Over a month ago, at FIT’s Fashion Merchandising Management (now Fashion Business Management) program’s Annual Alumni event, all I heard from the keynote speaker and the attendants – professors and the former students – was that a radical change to our industry is coming soon. These days everything is not like it used to be, teaching the retail business has become harder for the industry has no idea what is coming. For someone who works in the fashion-tech space it’s obvious: the changes in fashion come from technology advancements that are affecting everyone in our field: brands, retailers, consumers, PR & Sales firms, supply chains. To me, it’s an especially fascinating time to be working in the fashion tech field. We are the ones who are going to perform a drastic revamp of how fashion works. We will turn it into an industry driven by an educated consumer with a profound sense of individuality, sustainability and ethics.
In several recent years, advancements in technology, consumer lifestyles and shrinking retail cycles have shaken up the traditional fashion supply chain system:
- The Internet made fashion shows accessible to anyone, generating high consumer interest in just-off-the-runway styles. Pieces available in stores 6 months after the runway & social media hype are perceived as outdated.
- The number of seasonal collections has increased, with 4+ collections per year and 8+ deliveries of out-of-season merchandize results in heavy markdowns and unsold stock, which creates a huge cash-flow problem for both brands and retailers.
- Designers exhaust their creative potential with such a high number of collections per year, and end up in repeating themselves from one collection to another and look stale to a fashion audience’s critical eye.
- Designers are forced to spend more funds on shows and marketing activities than they are able to generate form their seasonal wholesale business. Missing opportunity to invest in brand development, sustainability and direct-to-consumer business with higher margins & brand’s image control.
- Consumers became more educated and demanding, expecting the brands follow their needs and have ability to get what they want, immediately, for the price they think is reasonable. They are trained to shop the markdown prices and consider markdowns as “the true” value of a product. They also establish their style and get frustrated with constant change of fashion fads and trends.
- Fast Fashion brands have an advantage of access to more flexible production resulting in freshest trends being interpreted or copied at a significantly lower price points.
- Emergence of in-season fashion shows and presentations, enabling brands to monetize on consumer excitement of the freshest collection release.
The solution to these issues the industry is facing is the introduction of ‘in-season relevancy’ – a concept of showing a new collection and making it available for a consumer to purchase immediately, just right for the current season – as opposed to 6 months in advance.
There are two major thoughts on how brands can approach the concept of an in-season selling:
- Private release of the new collections to the industry insiders – press and buyers only – similar to the way the fashion industry worked in the 20th century. This path sticks to the traditional production cycle lasting 3-6 months.
- Deep data analysis of past sales along with careful planning and public – facing fashion events, letting consumers customize and pre-order styles, and have brands executing smaller batches, high quality on-demand production.
This article sheds a light on the second path, where my futurist-set mind and expertise in fashion customization plays a part.
Mass customization is natural to the concept of on-demand production. It essentially means offering items available in various design options for a customer to choose from to their liking, made to fit their tastes and needs. Many companies have already tried to tackle the fashion customization field. Very few have succeeded.
The top players in e-commerce customization are true winners based on clarity of brand positioning, excellent customer experience and first-to-market advantage.
NIKEiD is an advanced, intricate customization tool build by Nike. Launched in 2012, this is the earliest and the most successful so far example of sports shoes customization. There’s a lot that contributes to the huge success of NikeID – excellent branding, enough customization options to create a truly unique piece, anticipation and customer experience and sweet anticipation during and after purchasing, and finally – excellent quality product. Many shoe companies followed NikeID’s example and created their own custom lines (i.e. Adidas, Vans, Converse)
A unique example of a successful pivot from initially offering custom pieces from various designers to creating a strong private label is Bow & Drape. Not only the founder, Aubrey Pagano, was able to learn and iterate fast, she also keeps a sharp focus on Bow & Drape’s clearly best-selling category: basic sweatshirts and tees with customizable sequined embroideries, giving customers opportunity to embrace their individuality with catch phrases like: “Eat. Pray. Hustle.”, “Boss Lady” and “Goal Digger” – all at competitive prices to a fast fashion products.
Indochino, J Hilburn and Blank Label effectively tackle the least technology-advanced category of clothes: made-to-measure menswear. All three of them use various ways to measure customers, for example Indochino has a traveling tailor program and showrooms in select US cities; J Hilburn requires using services of their Personal Stylist and a questionnaire that helps finding out a customer’s perfect sizing and fit, all developed by Blank Label. But all offer wide detail, fabrics and fit variations, have a clear and straightforward customization user experience and feature effective imagery, suitable for the target market of bespoke clothing.
