should actually win a Guinness World Book of Records for successful Kickstarter launches. Oh, my goodness. It feels great, so you don’t even feel the technology really in the shirt.

Gihan: That’s something, you’ll see when you kind of walk into the store, we’ve got a NASA moon picture right here over our changing rooms. We also have a lot of NASA signage, and actually, in the front of our store, is  a NASA spacesuit, and that is a nod to the fact that the phase-change materials were actually designed for the use of glove liners. NASA uses it for astronauts because the extremes of space, it’s 240 degrees in the sunlight and it’s simultaneously -140 degrees in the shadows, and so they were using this material. We look for material inspiration from all sorts of ideas. In this case we’re looking at one of the labs we work with is the Human Systems Laboratory at MIT. We were kind of exposed to this material through our work with them. It’s now a core part of our product line, so that’s one of our materials.

Nancy: Great. Thus, the name of Apollo.

Gihan: That’s Apollo.

Nancy: Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing.

Gihan: Then another material is our Kinetics. I’m actually wearing our kinetic pants right here. It’s available in our pants and our blazers, as well as some dresses for women as well. But in this case, it’s actually a bi-component yarn. It’s part polyethylene, part PET, another type of polyester, but what’s really interesting is as you extrude it, it creates a spiral effect into the yarn fulfillment. That creates natural elasticity. We use that kind of natural, elastic yarn, it’s actually made out of 17% bio-based PET.

Nancy: That’s good.

Gihan: Yeah, and at the same time we’re also using warp knitting, which is it’s kind of like a knitting machine, but it’s also kind of like a weaving machine, same time weaving them in so you get this great structure you expect out of woven, but incredible four-way stretch.

Nancy: Yeah, it looks almost like a softshell type of stretch. It’s so cool.

Gihan: It’s something that we’ve kind of used as kind of a foundation of our product line. We’re starting to see, we have these platforms, these platform materials that once we understand how to use it, we use it many times. It allows the customer to understand I love this material. I’m also going to understand how it feels in a different application.

Nancy: Amazing. With regards to materials, where do you turn to for material trend sourcing? It seems like you create your own or borrow from NASA, but are there any specific trade shows or conferences or do you seek out certain mills that you can work with that provide you with new inspiration?

Gihan: Yeah, in terms of inspiration, we look at a variety of different places. We kind of look at as a funnel, as a hopper, where we try to take in inspiration from the lab – with what are the far-out developments. Right now we are working with the Advanced Functional Fabrics Association of America. AFFOA is a research arm of our facility, based out of MIT, that’s doing a lot of development around the next generation fibers and wearables. We have a research grant through AFFOA to work on shape-change materials with the self-assembly lab at MIT. That’s where we’re looking at kind of next generation fibers.

Then as we become a little bit closer, one of the big challenges with material development is scale – it’s one thing to have something in small scale, but how do you develop it in volume? We think it’s just so critical to have really great industry partners. We work with Singtex, Toray –  these are all kind of fiber mills and largely in Japan and Taiwan and we’re pushing the forefront of the materials development all the way from the yarn filament down to the knitting and weaving of it.

It’s a co-development. I think that’s the key part is it’s about finding what’s possible with manufacturer and what are the needs that we have from a consumer standpoint, and developing that with our factories.

In terms of conferences, despite the fact that we make a lot of professional wear, work clothing, our favorite conference is going to Outdoor Retailer. That’s kind of where that intersection happens where you’re taking inspiration from the outdoor athletic market but then bring it to kind of wear-to-work clothing/casual clothing.

Nancy: That’s great to hear. That’s my favorite trade show, too. It’s fabulous. Yeah, they’ve done a really good job with having suppliers in a really good area. There’s a new trade show that you may have heard of called the Functional Fabric Fair Performance Days that’s in New York, and now in Portland, Oregon. That’s later this month. I’m headed back there actually in a couple weeks. Do you think that consumers have caught on with savvier materials and are willing to be open to … I don’t want to say spending more money, but just adopting them for more professional apparel? Obviously, here we are in your store, that might be asking…

Gihan: No, I mean, I think one of the things that we can truly impart is that care labels can be misleading or fiber competence. We look at a material label, and it may say 100% cotton, maybe says 100% polyester, but there’s so many different variants of all of these different materials. It’s more than just what the polymer is, it’s how the fiber’s extruded, it’s how it’s knit, it’s how it’s processed. What we try to do, especially in our stores and online, is go that layer deeper. In this case, for example, our Apollo shirt, we were talking about the phase-change materials, they’re embedded in the yarn. It’s about talking about what does working fabric bring, explaining how the film and geometry, the fact that it’s bi-component, the fact that it’s extruded in this spiral shape, the fact that it’s using morph knit construction, these are all layers that kind of get lost when you just look at it from a composition standpoint.

