A few words with Kevin Lavelle: Founder and CEO of Mizzen+Main

In just a few years, Dallas startup Mizzen+Main has ignored the skeptics and become a brand that defines true American innovation. Founder and CEO Kevin Lavelle graduated from SMU in 2008 and worked for Hunt Oil Company before founding Mizzen+Main in 2012.

Countless times, skeptics told Lavelle that manufacturing a reasonably priced dress shirt from performance fabrics in the United States was impossible. He made it happen, and today we find out how.

Rhyne Simpson: All of the shirts are made from a performance fabric that is also wrinkle free. Explain how the material works.

Kevin Lavelle: I wanted to bring the best of advanced performance fabrics to traditional menswear because there is no reason for men to continue to suffer in their stiff, wrinkled, sweat showing dress shirts. Every guy loves athletic apparel when it comes to performance or even just lounging around, and just about every guy needs to wear a dress shirt, even if not every day. Why not combine the two? It's crazy that no one else had done this.

There are many different types of performance fabrics. Given the advancements of athletic apparel, and widespread adoption of it from the athletic field to the suburban shopping malls of America, Mizzen+Main was well positioned to utilize this technology in traditional menswear. People understand the basics of performance fabrics even if they don't know how it actually works. The simplest explanation is that performance fabrics move moisture away from the surface of the skin and enable it to evaporate quickly, keeping the wearer cooler and avoiding that dreaded sweaty look. Cotton simply absorbs moisture and dries over time along with not being a good fabric for heat transfer. Because the fabric we use has four way stretch, it means that our shirts move with you rather than the static nature of cotton. Wrinkles just naturally fall out of our fabrics. This is a huge advantage over even "non-iron" shirts that require a harsh chemical treatment and eventually wash away.

Mizzen + Main CEO Kevin Lavelle
“Every guy loves athletic apparel and just about every guy needs to wear a dress shirt. Why not combine the two? It's crazy that no one else had done this.”

RS: You had the idea for performance dress shirt when you were 19, interning in Washington D. C.  How did the idea come about, and what made you actually execute on the idea?

KL: Everyone has seen this. Every guy lives this.

It was a particularly sweltering summer in DC (aren't they all) when I watched a staffer run into a very important meeting. He was absolutely covered in sweat. When his shirt finally dried off, he looked arguably worse with sweat discolorations and wrinkles all over.

Around this time that performance polos had really started to become mainstream on the golf course. At first, performance polos were almost deemed "unacceptable" to wear on the golf course. Over time, they became more and more common before ultimately being the standard. I wondered why the same thing couldn't happen with dress shirts.

The idea stuck with me for years. I kept wondering why no one had combined performance fabrics and dress shirts. After a few years, I decided I had to give it a shot. A mentor of mine really inspired me to pursue the entrepreneurial path. Today, entrepreneurship is trendy while most have no idea how unbelievably difficult and at times painful of a journey it truly is. While he warned me, I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. That being said, I'm thrilled to be where we are today, changing an entire industry and building the next great American brand.

RS: Lots of people in the industry said you were crazy to attempt to manufacture in the United States. I’m sure it became really frustrating after a while. How did you respond? What were the biggest hurdles?

KL: I have a tremendous amount of respect for coders who build great programs or apps. Manufacturing physical products, especially quality, complex ones, is tremendously difficult. It's not possible to write code for a few days or weeks and have your product ready for use. From raw material sourcing to prototypes and all the logistics in between, it's vastly more complicated, time consuming, and expensive than most realize. The first couple shirts I had made realistically cost me more than the first hundred in a production run.

“In all honesty, I just completely ignored the people who said I had to make our product overseas. ”

I understand why people produce things overseas (I'm typing this on a Mac computer next to my iPhone - I'm no anti-globalist). At the end of the day, I want what I build to have a positive impact on our country. If you don't have a net positive impact on your community or country, who will buy your products? It's all connected. Some things just aren't possible to manufacture here anymore given either technology or remaining manufacturers. With regards to garment manufacturing, it is possible to cut and sew here at home, and that is something I'm very proud of choosing to do.

I don't think most people look at their purchases and have a very conscious thought process over where something is produced. Being American made is a part of our DNA. We're more than just a product or brand. It's core to who we are. Knowing most people don't consciously choose American made products doesn't dissuade me from doing what I believe is right. I know that people respect our choices and want other businesses to make similar choices where possible.

The biggest hurdles in getting a product based business off the ground are the early requirements: prototypes, specs, production minimums, financing, and component sourcing. Other than that, it's a breeze!

