Business

Ministry’s new officewear for women underlines a broader menswear development.

The product underwent a rigorous, two-year research and development process; was conceived by a design team and two MIT-educated engineers; was beta tested, invite-only, with a select group of users; was tweaked and revised based on user feedback; and yesterday, the final version, the end result of years of hard work, was released to the public.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking this as the R&D timeline for a recently-released tech product. But you’d only be half right: This is how Ministry, formerly technical menswear brand, Ministry of Supply, created its first dedicated women’s line.

For a company like Ministry, this approach is fitting. Having launched in 2012 on Kickstarter, being based in Boston, and being started by three MIT grads — Aman Advani, Gihan Amarasiriwardena, and Kit Hickey (the first two of which were trained in engineering) — it’s very much a tech-thinking modern luxury enterprise.

As far as young businesses go, they’re doing quite well for themselves, having secured $8.5 million in four rounds of funding (notably from Zappos chief, Tony Hsieh’s VTF Capital). Three brick-and-mortars arrive later this year, located in second cities Atlanta, and Bethesda, MD (a suburb of Washington, DC), and also in Chicago. For 2016, they claim to have already shipped over 100,000 garments.

This is a smart, focused operation. Yet for all of Ministry’s tech-related credentials, if you believed their womenswear debut would be a geeky affair, you’d be wrong. Their new offering is undeniably easy on the eye — but more importantly, it exists, fundamentally, to solve problems.

After getting feedback from customer surveys and multiple rounds of product testing, Ministry’s founders came to learn that women face the same problems as men in their professional dress. Wrinkles, stretching, the scourge of ‘dry clean only’, and yes, even those unsightly sweat stains, are dilemmas that face women just as much as men. Prior to Ministry’s entry, though, few companies (if any) existed on the women’s side that aimed to fix these issues. So Ministry kept it simple, developing two essential staples, a dress shirt and a pair of pants, in two silhouettes. Just like the men’s line, the women’s is performance-driven, scientific, space-age. The garments are moisture-wicking and wrinkle resistant. They’re machine washable and hold their shape for sixteen hours. Best of all, they’re affordable: nothing is listed for more than $150.

“We’ve front-loaded everything to make sure we’re building a product for a real need. There shouldn’t be any surprises after the launch of ‘this didn’t work.’”

Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find a pure-play fashion label willing to jump through these hoops. Fashion brands, especially namesake ones, tend to be driven by designer hubris, ‘creativity’ for its own sake, and bloated seasonal collections. They also tend to be sickeningly trendy. The modern luxury blueprint is antithetical to this. For young luxury companies, it’s about pinpointing market voids and addressing needs, developing products one by one, and being customer-focused (rather than strictly artistically inclined). These genes are in Ministry’s blood, without question. But while their foray into womenswear is smart and well-conceived, their announcement is bigger than themselves.

This publication has mentioned before that a new class of forward-thinking women’s brands (i.e., Cuyana, Of Mercer, Industry Standard) are very clearly starting to borrow principles that traditionally originate from the men’s side. (Think: an emphasis on tailoring, for example, and a slower product development timeline.) As Ministry shows, however, we’re also seeing the beginnings of a related development: menswear firms that venture into womenswear — and do so with clarity of thought and with purpose.

Ministry is just the latest in a list of modern luxury companies that have, in varying degrees, dipped a toe into the women’s market. Aime Leon Dore (ALD), a louche streetwear-inspired brand, released a tidy women’s collection in January (though it’s unclear whether ALD still offers women’s items, as their website is closed to the public at the moment). Performance-driven Outlier ran its own women’s line for years too, before ceasing its production in 2015 (more on that later). Of course there’s also AYR, something of a special case. Started in 2014, in part by Bonobos chief Andy Dunn, it was a sister brand to Bonobos. It’s now fully independent, and operates as its own entity, having spun off from Bonobos earlier in March.

Aime Leon Dore's louche womenswear | Photo credit: Aime Leon Dore

Aime Leon Dore’s louche womenswear | Photo credit: Aime Leon Dore

Several key characteristics tie these entries together. For one, they’re generally intended to solve specific problems. For Ministry, it’s adding technical fabrics to women’s workwear staples, to make these items more convenient (and comfortable) for women. AYR launched with mostly a few denim options, and was focused, according to Mr. Dunn, “on elevated essentials: quality investment pieces that can live in a woman’s wardrobe all year round.” It was, in other words, an antidote to fast fashion, serving up key casual basics and staples for the 25 and up crowd. Outlier, as with their men’s garments, created their women’s line on the basis of offering technical, sweat-wicking pants and shirts for cyclists.

These brands women’s lines are also noticeably anti-fashion in posture. They’re more macro than micro in the trends they follow. In Outlier’s and Ministry’s cases, they’re also driven by performance, rather than artistic leanings. New products tend to be released individually, based on customer need, and like tech products, many of these items are tested prior to release. Large seasonal collections are generally avoided, but if a collection is the route taken, they are, as with AYR and ALD, small and closely-edited, rather than bloated and expansive.

The most important detail with these womenswear lines, however, is their ability to stand on their own — apart from the menswear companies under from which they were born. Each of these examples are taken seriously by the men’s brands that create them. There is a shared commitment in doing womenswear right.

Previously, we mentioned that Outlier had ceased production of their women’s line in 2015. That was because founder Abe Burmeister couldn’t ensure the women’s line remained equal in quality to that of the men’s. “We were not able to design and produce women’s goods at the level of the men’s,” he explained to fans on Reddit. “That might be ok to start out, but we’d been treading water with women’s for years without getting better and that’s neither justifiable nor sustainable.… To do women’s right…we need to step back and figure out how we can make it happen at a level on par with the men’s.”

Ditto, Ministry. Co-founder, Aman Advani, in speaking to Fashionista, explained the team’s reticence to simply take a few men’s items, recut them into women’s sizes, and call it a day. If they were going to do this, they wanted to take it seriously. It needed to (potentially) exist on its own in order to be a success in their eyes. “A lot of times when brands cross the gender line, it’s like dipping a toe in and saying, ‘Does it make sense?’” he told Fashionista. “We’ve front-loaded everything to make sure we’re building a product for a real need. There shouldn’t be any surprises after the launch of ‘this didn’t work.’”

Surely, if done correctly, there’s a growth opportunity for smart menswear brands inclined to venture to the women’s side. And should more decide to brave those waters, it’s the examples above that they should look to in how to do so properly.

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