Inside fashion’s move to mass customization

This week marks the official launch of Frilly, a Los Angeles–based brand offering customizable, made-to-order styles for women of a range of styles. Its key differentiator, according to co-owner and CMO Jeni Ni: the tech powering its online platform. A 3D rendering software developed in house allows shoppers to see customizations added to styles in real time.

It’s the latest in a wave of mass customization sweeping the fashion industry, driven by fast-fashion backlash and a growing consumer desire to wear what speaks to one’s individuality, more brands and retailers are focusing their efforts on giving shoppers exactly what they want.

At Frilly, customers can personalize styles from three in-house brands — one, bohemian; one, preppy; one, minimalist and edgy — by choosing from options in two to three categories, typically fabric, bodice and either sleeve or “bottom.” A made-to-measure service is set to roll out within the year.

“Our designers come from houses such as Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein, and our tech designer is from Saint Laurent,” said Ni. “They ensure that every piece in every variation looks great.”

The idea of mass customization was spearheaded by the sneaker industry — specifically, Nike, which started offering custom footwear to shoppers with the launch of NikeID in 2012. Adidas followed suit with the opening of its first robot-operated Speedfactory facility last year; its hope is the factories will “allow people to participate to some degree in the creation process,” James Carney, vp of global brand strategy, told Glossy in May.

Today, even Amazon has its sights set on custom fashion. In April, it was awarded a patent for an on-demand apparel manufacturing system able to facilitate five-day production of made-to-order styles, including dresses and shirts.

“Fashion’s affordability and the ease at which the internet allows us to access products without being near a store, results in shopping choices that can feel less ‘discovered’ and unique,” said Katie Smith, senior analyst at retail analytics firm Edited, who said customization also theoretically appeals to younger generations.

According to a 2016 Deloitte consumer study, 50 percent of all consumers are interested in buying a customized product, and 48 percent of customers are willing to wait for it.

Considering the direction the market is moving, a longer wait won’t likely be a factor for long. The custom brands that are thriving are focused on expediting the cart-to-door process. What’s more, they’re working to offer an increasingly customized product, educate the customer and play into the experiential retail trend.

Indochino — a custom men’s suit retailer that’s on track to open 150 showrooms by 2020 — offers “hundred of different customizations,” according to Dean Handspiker, vp of design who oversees product and store development. In spring, it transitioned from a process of simply taking 14 body measurements before making a suit for a client to a “Fit Method,” where the client tries on a suit during their appointment to address their unique preferences, like looser or more tapered pants.

As Smith sees it, the more customer specifications brands can incorporate, the better. “The most successful types of customization will lie in hyper-personalization,” she predicted.

Customer education is key
Changing the customer mindset is crucial to the success of first-to-market custom brands.

“It’s a huge paradigm shift that’s very difficult [for customers] to digest,” said Jodie Fox, co-founder of custom shoe brand Shoes of Prey, of shopping custom. To ease customers in, she recently hired a senior merchandiser to better showcase available options. “We’ve always debated how much direction we should provide, but we’ve [decided] we need to have an opinion.”

Likewise, Ni’s main focus is educating customers. “Essentially, our brand identifies as ‘fashion tech,’ and the ‘tech’ part is a little scary,” she said. “But the tech is just the vehicle for displaying and producing the garments. We need to show the customer that it’s a seamless shopping experience.”

Indochino’s strategy for converting customers from ready-to-wear to its custom styles is centered on its new showroom locations: in top shopping malls in the U.S. and Canada. “We engage with customers that come to the mall for a suit and maybe expect to walk out with a suit. We say, ‘Maybe you want to do made-to-measure, and get a better product at the same price.’ And it’s working.”

A need for speed
However, as shoppers get use to with the speed of Amazon, a multi-day wait period can be a difficult sell — no matter how special the style. As such, expediting the custom process is top of mind for those in the game.

Shoes of Prey typically offers two-week delivery, and recently launched a one-week express option. Indochino averages 3.2 weeks between order and delivery. Frilly is estimating a two-week wait. And then there’s Thursday Finest, a Brooklyn-based brand that makes custom accessories (socks, ties, scarves) “on-demand and in minutes,” thanks to its 3D-knitting robot.

Because outsourcing manufacturing slows down the process, brands are finding that bringing production in-house is the only way to make a go of it: Shoes of Prey built its own factory in 2014, moving the entirety of its production there in 2016 and, consequently cutting its delivery time by eight weeks. Frilly mans its own 80-person factory.

Handspiker said the fact that Indochino’s manufacturer, Dayang Group, is a partner in the business makes the setup work; thanks to their financial investment in Indochino’s success, they’ve answered challenges including requests for sped-up production.

A route to experiential retail
In addition, Indochino prides itself on getting in on “the experiential piece of retail,” which many argue is brick-and-mortar’s saving grace. “We really want to work with these guys,” said Handspiker. “It’s not just, ‘I’ll take that,’ then, ‘Cash or credit?’”

Others offering experiences in the name of customization include Muji, with its in-flagship embroidery machine, and Boston-based Ministry of Supply, with its 3D robotic knitting machine that can whip out a custom blazer in 90 minutes flat.

Smith believes 3D printing will eventually the fuel custom trend: “As 3D printing becomes more sophisticated and readily available, the market for customization will explode. Combine it with the consumer and lifestyle data from everyday tech like Amazon Alexa, and it’s not too sci-fi to expect a future where we print our wardrobes upon checking our calendar and the weather.”