RS: You want Mizzen+Main to be a “great American brand,” and currently you are making performance dress shirts, henleys and polos.  How do you expand on this and what products are next from Mizzen+Main?

KL: We absolutely will be the next great American brand.

We started Mizzen+Main with a groundbreaking innovation: performance fabric dress shirts. That spirit of innovation and combining performance with tradition will continue as we expand into chinos (in time for the holidays), blazers, and broadening our footprint overall with a greater selection for current and new customers.

RS: Your wife Jen is very involved in the business. Combining home life and work life is probably very difficult. How do you make it work and what role does Jen play?

KL: It is one of the greatest privileges of my life, and a huge boon for Mizzen+Main, to have Jen as our CMO. Her performance has been truly incredible coordinating the growth and protection of our brand alongside tremendously successful advertising initiatives. The business is that much better for her presence, every day. I say that as the CEO with everything on the line. Getting to work together every day has been a wonderful experience for Jen and I personally. We have the same vision, perseverance, and drive so complement each other very nicely given her background is advertising and marketing while mine is engineering and business. We do have to work to draw some lines at home to make sure we protect our marriage. That said, we’re working on building the next great American brand so that requires us to work long into the evening most nights, so it’s very nice to go home, have dinner, then get back to it and have strategy sessions whenever the opportunity or thought arises. Jen is my partner in life, and I’m very proud to have her as my partner in business. The only thing we “spar” over at work is office decor!

RS: How can America bring apparel manufacturing stateside again?

KL: It's very, very simple: consumers can vote with their dollars. When consumers support brands that produce responsibly and keep production here in the United States, more companies will make the choice to do so.

RS: In addition to manufacturing in the United States, your company has very actively supported veterans organizations like The Navy SEAL Foundation and the Lone Survivor Foundation. How does Mizzen+Main contribute to these organizations?

KL: Mizzen+Main is extraordinarily proud to have supported several veteran service organizations in a variety of ways, from donations to manpower and logistics support. To date, we have worked with The Navy SEAL Foundation, the Lone Survivor Foundation, Boot Campaign, the Dallas Veterans Administration, the Agoge Challenge, the Brian Bill Foundation, and the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation. We designed a custom high quality shirt for the Navy SEAL Foundation for all of their major events as giveaways to donors where we coordinate all production and delivery of the product below our cost as a donation and way to increase the visibility of the Foundation’s efforts given celebrities are now wearing the shirts along with recipients sporting the shirts proudly rather than stashing them in their shirt drawer given how comfortable they are!

We’ve run logistics for the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation for them at the American Sniper premiere along with hosting fundraising events benefitting the Lone Survivor Foundation and Boot Campaign. Mizzen+Main has also made donations to many of these organizations as well. Realistically we’re still a small company but want to make an impact however possible despite not yet being able to write large checks! We also have a focus on helping and hiring veterans as much as possible. We have hired two veterans so far and are actively and continuously looking to hire veterans for paid internships.

RS: You just signed a partnership deal with Houston Texans Defensive End Justin James “J.J." Watt who is perhaps the biggest name in the NFL right now. Mizzen+Main is still a small company, just three years old. How did you pull that off? He must love the shirts!

KL: I knew some of JJ’s team and began discussing a partnership in the company several months ago. J.J. is both humble and the hardest working man in the NFL with a relentless focus on performing at the highest level of the sport. He embodies everything that we stand for as we build the next great American brand. We are proud to manufacture apparel at the intersection of advanced performance and classic style, exceeding the expectations of elite athletes like J.J. and modern men everywhere. He’s incredibly nice as well - we’re thrilled to partner with him! Our XXL fits him unaltered off the rack, and he says he actually looks forward to putting on a dress shirt now!

RS: The athletic community has embraced the brand, and athletes like Drew Brees and JJ Watt have been early adopters. Are we going to see Mizzen+Main supplant Ralph Lauren as the United States Olympic team uniform in Rio de Janeiro next year?

KL: Ha! It's hard to believe large, sophisticated companies are capable of such blunders. That being said, people can get whipped into a frenzy over things that are fairly obvious. Ralph Lauren, a company I have a great deal of respect for, just doesn't make much here at home anymore. It shouldn't have been a surprise that garments they produced weren't made here.

As much as I'd love to see Mizzen+Main proudly sported by the best athletes our country has, a presence at that large of a stage is all about sponsorship dollars. We have a bit more growing to do before we can afford that type of sponsorship.

What's more realistic is that the athletes will all probably be wearing Mizzen+Main when they aren't required to wear something else... Stay tuned.