Australian-based company Shoes of Prey is a pioneer and leader in the footwear customization space, ambitiously aiming to create the perfect shoe for every woman. This brand has reached an international success by constantly iterating on its customization tool and carefully listening to users’ feedback. The whole process of designing a shoe becomes a fun, exciting and game-like experience, so appealing for a young, creative customer.
Here is a break down of brands most notable up-and-coming, yet still underrated by a wide audience. These companies are winning in their sharp focus on a category and style, plus offer a strong, unique value proposition.
One of the most vivid examples of niche customization platforms is PAOM (Print All Over Me). The company describes itself as “creative community of people turning virtual ideas into real world objects.” Anyone can upload any image and have it applied on a rotating selection of basic, cool silhouettes, including over-sized t-shirts, backpacks, mini dresses, coats but it also serves as a marketplace for artists, print and graphic designers who receive 20% from the sale of their digital creation. The downside of PAOM from a branding perspective is that the limitless print options that can be ordered under the PAOM label can eventually harm the brand from taste and aesthetics perspective.
Unmade (Previously Knyttan) has created what the company called “factory of the future”, that leverages the latest knitting technology to fulfill custom knitwear. Only currently offering two base models: a sweater and a scarf, Unmade lets customers personalize their own knitting patterns by selecting from a collection of designs and color combos. This London-based company collaborates with designers and artists to offer carefully pre-curated colors and limited design capacities for anyone to create a knitted item that is truly beautiful and wearable, in contrast to PAOM’s endless print options mentioned above. However this aspect is also limited by the capacity of the most advanced knitting machines, compared to digital printing, which allows any design to be applied on some fabrics. As the brand’s website states, Unmade products are “designed to be changed”.
In the bag category, BAMIN, which stands for Build And Make It Now is a true innovator. Different shapes, materials and colors of pieces can be combined into different bag styles, offering multiple options. Purchasing additional parts lets customers create new forms and color combinations for any style of a BAMIN bag. Constructor-like bags are fun and exciting to put together, although the platform’s technology and user experience still has room for improvement.
An answer to Shoes of Prey, Awl & Sundry is a high quality shoes customization platform for men. Customers are offered to select a style (oxford, loafer, etc) and then – various features, from design details to materials. The brand offers custom sizing, unlike Shoes of Prey, where a customer is required to enter exact measurements of each foot for made-to-order shoes by Awl & Sundry.
eShakti is one of the longest running customization platforms out there, founded in 2001. The brand is focused on classic dress styles inspired by the 50s-60s, attracting women of various sizes and shapes, who are not looking for innovative, fresh styles, but rather need to find a good fit and appropriate sleeve and skirt lengths. This simply designed e-commerce offers a wide range of dress designs, most of which have options to customize the shape of a neckline, type of sleeves and skirts. The brand promises to deliver a custom item within 12-18 days from placing an order, which is quite impressive as eShakti manufacturing is based in India.
Zazzle (the site has a monthly traffic of 13.60M) is a gigantic marketplace for all things customizable, from home goods and décor to casual, simple clothing and accessory styles. Size, color, prints selection, monogramming – it seems like anything you can imagine to custom make is available to order on this website.
Some of the most well-known t-shirt and other simple tops focused customization platforms are Teesprnig, Spreadhirt and Snaptee. These staple clothing items are the easiest fashion pieces to customize and produce and for many years have been a tool for self-expression for its wearers.
Teespring (the site has a monthly traffic of 9.10M) is a typical successful SF-based tech company that has a sharp focus on its mission, a great execution and a healthy sense of humor. They only offer t-shirts or tank tops and serves as a marketplace for anyone to sell their own t-shirt design ideas. Teespring believes that everyone is required to own a personalized t-shirt to express his or her unique personality. Spreadshirt is a typical blank label brand, whose clients are mostly companies and clubs ordering team apparel and random items with company logos, team mottos, etc. Snaptee is a Teespring-inspired t-shirts-only e-commerce platform targeting a younger demographic. It has a fun, well-designed, engaging mobile app, inspired by Instagram and Snapchat, to serve that market appropriately.
Now let’s take a look at some of the less successful customization platforms that may have great ideas, but lack of focus and a poor execution:
Modern Tailor, a platform based in China and US, offers a wide selection of high quality made-to-order menswear items, however using very outdated technology and imagery on the website, setting them far behind other similar menswear sites mentioned above.
Apliiq lets street wear enthusiasts apply custom printed patches on tees, hoodies, joggers and hats. Focused only on a few categories it’s lacking a strong value proposition for a customer to place an order.
