Cover Story – Mizzen + Main
And if that shirt is a full-fledged button up, with cuffs, collar stays and everything, it’s out-and-out silly, right?
It’s 2018, not 1938. It’s the era of souped-up polos with technology we’ve never heard of (I’m sorry, is your golf shirt broadcasting a Wifi signal?), exotic colors and patterns, and cuts so slim even Rickie Fowler looks jacked. There are outerwear jackets with built-in electric heaters and golf shoes that basically tie themselves.
Golfers are wearing joggers and high-tops, and even collars are, at best, an optional piece of stylistic flair. If your sleeves come down past your bicep, you’re an old man. If you don’t match the pink Swoosh on your shoes to the pink logo on your hat or belt, you’re a doofus. And God-forbid your pants have pleats or aren’t tailored to that sleek, athletic look.
Fashion in golf has evolved tremendously in the last half century. What was once a refined, proper, business-attire sport has morphed into a sleek, forward-thinking medium for the fashion-conscious athlete.
BUT … yes, there is a but … but what if you did wear a long-sleeve collared shirt to play golf? What if it was stretchy and comfy and felt just like your polyester golf shirt? What if you were a professional golfer and it’s April and you are paired with Tiger Woods at a practice round at Augusta? What if your name is Phil Mickelson? What then?
You’d certainly have the attention of the sporting world, right? You’d have eyeballs and comments and criticisms, but mostly, you’d have questions. Who made that shirt? Why are you wearing it? Aren’t you hot? No, seriously, who made that shirt?
The answer? Mizzen+Main, a Dallas-based performance dress-wear company (yes, performance, and yes, dress-wear… we’ll explain later) for men. And as for the why? If you ask Mizzen+Main founder and CEO Kevin Lavelle, the better question might be, “why not?”
When you walk into the Mizzen+Main headquarters in the Dallas Design district, you’re immediately met with an image that is one part upscale men’s business clothing gallery, one part new-age artistic think tank, with various employees pouring over large-screened computers with the latest designs, web content, marketing materials and color patterns, and one-part messy college dorm room (without the smell or the hot plate, of course), as various shirts and fabrics and body manikins can be found, accompanied by all the pins, clips and scraps of cloth you could ever want.
It’s the perfect combination of professional and cultural arrival and relevance and frantic passion for growth, creativity and cultivation. Lavelle, the man behind the somewhat fledgling – but rapidly growing – menswear company, has his office on the far side of the headquarters. It’s spacious without being overbearing, and simple, with an antique-looking desk on one side that raises and lowers with the push of a button (standing is the new sitting, you know), and a comfortable looking couch and set of chairs on the other. Oh, and don’t forget the giant dog crate along one wall where one of his dogs, Murph, silently watches over the office.
As Lavelle sits on the couch during our interview, recounting the earliest days of Mizzen+Main, he looks pretty much like what you’d expect a guy in his early 30s who has his act together to look like. Nice jeans, shined shoes, properly-fitted dress shirt and sweater, hair cleaned, combed and styled, and just the faintest bit of beard stubble – his look certainly doesn’t scream “young fashion mogul” or “new-age trend setter,” and he would be the first to tell you that he has no desire to be either of those things, nor is that the vision or purpose of Mizzen+Main.
What he is, though, is a problem solver, both by trade and by nature, and its that ability to solve problems that lead the SMU graduate to design the first-ever functional, performance-fabric dress shirt.
Kevin Lavelle: In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C., on a summer internship, and I was walking down the street and saw a congressional staffer run into a building absolutely drenched in sweat. I kind of had an “ah-ha” moment of, “why not make a dress shirt out of performance fabric” that would stretch and breath and be way more comfortable.
By that time, it was pretty standard to wear that Dri-FIT performance fabric on the golf course – popularized by Nike and Tiger Woods – and I kind of thought, “guys wear dress shirts as much, if not more, than golf polos,” and if that sort of fabric revolution could take place in one of the most traditional arenas in sports, then why not with business wear?
But I was 19 and was a college student and had no idea what I wanted to do at the time, but it certainly wasn’t to start a clothing company. The idea stuck in my head though over the next few years, and every once in a while I’d find myself Googling “performance fabric” or “Dri-FIT dress shirt” to see what was out there, but no one else had done anything like it.
The idea for a performance fabric dress shirt certainly wasn’t a novel one, and in the years that followed as Mizzen+Main started to grow, Lavelle had many people tell him they had a similar idea, and wondered when someone would run with it. The reason why, Lavelle surmised, could be traced back to philosophies detailed in Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”
In that book, Christensen demonstrates a dilemma facing established successful companies surrounding the value of innovation. In layman’s terms, Christensen theorizes that successful companies eventually shy away from constantly innovating their products is because, at some point, the value of innovation (or a next-generation product) is too minimal against the risk of failure. That may explain why companies that were leading the industry in sport-specific performance apparel had not taken the next step into business-wear. Why step out into new, uncharted territory when what you are doing is so successful?
It was a wide-open market potentially ripe for the picking, but simply having an idea that no one else has thought of (or implemented) is the reality. Execution is a whole ‘nother matter.
