Kevin Lavelle has gone into business with everyone from NFL stars to the country’s largest retailers, all on the strength of his fabric.
For the 23rd episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, the founder and CEO of menswear company Mizzen + Main discussed his clothing line’s revolutionary union of advanced performance fabrics with traditional men’s apparel. It has brought athletic wear into the workplace and it’s a story that begins with Lavelle getting laughed out of the building at his very first trade show.
“It would have been totally fine if somebody had said ‘It’s just not for us, thank you.’ But people felt the need to tell me that it was a terrible product and that no one would ever buy it,” Lavelle said. “I don’t think they had an ascot on, but they might as well have.”
What made those trade show attendees nearly spit out their mint juleps was a men’s dress shirt made with the kind of performance fabric previously reserved for athletic wear. Lavelle noticed that industry giants such as Nike and Under Armor, despite possessing seemingly endless reserves of these fabrics, weren’t making clothes that guys could wear in the office.
“They’re all about their logo,” Lavelle said. “Not many guys are going to wear a dress shirt with a swoosh on it. I think that’s why you haven’t seen the athletic companies really move into this [space].”
With traditional menswear companies such as Brooks Brothers already dependent on cotton at the right and only answer, Lavelle looked to create a product that these established clothing lines never would.
Despite the initial pushback, Lavelle and his team hit the trade show circuit and started growing the company. Lavelle decided to base Mizzen + Main out of Dallas, the same city where he went to school at SMU, taking advantage of the lower capital required to launch a clothing line outside of a traditional fashion hub.
“So [given] the hometown hero nature of it, Texas is our biggest market,” Lavelle said. “After that, it’s kind of a continued toss up…which to me says we’re doing things exactly how I’d hoped. It wasn’t that we caught fire with the right person in Silicon Valley or New York and everyone just glommed on to that.”
As Mizzen + Main made inroads with national retailers such as Nordstrom’s, the clothing line attracted shoppers from across the country.
“The growth opportunity is not just a coastal focus on the highest spender,” Lavelle said. “Some of our best retail locations, from a single-door performance, it’s not New York, it’s not LA, it’s not San Francisco. Some of our best stores are in Indiana and Iowa where we’re a new brand for people to discover there.”
This national focus and holistic growth culminated in a 2017 investment from L Catterton, the largest consumer-focused private equity firm in the world, which is partially owned by fashion conglomerate LVMH.
On top of a lucrative endorsement deal with NFL star J.J. Watt—in which the Houston Texans linebacker also received an equity stake in the company—Lavelle’s days of being laughed out of trade shows are over.
“We’ve been sprinting a marathon for five years as we’ve grown from one to twenty one people,” he said. “[There’s] an extraordinary validation that it brings, we’re confident in what we’re doing, but it says to the broader marketplace that we’re not going anywhere.”