We think it’s really important to explain that we do that through our store experience. Then we actually started a blog. It started as a kind of an internal conversation to kind of at first all to learn about materials. We started publishing it publicly actually this year. It’s called ScientificallyBetter.com, and we basically every week put up a post around different material technologies and explaining terms like what is a waterproof/breathable membrane? How does waterless dyeing work? The reason we think that’s important is because the more people understand the differences, they can maybe be more educated in the choices that they make.

Nancy: Exactly. Also, in the sustainability arena where that’s such a big part of the conversation right now -when you say waterless dye, that’s a big component in sustainability. Speaking of that, I’ve done some research ,and I know that you have a donation process, which is part of your sustainability platform. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and maybe some other sustainable practices?

Gihan: Yeah, so we’ve been a big part of having the minimalist wardrobe, really having to have those core elements that you can trust and can rely on. It’s about taking that decision fatigue away. At some point you’ll have, we call it “1 in; 1 outs.” It was kind of – my co-founder had 10 hangers and he just wanted to have 10 hangers in his closet and no more than that. If you got a new piece of clothing, you would take one out and you would donate it. What we’ve tried to do is we’ve just tried to facilitate that process. Really, there’s a lot of pieces where sometimes we move locations or we change jobs and it’s great clothing, it’s just a different work environment, different location. It’s a great piece of clothing but it can be reused.

What we’re trying to do is facilitate taking that clothing, actually creating outfits, and working with different organizations. Really here at Boston International Institute where we’re working with different groups where people are kind of going into the professional field and helping outfit them. That’s kind of one way we really focused on the use side of our garment program.

We’re also looking at recycling and so that’s something where a big focus of a lot of our materials recently has been about going to, in some cases, mono-materials. Like our Apollo dress shirt is 100% recyclable and that’s something that we’re excited about.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s fabulous. I was just at this functional fabric fair in July, and the whole term sustainability means so much to different people. There’s recyclable, post-consumer, pre-consumer, pre-industrial? I think that educating consumers with your blog is helpful. We’ll put that on the show notes – the website for that.

I was actually introduced to Ministry of Supply at the Museum of Modern Art store in New York City, when I was visiting my daughter and it was the Mercury Intelligent Jacket (that caught my eye). I’m like, oh my God, this is so cool. That’s a real smart parka or jacket. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Because that was your next Kickstarter campaign, right?

Gihan: Yeah, so the Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket is a winter parka. It looks like kind of like you get a really cool skiwear, outerwear, designed for the city. But on the inside we’ve got three carbon fiber heating elements that are completely flexible. They run off of a USB battery, kind of any battery that charges your cell phone off of. But one of the things that makes it really unique is we’ve been so aware of the fact that it’s not about staying warm or cold, it’s about staying at the right temperature at the right time. That’s what we learned through our years of development of shirts and sweaters. We wanted to take that a step further and in this garment we actually have two temperature sensors, one on the inside, one on the outside, to monitor your body temperature and external temperature.

But we also have an accelerometer in the jacket. The reason that’s important is the best predictor that you will be hot is how much you’ve been doing. If you’re standing at a cold bus stop, we’ll turn the heat up all the way. If you’re walking for a couple minutes, we know that you’re going to be hot in maybe 10 minutes from now, and so we’ll actually turn the heat down. Actually it’s interesting, when you’re standing still our core, kind of our waist up, produces about 50 watts of heat. If we’re walking, we’re creating about 100 watts of heat, same as a light bulb, and it’s twice as much heat just when we’re walking. So that ability for garments to have that fluctuation is something that we think is really important. That’s an Intelligent Heated Jacket.

We’ve even taken the layer further, which is it has Bluetooth communication built into it, so it’ll allows the jacket through our smartphone app … some people run hot, some people run cold, much like a smart thermostat, you can actually train the jacket and say, I’m too hot right now, or I’m too cold. It takes into account kind of how much you’ve been walking, what the temperature is in that location, or that kind of environment, and it changes the model so that it becomes more and more personalized for you. That’s where we think wearables should go. We think it’s more than just about health monitoring. We think that there’s a great component there, but we want to see it be involved in clothes that we’re in every day, and a big part of it is we buy garments, in many cases, for functionality, and a winter jacket, you’re buying it for waterproofness, you’re buying it for warmth, and so we think wearables should do a better job at keeping you dry or keeping you warm.