Olivia Luca is a special occasion dresses design platform with simple sketches used as visuals and variety of classic silhouette elements. The website is built on flash, should I say more? But if completely re-designed and with improved final garment visualization, Olivia Luca could become a go to for brides and their bridesmaids who are able to collaborate on complementing dresses they’d actually like to wear – and not only for a friend’s wedding day.
FitMeSo is a Taiwan-based dress customization company with only three styles to choose from: Cheongsam, Cocktail and Casual. Each style has options to adjust a bodice, skirt, sleeves and select a fabric. As each dress is made to measure, exact measurements need to be entered. The user experience on site and visualization has a long way to improvement, but the dresses options seem beautiful, wearable and fit various audiences of women.
Numari is another custom dresses platform with minimum technological input and classic styles that can be found, tried on and purchased at any department store. Impish Lee is a lingerie brand that started offering design tool from its very launch. However, the real advantage of this site is not its customization capacity, but sexy, lace-filled styles and a very wide selection of sizing, which makes it very appealing for a plus size market.
Finally, it is interesting to review some of the examples of failed companies in the mass customization space. Notable companies that were shut down in the past couple of years are Tinker Tailor, PIOL and Constrvct.
Tinker Tailor (full disclosure: I worked there as a merchandiser from the pre-launch till it was shut down) is the typical example of a failed start up due to the lack of funding and focus. The two very ambitions, industry-shifting ideas did not get a chance to be executed to their full potential. Tinker Tailor attempted to tackle both customization of existing brands’ products and a made-to-order model that let customers to create dresses, tops and skirts “from scratch” through an advanced 3D visualization technology.
Collaborating with high-end designers on custom offers, technology limitations to visualize those extra options, 3-6 months long delivery windows are only some of the aspects that made the “Customize” side of TT so challenging. Putting together, narrowing down and updating a comprehensive design components database, in-house production management, small-batch materials sourcing, very limited time frames and user experience of creation process made the “Create” hand of the business rather complex as well. Nobody has tackled that before Tinker Tailor. It was a bit too early for such a strong and ambitious concept to take off. Overall, the strong technology and partnerships were there, however order delays, imperfect UX/UI on the website and lack of a story telling on the marketing side were some of the blockers for this fascinating business ideas. Also, the customers needed some extra education and preparation for such a forward-looking service. When the team chose to focus only on the “create” business side, unfortunately the funding was not there to accomplish this pivot. My hope is that some day the ideas Tinker Tailor stood for are going to develop into full blown, successful businesses and make a difference in fashion by turning it into more sustainable and effective industry.
PIOL is another quietly shut down customization site that had a similar concept to Tinker Tailor’s “Create” section. Inspired by revolutionary Hollywood designer Edith Head’s approach to dressmaking, the platform offered a fully customized dresses. On to of that, the technology presented a custom color scheme and prints to match customer’s hair, eye and skin color. It is not clear what exactly went wrong with the company that it had to close the site and put a “We are currently revising our site and we will be back shortly” note on the landing page for over a year, but it’s a clear lesson that a total made-to-order business model still has a long way for to prove to be effective.
The last company worth mentioning that paused their operations not long after launching is Constrvct. It had an identical to PAOM idea behind it, yet with a far less fun and engaging website where purchase option has been suspended after a short life of an e-commerce. In 2013 it had a notable collaboration with a New York based concept-store STORY, and at that time the company seemed quite innovative. Right now it is just a simple platform for designing and visualizing artwork on clothing silhouettes.
The whole idea of mass customization business is to give freedom of creation for consumers, but the question is: do they really want all that freedom? Do customers need to “create their clothes from scratch”? My opinion is that if they are given a “blank canvas”, they can simply get lost in the variety of customization options and opportunities and end up not ordering anything. This kind of customer acquisition loss was a major challenge for the three platforms above. Listening to the customer and giving them what they want is the key to success of any business – and in fashion it is no different. The design template is a much more efficient way to involve consumers in customization. The successful growth that Bow and Drape and Shoes of Prey are experiencing is mainly due to the permanent plug in to customers’ feedback and constant iteration process of product options offering and user experience.
On another note, everyone loves brands and trusts their favorite designers with a certain style, aesthetics, price point and quality. Tinker Tailor was on the right path understanding what customer may really appreciate: an ability to personalize or adjust to their needs pieces from their favorite brands, as opposed to giving a chance to a new, unknown label to custom-make an fashion item for them.
In the next two parts of this article series we are going to dive deep into the topic of pre-order and on-demand production for both established and young fashion brands, and learn how they can leverage technology to offer customization options for their designs and sell them directly to consumers.