A No-Sweat Work Shirt? No Sweat
The New York Times
December 19, 2013
Kevin Lavelle, then 19, was working as an intern in Washington when he saw a congressional staff member rush into a meeting wearing a shirt that was soaked with sweat. “He looked terrible,” Mr. Lavelle, now 27, recently recalled.
His next thought, he said, was entrepreneurial: Why not take the same sweat-absorbing technology used in performance fabrics, like spandex and Lycra, and apply it to dress shirts?
Today, Mr. Lavelle and his business partner Web Smith have sold just shy of 5,000 of their Mizzen & Main dress shirts, which they say not only are wrinkle-free (whatever packing, scrunching, wardrobe-tossing or throwing-on-the-floor indignity is heaped upon them) but also, like much modern sportswear, have moisture-wicking and four-way stretch to, as Mr. Lavelle said, “move with your body.”
The shirts look no different from a conventional cotton work shirt and come in a range of colors; the best-sellers are the white and gingham-patterned shirts. “There’s no reason not to incorporate better fabrics and technology into shirts,” said Mr. Lavelle, who now lives in Dallas. “Our shirt wears better, travels better and makes you look better.”
Mr. Lavelle and Mr. Smith declined to divulge the exact composition of their shirts, though the materials used include nylon, Lycra, spandex, cotton and a variety of polyesters. The latter word, it is clear, is a bit of an expletive. “This is not your grandfather’s 1970s polyester,” Mr. Lavelle said.
Theirs is the latest evolution of the men’s work shirt. In 1953 Brooks Brothers introduced the first wash-and-wear dress shirt, the Brooksweave, and today so-called non-iron shirts are a huge market; the stacks at Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, J. Crew and Land’s End, among others, are crowded with them. Jeff Blee, the vice president for merchandise management at Brooks Brothers, said that the non-iron shirt, which the store has been selling since 1997, now makes up 90 percent of Brooks Brothers’s shirt business.
Whereas the wash-and-wear dress shirt of 1953 was polyester, the non-iron shirt of today is 100 percent cotton and “a million miles from what we were doing in 1997,” Mr. Blee said. The shirts are made from American-grown Pima cotton, which gives them superior softness and strength, Mr. Blee said. The seams and stitch-lines do not pucker after washing, he emphasized.
While Brooks Brothers experimented with “performance” shirts akin to Mizzen & Main’s, Mr. Blee said that customers preferred the general wearability of conventional all-cotton. The stretch fibers felt synthetic to them. Although a range of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts have moisture-wicking properties, he said, “We are known as a natural-fiber house: 100 percent cotton, 100 percent cashmere.”
Mr. Lavelle said that the Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts “are just cotton shirts with a treatment to the fabric to make them come out of the dryer without wrinkles.” He added that a Mizzen & Main shirt can be taken out of the washing machine and be ready to wear in 15 minutes, no dryer needed.
The name of the Mizzen & Main label, derived from types of ship masts, is intended to evoke freewheeling summer days. Until now, the shirts have been available through the company’s website and at the several boutiques in Texas, Ohio, New Jersey and New York. Most cost $125, though some are $115.
On Dec. 6, Mizzen & Main opened its first store, in Columbus, Ohio, where Mr. Smith, 30, lives. There, customers can try on and buy any style of shirt, with any purchase shipped to them in two days. Mr. Smith, previously the head of marketing for an e-commerce brand, said the men plan to open other stores in New York and Chicago, with 15 more to open in the Northeast and Southeast by the middle of next year. The men are also negotiating to open a pop-up concession in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York in early February.
Mr. Lavelle said that for seven years he worked with “thousands” of fabrics, cut and designed into sample shirts, which he’d try to crease, crumple and destroy in myriad ways. He’d run in his neighborhood, looking ridiculous.
Mr. Lavelle said that he knew he’d finally got the shirt right when, 18 months ago, he wore a white shirt to work and then picked up his first Mizzen & Main prototype, also white, and changed into it before returning home. His wife didn’t notice anything different, which was fantastic, he recalled. “I jumped up and down.”
Early adopters of Mizzen & Main, Mr. Smith said, include the newscaster Thomas Roberts, Malcolm Jenkins of the New Orleans Saints and Rich Froning Jr., three times named the “fittest man on earth” at the CrossFit Games.
Mizzen & Main plans to apply its technical innovation to blazers and jeans, the latter with stretchable material that will let men with athletic legs wear skinny-style jeans comfortably, Mr. Smith said. After that will be attempts to make full suits and tuxedos and, perhaps, women’s wear.
Mr. Blee of Brooks Brothers seemed unperturbed by the newcomer, noting that there would always be a market for shirts he described as “newer.” “Any competition is good news,” Mr. Blee said. “It helps to make the whole category grow.” On this point, Mr. Lavelle agreed.