Nancy: That’s great. It sounds so intuitive, and I’ve been studying a little bit about smart technology and I have a client that makes sensors for athletic apparel, and the fact that it allows you not to wear other devices to regulate your biometric readings. How’s the jacket doing?

Gihan: It’s do really well. We sold over 4,000 units last year through our Kickstarter campaign. The reason we’ve launched a couple of products on Kickstarter, our Apollo shirt and then our Mercury jacket, and we also have the socks. It’s an amazing example of a community that really values technology and design. The community’s so involved in helping us develop the product, validate our problem statements, giving us feedback with the challenges, and one of the cool things is because it’s a wearable, actually, we can do over-the-air updates. Based on feedback that people were giving us, we’re actually, after they bought the jacket, we were able to push updates so that they have increased functionality. It’s doing really well – it’s carried in the Museum of Modern Art stores.

Nancy: There must be such satisfaction to see that.

Gihan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nancy: Oh my goodness. I’m not sure. I would assume that they’re pretty picky about what they choose to put in their store. I do have a question about it though. When you launder it, do you have to take out any of the devices or the hardware or anything?

Gihan: Yeah, that’s the challenge of wearables is laundering in particular. The only thing you have to do is you just pull out the battery, everything else is machine washable, the heating pads, the sensors, the microcontroller that’s in there. We’ve worked with manufacturers that specialize in this kind of thing. They really think everything out to the last detail, and helped us really create a garment that is tested through 65 washes.

Nancy: Wow, that’s amazing. You’ve taken technology very far, both with developing fabrics and the garments. You mentioned a little bit about working with MIT on fabrics in the future, can you give us an indication of what you might see in the next so many years?

Gihan: One of the things we’ve been really looking at is the ways in which you can use digital manufacturing to kind of improve the manufacturing supply chain, so material loss, but also functionality of materials. We’ve been doing a lot of what we call 3D Print-Knit. It’s similar to whole garment knitting. We’re working with Shima Seiki a lot. These are all materials that are made on a computerized knitting machine and allows us to control the composition, the structure, and allows us to create functionality based on how we knit the garment computationally.

When we’re looking at data we ask if have we improved it? We launched this project about nine months ago, it’s called active textile tailoring and we’re looking at how can we mix this material that can be post-tailored, that can be robotically tailored. We did a demo of this on a mannequin on this sweater. We could fit into the mannequin using the robot. It’s kind of these are the visions of the future that we have. Tailoring right now is actually quite difficult, particularly for knit garments, things like that. But if you can produce something in bulk, let’s say in one size, but then tailored to anyone’s body after the fact, that suddenly reduces obsolescence, it creates a better fit for the consumer, so it’s something we’re real excited about

Nancy: Potentially eliminating material waste. That’s amazing. I’m wondering if I could ask you a few questions that are a bit more personal, not too, too personal, but just to get to know you a little bit better. What are your favorite materials?

Gihan: Some of my favorite materials, I’ve been in love waterproof/breathable membranes. I think they’re one of the coolest concepts out there, and just the evolution that’s happened, the evolution of PTFE, PU, I’ve always been interested in those. At the same time, I’m increasingly interested in how we can use bio-based feedstocks to create functional yarns. Much like polyester has kind of come into its own recently, it’s evolved quite a lot from the Dacron in the 50s, right? Now, it’s becomes high performance fiber that looks and feels like cotton. In the same realm we’re interested in how we can use cellulosic materials to have similar functionality as these performance materials. I’m spending a lot of time with viscose and cellulose materials.

Nancy: Yeah, and they’re also sustainable, right?

Gihan: Exactly.

Nancy: And feel amazing. What’s your favorite Ministry of Supply piece?

Gihan: Probably my favorite piece that I probably wear at least (one a day) is one garment from our kinetic line. It’s got amazing structure and it looks really sharp. I bike to work every day and so I wear it every day with that. My fiancé and I, we both actually ran half marathons in suits made out of it, and so we’ve set the Guinness World Records for Fastest Half Marathon in a suit for men and women.

Nancy: Oh, cool.

Gihan: You can actually see the photo over there in the store, yeah.

Nancy: Oh, my goodness, yes. Wow, that’s great.

Gihan: That’s one of my favorite pieces, yeah.

Nancy: We’ll have to feature that on the show notes too. Beside your own brand, do you have another favorite?

