Canberra architect AJ Bala has quietly, but surely, created a T-shirt he believes is not only comfortable, stylish and hard-wearing, but disrupts what's expected to be worn in the business/entrepreneur space.
The website for the garments, simply branded The T., went live this week, after 18 months of planning, testing materials, setting up manufacturers, marketing and getting online sales organised, all done by AJ, with support from his wife and fellow architect Krystal.
The 38-year-old partner in DNA Architects in Braddon says the idea for the T-shirt simply came from a need.
"I couldn't get T-shirts that were plain without branding on them that were comfortable, that I could wear to work as an architect. I don't necessarily like shirts. I do like T-shirts with blazers or jackets, that works for me," he said.
"I just couldn't find something I could work in all the time and still be presentable to clients, something I could go to an executive meeting and still look OK and the go to the pub and I'm still OK. I can take my blazer off and it's still OK.
"The previous T-shirt supplier I was getting my T-shirts from stopped making them in the material I was looking for and I ordered from them and I got it and thought, 'I can't wear this'."
The T-shirts are manufactured in the United States from thick, soft-sueded cotton, polyester mix. They each cost $49.95. The packaging is biodegradable, able to be tossed in the compost. He wanted the T-shirts to be affordable but not fast fashion. He was for longevity.
"Sueded cotton is just how the cotton is combed that just brings up the fibres a little bit more. What we're finding is, it lasts longer and doesn't warp as much in the wash," he said.
"It sort of goes against business thinking, but hopefully people never come back to change them because they wear out. We just want people to buy different colours and different styles, because they should last you really well."
While it has been a learning curve, AJ has some background in clothing. His mother Nalini was a seamstress in Sri Lanka before the family migrated to Australia when AJ was three. "I grew up with sewing machines and tie-dye and wax so I suppose it's in me a little bit," he said.
AJ grew up and was educated in Canberra, at Torrens Primary, Melrose High, Canberra College and then the University of Canberra. He did pre-sales through Instagram and Facebook and found a strong network ready to support him.
The T-shirts come in grey, white, navy and black. "We're thinking of doing a one-off for spring in a bright colour," he said.
AJ has enlisted some inspiring men around town as T. ambassadors - XO owner Kent Nhan, NumberGroup accountant Hairul Lutfi, Francis Owusu from Kulture Break and Josh Mulrine from DCS (Digital Content Studios).
There are hopes the T-shirts may be sold at airports.
"The long-term goal is to get them on to aeroplanes as the business class attire, ideally Qantas. I'm very big on local," he said.
As an architect, AJ, with partners Ross Norwood and Glen Dowse, has most recently been working on the Kingsborough project in Kingston, their contribution, The Wool Store, with the mural of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin on it.
The coronavirus pandemic shutdown meant he was working from home and it gave him some space to work after-hours on the t-shirt project. He and Krystal have three children between them - Karista, 19, Jack, 14, and Grace, 6, who all played their part, whether it was testing a size or putting stickers on packaging.
AJ is not planning on giving up architecture anytime soon, but the T-shirts have been more of a personal mission.
"I really enjoy it, so it hasn't felt like work," he said.
The T-shirts have the motto "Wear it like you mean it". It's about giving the wearer confidence so it is about them and not their clothes.
"I'm really proud of it," AJ said. "The simplicity is key. It's not about having a Versace shirt, it's about who you are and what you're saying in the boardroom."