Gihan Amarasiriwardena is the co-founder and CDO of Ministry of Supply, rethinking business wear from the ground up by inventing a new category of Performance Professional Apparel, infused with technology and design.
Interview by Stefane Barbeau | 04.19.2017
Stefane: Hello Gihan! Thanks for your time, and thanks for supporting DIGMA. Let’s jump right in. Was there a transformative period where you realized design was crucial to your growth and competitiveness?
Gihan: We knew design was crucial from the start; the challenge was how to use it. We design apparel, but see it very much as product or industrial design, and problem solving is central to our activities. For example, my partner did a sock hack—he attached the tops of dress socks to the bottoms of running socks, allowing him to get the best of both function and appearance when he traveled as a consultant.
This kind of approach to “performance professional” attire is in all of our designs. We’re merging work and travel with home and leisure. Even if our customer doesn’t actually ride to work in our pants, the day-long functional value and aesthetic of our garments is critical. When it came time to implement, we researched how athletic companies designed activewear. I interned at IDEO and we applied many of the Human Centered Design principles to how we create our products.
“We knew design was crucial from the start; the challenge was how to use it.”
Stefane: What were the circumstances?
Gihan: The value of our design process is clear in our growth trajectory. We started with small batches from a sample maker in New York, and sold items online and directly to fellow MIT students. The early days were a chance for us to hone in on fit, and better understand what resonated with people. We realized optimal performance was not as important as familiarity. Because we were so focused on function, some of our early shirt designs—with rear and arm venting—were simply too out there. But, by the time we turned to Kickstarter, we had a strong understanding of what was resonating—a key reason we were able to surpass our original funding goal.
However, mass production is very different from small batch. We had to decide between traditional garment manufacturing, a process characterized by expert fit and tailoring, and advanced material activewear manufacturing, which is typically associated with simpler garments. Ultimately, we landed on activewear makers. At first, the transition was challenging. We broke the chain into too many pieces, and with multiple suppliers in the chain, even one failure put the entire supply chain at risk. We also realized that sizing, particularly learning how to scale sizing, and quality control can be complex and challenging. It took eight months to solve these issues and get the batch just right—a very humbling experience.
Stefane: How is design used strategically at your company?
Gihan: Our strategic design practices stem from customer feedback. Over the years, we’ve discovered how similar the engineering process is to apparel design: research, prototype, test, iterate and repeat. But, now we have the extra opportunity to hear from our customers directly. More than anything, we tune into customer feedback to look for opportunities to improve and streamline. Plus, we field test our garments with customers before going to market. Of course, we have to be careful to ask the right questions, read between the lines and, ultimately, balance our own intuition with the customer perspective.
“Our strategic design practices stem from customer feedback. “
Stefane: Is your design work accomplished in-house or through outside designers? Why?
Gihan: We have an in-house design team, led by our design director, Jarlath Mellett, former design director of Theory and Brooks Brothers. We believe strongly that the best innovation happens at the intersection of our design, engineering, and marketing teams. We don’t think that design is a veneer added at the end, but rather, a holistic process built by a creative tension between viability, desirability and feasibility. Only when you have all three in-house can you truly balance them.
Stefane: What challenges do you face with hiring design talent?
Gihan: While part of our manufacturing is done in the U.S., many of our fabrics are from Japan and Taiwan, and the cut and sew happens in China. Because of this, we need globally-minded staff. On top of that, the “performance professional” category that we’ve created requires a niche skill set and the ability to design business wear using advanced, high-tech materials. Lastly, we take an education-based approach within our stores, which demands adopting a rigorous design approach.
Stefane: How do you quantify the value of design in the success of your company?
Gihan: We look at functional and aesthetic attributes, as well as the order of magnitude and impact, which helps us understand what products or features are non-starters. We have a list of customers’ timeless values, such as “save me time,” “simplify my life,” “look good,” “durability” and “stretch.” The garment needs to address all of these points.
In addition, we use Net Promoter Scores. This is our best measure of whether customers see value in our garments. For example, we know that 20% of a person’s wardrobe is worn 80% of the time. We want Ministry of Supply to be in that 20%. For instance, our chinos have a higher score than other garments. Our approach to design is to get every garment within that 20% window. While a contributing factor to this is simply the product type, it’s also about the customer repeatedly choosing our garment over something else in their closet.
When it comes to retail pricing, we factor in the cost of goods, as well as what this garment is actually replacing in the customer’s closet. Some items have lower margins so we can get people wearing them. If we can pull off a high margin and high-use, we believe we’ve designed the garment well.
Then there are the sheer numbers from sales and growth. When we launched on Kickstarter, we raised four times our original funding goal. We then expanded our product line in 2013, and opened our first store in 2014. Today, we have nine Ministry of Supply stores across the U.S, and we believe this is because of our dedication to a strategic design process.
Stefane: Why are you located in MA?
Gihan: Ministry of Supply was born out of MIT, where I studied chemical and biological engineering. Massachusetts is the state that built the computers that took us to the moon. And today, we’re in good company as many innovative performance apparel brands are also in town, including Puma, New Balance and Reebok. What’s more, we have great access to top schools, which helps us build smart teams. Overall, we see ourselves more as a product design firm, rather than a fashion company that would need to be based somewhere like New York or Los Angeles.
On a personal note, I’m from Amherst, MA. When I was younger, I was a boy scout, and designed my own outdoor gear. When I grew up, I realized my clothing in Amherst didn’t work as well in the city. Despite innovations in the outdoor sector, there’s still very little innovation in smart, dress clothing. Massachusetts is a perfect combination of leisure, sport and business—making it an ideal test ground and inspiration for us as a company.
Stefane: Where has design helped your company in a surprising way?
Gihan: I think our brick-and-mortar stores are a revelation. We based the locations off of where we saw the most online traffic, and now use these locations for education, experience, service and tailoring. For example, we just launched a 3D printer in our flagship Newbury Street store, and it’s been extremely advantageous for us. With the new machine, we can robotically knit a seamless blazer—a stunning in-store experience that allows are customers to witness our dedication to technology first-hand.
“We based the locations off of where we saw the most online traffic, and now use these locations for education, experience, service and tailoring.”
Stefane: What is an example of the best use of design?
Gihan: I’m most proud of the 3D-printed Seamless blazer. Not only is it an extremely durable design, but it also produces less waste than traditional cut-and-sew processes. The Seamless blazer is a terrific blend of artful engineering and design. Five years ago, we could not have produced this garment. But now, we’ve developed the wisdom, technology, expertise and market understanding to get closer and closer to what our customers want, and what’s best for our overall business.
Stefane: What other companies do you admire?
Gihan: We’d love to be considered the Tesla of apparel. We love the idea of a full experience and way of doing things that makes customers turn their heads and pay attention. Tesla is such a great example of technology merging with design to truly impact people’s lifestyles on multiple different levels. They are an inspiration.
Stefane: Excellent information. Thanks Gihan!