The engineers at Ministry of Supply are at it again, testing a new technology in their pursuit to perfect a new category they’ve dubbed performance professional.
The Boston-based direct-to-consumer brand, which launched with a Kickstarter campaign for men’s wear in 2012, officially opened a pop-up shop this week at Macerich’s Santa Monica Place. The store is the only one in Ministry of Supply’s fleet to offer a thermal mirror.
Customers can look at it as a kind of camera, taking a read on their bodies’ heat map. What that lets Ministry of Supply do is find out what parts of an individual’s body may get warmer than others to design the company’s 3-D Print-Knit Thermal Sweater with ventilation tailored to each customer profile. So, a thermal sweater, which retails for $125, for a person who produces more heat on the shoulders and upper back receives a garment different from the one created for someone who generates more body heat in the underarm area, for example.
Ministry of Supply teamed with Los Angeles on-demand 3-D knitting company Nimbly on the actual production to print the garment in two to three days. It’s delivered to the customer in about a week.
The mirror also doubles as a photo booth for those in the store who just want their picture taken.
“It’s interesting because the retail landscape is changing,” said chief design officer and cofounder Gihan Amarasiriwardena. “The way we’re looking at it is we want to focus on key markets where we can use our stores as flagships, focusing on two dimensions. One is the experience, so by bringing elements like our thermal mirrors into our stores so our customers can see how our technology works.”
That’s crucial as the company looks to define the performance professional dressing category it says it operates within.
“When you look at physical spaces, what is doing well in many cases is food and bars, but ones that lend to open kitchens, for example, so when you sit at the bar and see your cocktail made,” Amarasiriwardena said.
The other side of that experiential element is, on the backend, the stores function as mini factories to service orders from the web much faster.
Although the company’s direct-to-consumer and likes it that way, it’s dabbled in partnering with other businesses, such as Birchbox, to distribute its product. In the next four to five weeks, there are also plans to launch men’s product with Stitch Fix.
The temporary shop at Santa Monica Place, where the company also has a permanent store, will remain open for two months. The mirror is being tested there because of its proximity to Nimbly in Los Angeles. However, Amarasiriwardena said if the mirror is successful in Santa Monica, it could be rolled out to the company’s other stores.
The mirror follows the March launch of an actual 3-D knitting machine in Ministry of Supply’s Boston store, allowing people to see the actual process in person. Bringing the actual 3D knitting machine to other doors outside of Boston is being actively considered, Amarasiriwardena said. Thermal mapping is just another unlock delving deeper into what personalization actually means in fashion and at retail, he added.
“If you think about the future of retail, these are things you can’t necessarily do online and that’s how we want to use those stores,” he said.
The sweater represents the company’s fifth stockkeeping unit using the whole-garment 3-D-printing process after its blazer, sweater dress for women, and a merino wool blend sweater for men and women.
Expanding the assortment will come in time, but 3-D printing’s not cheap, Amarasiriwardena said. Products will be released so long as their design and production are cost-effective, although Amarasiriwardena said the company believes those costs will eventually come down as demand rises.
“We’re trying to expand the offering so that we can figure out which products are resonating with customers that are built with this technique,” he said. “One of the things we talk about on the supply side is that the types of products that can be made using this, there’s an [intersection] of price point and knitting time. Knitting time is really what drives the cost of the garment. It takes almost as much time to create a basic T-shirt as a custom thermal sweater. So the machine cost is the same, but a T-shirt — we’re not a luxury price point where we’re charging $100 for a T-shirt.”
Store growth will come at just as measured a rate. The eight existing U.S. stores — ranging in size from 500 to 1,500 square feet — currently service 70 percent of Ministry of Supply’s customers, according to Amarasiriwardena. The company holds wine and dinner gatherings with clients at each of its stores. Yes, they’re brand experiences for the consumer. Yet, they also function as research and development for the company to find out what works and what doesn’t in a given region to then merchandise accordingly.
“We’re debunking the previous [industry] model, which is open stores everywhere,” Amarasiriwardena said. “That’s generally our vision: deeper experiences [in existing flagships] where we can invest in having thermal mirrors or having 3-D-printed machines in fewer stores.”