KL: The idea wasn’t the hard part. Sure, it was a good idea that nobody else was capitalizing on, but I still had to actually bring it to fruition. In 2011 I was working as an investment analyst in Dallas, and I spent most of that year just tinkering around with fabrics in my spare time and trying to figure out which performance materials would, in my mind, actually make a good dress shirt.
Later than year I made my first prototype, working with a local seamstress here in Dallas. I went to work in my suit and tie one day – we had a very traditional office – and on my way home I picked up the shirt and I put it on before I got home. When I walked in the door, my wife had no idea that I wasn’t wearing one of my regular dress shirts … we had this very goofy exchange because the dogs had knocked over something and I had asked her, “well, what do you think?” She kind of looked at me quizzically and said, “what do I think about you helping me [with the mess]?” because I was just standing there at the front door and hadn’t moved and she didn’t notice anything different about me.
That was a very exciting moment – kind of a watershed moment – for me because I knew that if she didn’t say “ohh, that looks awful,” right away, then I could make it work. It was kind of a light bulb moment because I had had this idea for years, I just didn’t know if I could make it work, and after months and months of going through fabrics and draping cloth over my body to see how it would look, nobody noticed anything different.
That night, we went to Christmas dinner with her family – whom I had been telling about this idea for months – and I wore the shirt without anything else, no jacket, no tie, no sweater, just the shirt. We went through dinner and conversation and dessert and presents and nobody said a word, and so at the end of the night I kind of stood up and said, “hey, this is that thing I’ve been telling you all about,” and they all went “Oh my gosh, I had no idea!” And that was double-validation for me, because if they had immediately stopped me and asked about this weird shirt I was wearing, that would have been a problem, but the fact that they didn’t convinced me that this out-there idea wasn’t in fact so out there.
For Lavelle, therein laid the rub – he was striving to solve the Sweaty Staffer Conundrum without reinventing the proverbial wheel, or inventing something completely different than said wheel that would confuse and alienate customers and flame out in a few months.
Normally, when you create something, the phrase “Oh, I didn’t even notice,” isn’t the desired response from family, loved ones, bums on the street, or anyone for that matter. But for Lavelle, it was perfect, because at the end of the day, what was to shortly become the Mizzen+Main performance dress shirt wasn’t going to get traction because it was different, but simply because it was better. You won’t find Mizzen+Main draped over models on the catwalk in Milan, and you won’t see them pushing some edgy or flash-in-the-pan style or design. What Lavelle and Mizzen+Main is going to sell you on is classic American; it’s the look and style you’ve always worn, just with a little extra moisture-fighting tech.
KL: Well, after [I had the prototype], the real hard work began. Sure, I had one shirt that nobody thought was weird, but I had nothing else. So then I had to start building the brand and getting actual manufacturing together and finding fabrics and working on sizing and the website and even deciding what the tags were doing to say. All of that took about six months once I really dedicated myself to it.
One of the first things we tackled was the name. The name Mizzen+Main comes from [the mainsail and Mizzen-mast on a sailboat]. But its not that we wanted the company or brand to have a nautical theme or be related to sailing, its just that sailing is a very aspirational activity – it is very classic and nostalgic, moving across the water without power.
I didn’t want to name the company something futuristic or cutting edge because I want people to understand that our products are simple shirts that you would wear every day with a suit and tie – they are just much better. I’m not telling you to go collarless or sleeveless or to wear something that looks crazy, but our product is the best possible version of the hundreds of thousands of shirts that are already out there that look “normal” or “appropriate” in a regular business setting.
So, once we had the name and brand and a website, I just kind of dove in. I reached out to everyone I knew, did some social media posts and e-mail campaigns and had a launch party to celebrate the line. And then I got out there and started selling. I would show up at Katy Trail and had our water bottles with our name and logo on it. I went to trade shows, trunk shows, and even a bike expo in Wichita Falls. We called on retail stores and wholesalers … basically every single avenue we could think of that may have, sell or want a dress shirt, and every possible way to get our name out there.
After officially launching in the summer of 2012, it was tough sledding for Lavelle. In the early days, his full-time staff was a whopping one person – himself. He did everything. He learned everything (even how to sew, although his sewing prowess didn’t evolve past that first shirt). He filled his brain to the brim with information on dozens of different fabric variations and blends; he discovered the wrong fabric many times before finding the perfect one. He made mistakes, stumbled through days and weeks and, along the way, started selling some shirts. Two years later, Lavelle hired his first full-time employee. We’re rolling now.
Attention starting pouring in, as Mizzen+Main was featured in publications such as The New York Times, Men’s Fitness and Fast Company. Their shirts were being worn by professional athletes (including JJ Watt of the Houston Texans, who officially reps the brand), politicians and musicians. They even launched a risky, expensive and nerve-wracking full-page ad in Esquire Magazine featuring then-Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline. After the experience, Lavelle penned a piece for the website Medium.com entitled “Did I F@*% Up My First Esquire Ad?” It’s quite entertaining.
