Marine Layer is a clothing company with a simple mission: Make the softest shirts on the market. Founded by Mike Natenshon in 2009 after his girlfriend threw out one of his perfectly washed and worn old t-shirts, the San Francisco company sells new shirts that look and feel like old staples. “Everybody wants the perfect t-shirt,” Natenshon says, “but it takes time for shirts to break in and become perfect. I wanted to see if we could achieve that out the gate.”
Doing so meant he'd have to make some tweaks to the traditional shirt-making process, which Natenshon, who had just left his job at a Bay Area hedge fund, knew nothing about. He started researching fabric mills and found that California’s garment industry was largely concentrated in Los Angeles. Within a few weeks, he had driven down the coast to visit the knitting factories and placed his first order.
The biggest factors to a perfectly soft shirt are fit and feel, he says. To provide better fitting shirts, Nathenshon made in-between sizes: "smedium," "marge," and "larger." And to maximize softness, he blended cotton with micromodal, a light-weight fabric made from recycled Beech Wood that has silkier properties and is typically used for intimates or women's loungewear. Then, he used extra-thin yarn to boost the thread count and pre-washed each knit to break it in. By doing so, he found he could control for shrinkage and softness.
“Stores like Old Navy and Uniglo use thick cotton, because it’s cheaper, and put a heavy silicon wash on it like a coating,” he says. “It doesn't last and within a couple washes, the items look and feel totally different. We pre-launder our fabric before and after its dyed so it won’t change after you buy it.”
Today, Marine Layer operates six retail stores, all on the west coast, and manufactures in San Francisco and Los Angeles. To visit stores and factories, Natenshon and his business partner, Adam Lynch, drive a 1969 VW bus with the Marine Layer logo that has become a trademark of sorts for the label. On the brand's website, there is a softness chart to help shoppers gauge the feel of shirts they order online. (For extra-picky or curious customers, they'll send free fabric swatches.)
Natenshon has his eye on Austin, Texas, as a possible location for their next retail store, but isn't making any promises. "We specialize in tees and hoodies," he said. "California's a pretty great fit right now."