When he was 13 and living with his family in Hong Kong the following thought occurred to Ben Perkins: Why, he wondered, could he play a 90-minute soccer match and feel perfectly comfortable in the athletic jersey he was wearing, and yet, when he put on a dress shirt and sat in an hourlong air-conditioned church meeting, he felt like a stuck pig?
Then came his epiphany: Hey, why not make a dress shirt out of the same stuff as my soccer jersey?
He decided to start a company. He called it “Wicka-Sweat,” designed a logo and asked his older brother Derek, who spoke Mandarin, to help him contact manufacturers in China.
China was where Nike, Adidas and other makers of the relatively new and revolutionary breathable synthetic athletic jerseys, with names like Dri-FIT and ClimaLite, were sourcing their material. Also, it was right next door.
A few companies sent him some samples and quotes, but the minimum order was 5,000.
“My allowance didn’t cover making 5,000 dress shirts,” remembers Ben. Wicka-Sweat was out of business before it had a chance to begin.
Fast forward six years later, when Ben, who had gotten so good at soccer that the University of Kentucky gave him an athletic scholarship, decided after his freshman year to interrupt his schooling to go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He was called to the Philippines, a place as hot and humid as Hong Kong.
“There was not a single time I felt cold,” he says.
Wearing the standard missionary uniform of tie and dress shirt, he silently suffered for two years. When he returned home and dumped his dingy, frayed cotton shirts in the dumpster, he decided the time was right to revive his old Wicka-Sweat idea.
Maybe his time had passed, but “I figured there were a lot of missionaries going out that could totally benefit from an athletic dress shirt,” he says.
By now he had transferred to Utah Valley University, where he’d also been given a soccer scholarship. Selling his new line of dress shirts was something he’d do on the side.
He raised enough money via Kickstarter to invest $20,000 in his new business, almost all of it going for product. The bedroom in his Provo apartment was stacked to the ceiling with dress shirts. He marketed them online and through word of mouth. They went out the door very slowly, in ones and twos.
When he traced the provenance of his sales, “it was always a relative,” says Ben.
But then, somehow, a missionary mom in Ogden heard about these shirts suitable for the tropics and said she needed 10 of them for her son who was leaving for Barranquilla, Colombia, in two days.
Ben drove to Ogden to personally deliver the order.
Before he knew it, his shirts were all the rage among the Barranquilla missionaries, who started ordering them en masse. Word was out: These shirts were cool.
The positive feedback caused him to think maybe his part-time business could become his full-time business. When he graduated from UVU in 2018 he and his friend and marketing director, Jordan Larsen, decided they’d give it a try.
Their goal: To make the world’s most comfortable dress shirt — breathable, stretchy, wrinkle-free, stain-free, doesn’t come untucked, wicks away sweat — and with an added humanitarian twist. Since the material is all man-made and synthetic, they decided they would use only recycled plastic.
“You read every day about all the plastic in the ocean and landfills and even on streets as litter,” explains Ben. “We thought, ‘OK, we have enough plastic; let’s use plastic that already exists.’ We have to pay more for recycled plastic, but we’re trying to be stewards not only of men’s wardrobes but also of the Earth.
“Let’s not only make the best dress shirt in the world, let’s make the best dress shirt for the world.”
Every shirt is equal to 15 plastic bottles taken out of the oceans, waterways and landfills.
They dropped the name Wicka-Sweat and named their company &Collar. At first it was Blue and White Collar, but that was too wordy for an effective logo and marketing campaign. Essentially, &Collar is a company that makes athletic jerseys and puts a collar on them.
Each year they’ve been open, even during the pandemic year of 2020, business has increased by a factor of 700%. Besides Ben and Jordan there are now eight more full-time employees.
Ninety-percent of sales are online (andcollar.com), the rest in retail stores (&Collar is in Mr. Mac and other LDS missionary emporiums), with the hoped-for possibility of getting into national chains down the road.
They have also expanded into ties, pants, socks and shoes.
And their clientele is no longer exclusively missionaries.
“At first missionaries were very much the base,” says Ben. “But we’ve started to see a lot of growth in urban areas, Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles. We haven’t been able to keep up with demand, we keep stocking out. As we continue to evolve and grow we can get to the point where we can serve as many as possible. There’s a lot of men in the U.S. and we want every man to be wearing this.”
At 26, the dream he had as a 13-year-old has finally become a reality.
That realization brings a smile.
“The whole reason this company exists is because I hate dress shirts,” he says. “We make dress shirts for people who hate dress shirts. I think that’s most men, realistically.”