Now, he has 46 full-time employees working at company headquarters and an additional 12 or so working at the two retail stores in North Texas. Mizzen+Main has seen growth of more than 200 percent in recent years, and you can now find their shirts in 700 points of retail distribution.
KL: It has been a really good few years, no doubt about that. We really kicked off rapid growth in early 2015 when we sponsored “The Tim Ferriss Show” [the No. 1 business podcast on Apple Podcasts]. [Ferriss] has such an extraordinary following, and everyone I asked about it that knew of him said it was a no-brainer. I had never read one of his books or even listened to a podcast before, but we did it and it was a hit. We doubled our daily revenue in the weeks following our sponsorship and we’ve never looked back.
The other big moment for us, I’ll say, was getting into Nordstrom. After months of trying, we finally got into a single Nordstrom store in early 2017. A few months later, we were in 30 locations; by then start of 2018, we were in 80, and as of this summer we are in every Nordstrom in the country. That was definitely a huge win. And then, there’s Phil…
It was a few days before the 2018 Masters. Tiger Woods was making his triumphant legitimate comeback. Justin Thomas was looking to make it two majors in a row. DJ was back after missing 2016. Rory was trying to complete the Grand Slam. Excitement was at a 10.
Then it was announced that Phil and Tiger were going to play a practice round together. They hate each other. Or do they love each other? Excitement moved to an 11.
Then … Phil Mickelson is wearing a dress shirt. I repeat: it is Tuesday, April 3, and Phil Mickelson is wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt on the first hole at Augusta National. Are you kidding me?
I assume the conversation went something like this:
Phil’s People: Phil, this company is wondering if you’d wear this dress sh…
Phil: Yep, I’m doing that.
Phil’s People: Well, OK, why don’t we look at the shirts and some possible dates…
Phil: Nope, I’m doing that now. At Augusta. Get Tiger on the phone. And somebody find my alligator-skin golf shoes with the extra cushioned soles for when I jump high.
Phil’s People: OK … (sigh)…
So Phil wore a Mizzen+Main dress shirt during his practice round at Augusta National, and even got a little TV time. The Internet lost its collective mind. Arm-chair critics came out of the woodwork. Phil got raked over the coals on Twitter and Instagram (there are some pretty funny posts, if you have the time to go back and look at them), and Lavelle just sat back and watched.
KL: The Phil thing, that was huge. Really early in the year, we had been talking about the possibility of getting a big-name golfer to wear one of our shirts during a round, but there were a couple problems: first, we didn’t really make polos, and second, almost all of those big-name guys had clothing endorsements. So we needed to find a guy that was just coming off a clothing deal that was willing to do something a little fun and crazy.
We pitched it to a bunch of players, basically saying “hey look, in the next couple weeks, if you aren’t in contention on a Sunday, just throw on one of our shirts for the final round and have some fun with us.” We had a bit of interest, but heard a lot of “well, maybe later in the year or next year,” but I was ready do it right away.
One day a friend of mine who knew Steve Loy (Phil’s agent) asked me if I thought Phil might be a guy to try and get; of course he was. I had a meeting with Loy one day while he was in Dallas, and what I thought was going to be just a quick conversation turned into a 2-hour meeting that ended with us sending Phil a bunch of product to review and Loy saying, “this sounds fun, and knowing Phil he will want to do something more than just a 1-off deal.” Three weeks later he was wearing one of our shirts at Augusta National. It was unbelievable!
The craziest part was that we didn’t have an official agreement with Phil, he just threw the shirt on. I couldn’t say anything about it. We couldn’t promote it, we couldn’t share pictures, nothing. When people asked me if Phil was wearing one of our shirts, all I could say was, “factually, yes, that is one of our shirts.” If they asked anything more, I could still only say, “yes, that is one of our shirts.”
The exposure was amazing. Sure, there were some pretty nasty things said on social media, but all along we had wanted to embrace the unconventional, fun side of this idea, and Phil loves to do that as well, so it was perfect for us.
About a month after the Masters, Phil Mickelson and Mizzen+Main had an official, multi-year apparel deal, and Phil wore one of their shirts at The PLAYERS Championship. This summer, the company put Phil “Masters jump” logo on some of their dress shirts, and just last month announced a line of Phil Mickelson polos. Needless to say, the “stunt” (if you even want to call it that) at Augusta was a complete success. Lavelle, Mickelson and the brand leaned into the criticism and embraced the slight absurdity of the moment, using it to their advantage rather than fighting it.
And off of that success, the company is continuing to grow. The company now has two retail stores in DFW (one in Dallas, the other in Fort Worth) and their product can be found in more than 300 golf pro shops around the country. They have hundreds of athletes wearing their gear, and even had a commercial air recently on ESPNews addressing “Textile Dysfunction,” a send-up of current pharmaceutical ads.
Now, the sky is the limit for Mizzen+Main. The problem Lavelle identified more than a decade ago is now well on its way to being solved. And if on happens stance, that sweaty Congressional aide is out there somewhere reading this, give Mizzen+Main a call, they’ve got something that will change your life.