University alumni raise six figures for performance dress sock startup

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 5:27pm

Two University of Michigan alumni, Gabriela de Araujo and Ben Yelian, who graduated from LSA and Ross, respectively, have recently completed a clothing startup campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and are preparing to further the development of their product: Stealth Sock.

Stealth Sock, is a high-tech dress sock that uses silver and carbon-infused fibers to suppress the bacteria responsible for causing foot odor and prevent buildup of moisture.

From its humble beginnings last year, the Stealth Sock has transformed into a $156,180 Kickstarter project with 2,227 backers and coverage by multiple media outlets. Maison Impeccable, the parent company, is now moving its focus to Indiegogo, another crowdfunding website. But the two designers are already looking further ahead.

Yelian and de Araujo, along with co-founder Kevin Shih of Northwestern University, were high school friends with a shared interest in fashion and spy movies. According to Yelian, the three found regular jobs right after graduating college, but by then their interest had transformed into a full-blown passion.

“I was always interested in entrepreneurship, having been active in MPowered when I was at Michigan, but never really knew what I cared about,” Yelian said. “I realized I was spending so much of my free time checking out fashion sites and streetwear blogs, and was always discussing things with my high school friend, Kevin. We felt there was a gap in technical wear, the growing market for performance-infused, non-athletic apparel, and decided that if we spent so much time obsessing over it in our free time, we might as well try and make something of it.”

The goal of their company — Maison Impeccable — whose name is a play on the name of the major spy-thriller franchise “Mission Impossible,” was to create dress clothes that someone in a line of work akin to James Bond’s would find comfortable to move around and fight villains in while dressed formally.

“People don’t like dressing up anymore and can’t wait to change into sweats because dress clothes aren’t comfortable or practical,” Yelian said. “That’s because, despite new tech being everywhere, the clothes we wear to work haven’t really changed in decades. We wanted to challenge that.”

The idea to specifically create a sock came first out of pragmatism — as socks are cheaper and faster to design, as opposed to larger items — but also stemmed from Yelian and Shih’s daily annoyances.

“As a business consultant and med student, we were putting in long hours in business wear; with all our running through airports and hospitals, it became painfully apparent how outdated and underperforming regular socks were, especially compared to what we’d wear to the gym,” he said.

Once they launched the project, the entrepreneur trio’s respective specializations helped facilitate the process — de Araujo an economics major, Yelian a Ross student and Shih an MD candidate.

“As a medical student, Kevin comes from a rigorous science background so reading research papers and understanding the implications of data comes as second nature to him,” Yelian said. “For myself and Gabby, we both come from more analytical business roles, where a focus on data is just as important.”

In addition to their education, Yelian pointed out other ways in which the University made Maison Impeccable possible.

“People crave comfort and practicality these days, and nowhere is that more obvious than your first lecture after a long weekend (or whenever, really),” Yelian said. “We always liked looking good, but we still lived in jeans and sweats as much as anyone else. It kind of got us going with the idea of, ‘Why not make looking good more comfortable instead of just looking like we gave up?’ ”

De Araujo also noted how the University’s culture helped her throughout the startup process.

“U-M gave me the tools and the confidence to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “Graduating from a school where so many great leaders have come from gives you an incentive to do something just as groundbreaking.”

The University additionally contributed in a number of other ways, including student athletes who participated in the first round of testing by comparing the Stealth Sock’s moisture-wicking capabilities with those of top athletic-brand socks. The results from that time were positive, Yelian said, as the dress sock beat out some of the competition from athleticware.

“From here, we still have a long way to go. Kickstarter is just pre-orders, so the more important part is getting the products made well and fulfilled to our customers,” de Araujo said. “As a brand, socks are really just the beginning.”

Yelian added that he wants to develop Maison Impeccable into a comprehensive clothing line.

“We’re currently researching cuts and fabrics for our next product, with the hopes of building out a full line of technical clothing with everything from suits to shorts,” he said.

Looking back at her own experiences, de Araujo urged aspiring student entrepreneurs to make the best out of their youthfulness.

“Don't be afraid to do what others are not doing. Being part of a startup is a risk: you have many things going against you; but there is no better time to risk it all than now,” she said. “You’re young with nothing to lose and your whole lives ahead of you (especially those with a few years left of college to go) — balance school and your social life, but try something, and try it soon.”

Yelian also encouraged student entrepreneurship, yet at the same time stressed the importance of finding one’s passion first instead of rushing to reach for wealth and fame.

“I worked on projects as a consultant that had four or five more zeroes on the line than anything we’re doing, but this has been way harder,” he said. “Not because of the sheer complexity or analytical rigor, but nothing hurts and keeps you up at night like trying to get your own idea off the ground.”