Apart from being star athletes, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, the L.A. Clippers' Dahntay Jones, Pierre Garçon of the Washington Redskins and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens all have something else in common. They wear shirts from the 3-year-old brand Mizzen + Main.
Who cares? Kevin Lavelle, for one. As the founder and CEO of a startup apparel brand—Mizzen + Main makes dress shirts from high-performance sports fabrics, which means jocks are both perfect customers and perfect endorsers—Lavelle suffers from the common business malady of a slim marketing budget, or, at least, one that offers no hope of inking a celebrity endorsement deal. But, thanks to a growing number of player-customers, Lavelle doesn't really need one. A bunch of pro athletes on social media is plenty, thank you very much.
"We've just got a ton of professional athletes as customers," said Lavelle, who's spotted roughly 150 athletes (also including the Vancouver Canucks' Derek Dorsett and Brian Hartline of the Cleveland Browns) wearing his shirts. "It's been absolutely extraordinary for us because they're customers and not endorsers," he said. "Most people see through endorsements anyway."
Mizzen + Main makes $125 dress shirts out of synthetics that don't wrinkle, don't need to be ironed and wick away perspiration. They're also made from stretchable fabrics that fit people with an athletic physique particularly well. Since those high-tech threads are commonly found on the playing field, it's no surprise that a handful of NBA and NFL stars got turned on to Lavelle's brand when it launched in 2012. When it comes to buying things—clothing especially—"athletes mostly trust other athletes," Lavelle said. "They share this inside knowledge."
But referrals turned into marketing when Lavelle noticed the guys mentioning his brand on Instagram and other social-media channels. "It's not that they tag us in every picture," he said. "But they're regularly on social media, and when we see it, we'll retweet it."
There's another way Lavelle routinely spots famous sports figures wearing his shirts. The top buttonhole of each Mizzen + Main shirt features blue thread, a feature that makes the shirts readily identifiable even when their owners don't tag the brand.
It's how Lavelle discovered that Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, was sporting Mizzen + Main. "I'll be 100 percent transparent—I've never met him," Lavelle said. "But he wears our products all the time." So, apparently, does Ultimate Fighting Championship founder Dana White, the WWE's Antonio Cesaro and CrossFit Games competitor Jason Khalipa.
Mizzen + Main, which raised nearly $55,000 on Kickstarer last March and another $1.2 million in Series A funding in August, does not release sales data. But the recent debut of the Leeward collection saw first-day volume hit five times the brand's daily average, a reception Lavelle credits to consumers' growing awareness of the brand.
Jason Cohen, evp-creative at luxury brand consultancy The O Group, applauds Lavelle for funneling the digital assets of loyal customers into a bona fide marketing effort that would otherwise cost him a fortune.
"We may be looking at some sort of 2.0 in terms of the way we think about endorsements," he said. "These [customers] might not be super A-list athletes, but there's a social currency that's definitely being traded here. Mizzen + Main is being put on a pedestal—paid or not—in a way that's a boon to them."