Gihan: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Arc’teryx, I think just in terms of how they’ve really pushed forward manufacturing and materials and kind of thinking of the garments holistically that way, kind of pushing forward lamination bonding, but doing it a way that is really thoughtful and that’s not superfluous. That’s something that we think is really important.

We also take a lot of inspiration from Patagonia. I mean, I think, a lot of brands do, and I think the reason is that they are pushing the industry forward in terms of sustainability, but not the compromise of performance. That has been something that we’ve been really kind of focused on recently about, especially in an arena where there is a lot more turnover in clothing, so we’re hoping to kind of bring that mentality to this industry.

Nancy: Yeah, both amazing brands. They’ve done so much. Do you have any trends that you absolutely love right now and despise?

Gihan: The trends that … We try to look at what are the macro trends, what are the timeless truths that in the computer space there’s this idea of Moore’s Law, which is basically the computers will get twice as fast every 18 months. Those are the trends that we want to focus on. One of the ones that we’re seeing now is obviously kind of casualization of the office wardrobe, so what we’re trying to do is figure out how can we make things seem increasingly comfortable that fit to the aesthetic of the office, but at the same time allow people to look and feel polished and sharp? That’s where our brand has strength – the juxtaposition of the two.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s a good trend. I think that, and it just, again, it allows you to buy less, wear more.

Gihan: Exactly.

Nancy: That’s a big trend right now. I know you’re an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs often have things that keep them up at night. If you are not, then I want to know your secret, but are there any things that are keeping you up at night?

Gihan: The thing that we’re kind of super conscious of is how do we be responsible as a brand in terms of in fashion in particular, we’re often at the whim of style trends, their changes in production markets. Those are two things. On the demand side, it’s ‘what is of the moment’? And then on the supply side it’s there’s a changing supply base right now, and we want to make sure that we’re thoughtful in both of those, that ultimately, we’re making our garments in an efficient manner to lower our footprint. But at the same time that we’re also creating styles and products that people want. Because what we’re trying to minimize here is obsolescence. We’re trying to minimize how much waste is created from our system. That’s the thing that we’re trying to answer now.

We don’t really say we’re in the fast-fashion space. That being said, we know that it effects our product line and that’s something that we’re really focused on.

Nancy: Great, yeah. What are you most proud of?

Gihan: I mean, I would say it’s probably our team. I think it’s something where we have built ourselves as a brand that, it’s like our namesake, it’s kind of this invention laboratory, and a team that is able to kind of bring it to life and explain to the customers. I think that’s something that we take a lot of pride in of moving the entire industry forward in terms of inventing apparel. That’s kind of the mission of our brand. Our hope is that clothing, if we’re still wearing the same clothes that our grandparents wore, that it’s almost like what have we done right? Have we moved the industry forward? Have we made people more comfortable? Have we made their days easier? That’s what we’re really trying to do is make sure that clothing continues to evolve at the same rate that our laptops do, that our phones do, our cars do. That’s kind of our mission and I think we’ve created a team system that allows that to happen.

Nancy: Yeah. That’s great. I love that. Inventing apparel. That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention that we didn’t discuss? Anything like what’s next? 

Gihan: Yeah, I’d say that intersection of sustainable performance is what we’re really excited about.

Nancy: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I hope to see you at Outdoor Retailer, maybe this winter, but until then, I will continue to explore your stores, and we’ll see you around.

Gihan: Thanks so much.

Nancy: Okay.

Gihan: I appreciate it.

Nancy: Bye-bye.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • Human Systems Laboratory: https://hsl.mit.edu/
  • Advanced Functional Fabrics Association of America: http://go.affoa.org/
  • Scientifically Better blog: https://www.scientificallybetter.com

Episode 08: Best of 2018

The Best of 2018 – Highlights from our guests

As we are deep in production with our new Material Wise 2019 lineup, we wanted to review a few of last year’s episodes and recap some of the highlights. We had a great year speaking with Jill McGowan with Jill McGowan, Inc., Erin Bornstein with Timberland, Miles Spadone with Spadone Home, Nick Armentrout with Ramblers Way, Rob Naughter with Patagonia, Justin Seale with Architec and Myrand Caputo with Bespoke Branded Fit. We learned that transparency, social responsibility throughout the supply chain has become increasingly important as is designing products with longevity in mind. New body scanning techniques are trending as people are demanding a more custom fit. Among all my discussions, there is one common thread, and that is great products are inspired by great materials. I hope you enjoy!