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At the Intersection of Fashion and Science

The Apollo dress shirt is based on temperature-regulating spacesuits designed for astronauts traveling to Mars. Courtesy: Ministry of Supply)

He’s always been a hacker, though probably not what you first think of when you hear the term.

Gihan Amarasiriwardena, a 2011 MIT grad, hacks clothing and outdoor gear, and he’s been doing it since he was a teenager – cobbling together things like custom waterproof jackets and heat-trapping sleeping bags. In 2012, that hobby led him and a couple of classmates to start Ministry of Supply, a Boston-based innovator of high-tech fashion. Named for the defunct department of the U.K. government responsible for designing and supplying equipment to the British armed forces, the company has developed a science-based clothing line, and the fashion industry’s first 3-D robotic knitting machine.

“Instead of hacking code, we’re hacking fibers,” Amarasiriwardena said.

The company expanded nationwide in 2016, with nine retail locations in addition to an online presence. It sells about 100,000 products annually – from aerospace-tech dress shirts to socks that use coffee grounds to mitigate odor.

As for that robotic knitting machine, it’s a 10-foot-long printer designed to knit personalized blazers on demand. Customers plug in values for size, yarn, button, cuff color and so on; a modifiable image appears on an interactive display; and then four beds with 4,000 needles apiece pull yarn to knit the garment – creating a blazer in about 90 minutes. Ministry says that the machine eliminates about 30 percent of the fabric waste of traditional cut-and-sew methods.

One of Amarasiriwardena’s goals was to create performance dress clothes, something he hit upon while cycling daily as a student at MIT.

“The performance gear I wore wicked away moisture, and kept you cool and dry, but didn’t cut it when it came to looking sharp,” he said. “I realized there’s a big opportunity to take technology to clothing that we wear for 12 hours a day, when we’re not at the gym or on the mountain.”

So he studied for two summers at Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in England, conducting clothing stress-strain analyses. Back in his fraternity room on campus, he cut up running shirts and sewed them into wrinkle-free dress shirts – adding a curved polyester panel that allowed for stretching on the back, and patches of odor-control material made of silver-based antimicrobial fabric to the underarms. “It looked like a ‘Franken-shirt,’ but it did the job,” he joked.

Flash forward to the invention of the Apollo dress shirt for professionals. An early member of Amarasiriwardena’s startup was working in MIT’s Man Vehicle Laboratory on spacesuits for astronauts traveling to Mars. The temperature-regulating material used in his work was designed to melt around elevated skin temperature to store heat, and freeze around lowered skin temperature to release heat back. Using a similar material, the team created the Apollo – and after selling about 700 of them around Boston, gathering feedback from wearers and developing a refined prototype, launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 with a goal of $30,000. They raised $430,000.

Those odor-mitigating socks came from mixing spent coffee grounds into the yarn.

“You dilute the coffee flavor and aroma, and you’re left with organic sponge that will trap any aromatic compounds, or odor molecules, and absorb them into fabric,” Amarasiriwardena said. The startup launched another Kickstarter campaign just for the socks in 2013, with another $30,000 goal. They raised more than $200,000.

According to Amarasiriwardena, a key to success is the scientific iterating process. For each new garment, the startup researches, designs a prototype for customers to test, and gathers client feedback on various features.

“It’s a process fundamental to engineering, but one that’s absent in traditional apparel design, where you don’t see a design until it hits the runway. That’s often times why fashion has focused on style changes but not making apparel better,” he adds.

Source: MIT News

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