In a Zara World, Who Orders Custom Clothing?

High above the streets of New York’s Garment District, designer Audra Noyes sits at a low table, flipping through photos of a model with Jim Morrison curls dressed in her fall collection. Noyes moves through the images deliberately, verbally deconstructing the looks for the woman beside her, Susan Sherman, a client who has been buying her clothing for over a year.

The mirrored space they’re in opens into a packed but brightly-lit workroom belonging to one of Noyes’s manufacturers, where a handful of people are in one stage or other of clothing assemblage. Most of the time there’s loud machinery going, but things are quieter today. Spread out in front of Noyes and Sherman are spindly design sketches and strips of fabric. A handful of finished garments hang on a rack at Sherman’s shoulder. Here it all is: the ideas, the factory, the clothes, and the woman who might buy them.

After a few minutes spent discussing the options on-hand, Sherman starts trying things on. There’s a coat and skirt combo, made in a metallic leopard print, and a white linen shirt with prim red stripes tucked into a matching skirt. The two chat about how best to style the pieces, a mix of archival staples and new releases, while Noyes takes measurements and pins waistlines.

Sherman is among the customers who place their orders with Noyes directly. The private client relationship can be as simple as buying a piece off the rack and asking Noyes to tailor it for a better fit, or it can mean having a favorite dress remade in a fresh color. At its most involved, and expensive, Noyes can design a custom outfit from scratch.

Private clients are, by nature, an invisible part of most fashion brands’ businesses. But for many young designers, working directly with customers on special orders can be an effective growth tactic, helping them maximize profits while getting feedback from discerning consumers about fit and style — valuable information that they can apply to future collections. Established luxury brands hold their runway shows not just for editors and department store buyers, but for high-spending individuals too.

Noyes has a calm, straightforward manner that shines through whether she’s discussing the evolution of her business or eyeballing Sherman and telling her she needs a four, not a six. That steadiness is matched by an appreciation for the fact that fitting a woman for a $1,000-plus dress is, by all accounts, a luxury. That’s as much true for Noyes, who trained under Alber Elbaz at Lanvin in Paris before starting her Audra brand, as it is for her clients.

“Just because of my luxury training, I love to drape on a woman, see how the fabric falls on her, nip or tuck the fabric just right to complement her curves,” says Noyes. “That’s not something you can do on a fit model.”

Private client relationships typically begin when a customer asks Noyes if she can modify an existing piece’s silhouette or color, or create something for a special occasion. They’ll set up a meeting, and Noyes will ask about their existing wardrobe, their lifestyle, their favorite designers and stores, their preference for a high neckline versus a low one, a bare shoulder versus a sleeve. She’ll note what they’re wearing and watch how they try on different pieces, looking for unvoiced clues to their comfort in different styles.

Noyes asks about their budgets up front, because that determines which materials and how many custom features she can create for them. For those who can spend more, she might create an entirely new pattern for their measurements, rather than using a standard size and tweaking the fit later.

Today Sherman slips into a knee-length sheath dress with shoulders gathered into poufs, done in a hard felted wool. (A fabric often used in menswear, which keeps it from looking too girly, Noyes explains.) It’s a strong look, but Sherman wears it authoritatively. She already owns a version of the dress, and is looking into having it made in a new fabric.

“You can have a whole wardrobe of these dresses, seriously,” Sherman says. “They’re so easy.”

“I think it was the second or third outfit she purchased from me,” says Noyes. “She wore it and then so many women wanted it that we had to do a new run. Now it’s been called the Susan dress, and we’re bringing it back for spring.”

Noyes hands Sherman a few floral fabrics to hold up. They’re wonderfully jarring, with Gauguin-like color pairings: turquoise blooms against a background the color of papaya, orange-red on pale seafoam, teal on peach.

“I think this one pops with your skin and dark hair,” Noyes says, considering the last swatch.

Sherman placed her first order with Noyes the weekend they met, in May 2016. They were both serving as jurors at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s senior fashion show; Noyes had graduated from the school in 2010, and Sherman was working as the chair of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, an incubator program for young designers that was created in hopes of revitalizing the city’s fashion industry. Sherman encouraged Noyes to apply for the program, which she did, a few months later. She got in, and by March 2017, Noyes had relocated her nascent business from Delaware to St. Louis.

The two have an easy rapport, and a ready knowledge of each other’s style. During their appointment, Noyes refers to a cape as “very Susan,” and notes that Sherman has worn her shirting particularly well.

Noyes has accumulated a roster of over 40 private clients in St. Louis through her own outreach and word-of-mouth referrals, some of them Sherman’s. Last season, 70 percent of her sales came from wholesale channels and 30 percent were direct sales, but with the launch of her e-commerce site in April and a growing fanbase in her new hometown, Noyes expects that ratio will approach 50-50 by the end of the year.

Building a private client business is limited on the one hand by money, since few Audra pieces fall below $500 without any custom work, and on the other by generational shopping habits. Noyes is 29 years old, but most of her private clients are between 45 and 70.

“The older, more mature generation is used to working with tailors, and seeing their husbands or fathers getting their suits tailored,” says Noyes. “A millennial wouldn’t be as familiar with that.”

Because who would get a Topshop dress altered? Who, used to walking into Zara and seeing reams of identical sweaters hanging on the wall, would remember that custom anything is even an option? Noyes does have younger shoppers — and may gain more as she ramps up her e-commerce business — but they tend to buy off the rack and wear their purchases immediately. Their older counterparts are more likely to have the patience to wait six months for a preordered coat.

The fitting complete, Noyes has written down all of the pieces Sherman is interested in. There wasn’t going to be a sale today. Noyes will go home, double check how much custom alterations and pattern adjustments will cost, and give Sherman a call to go over pricing. If Sherman wants to proceed, she’ll put down a deposit, and when the pieces arrive they’ll do a fitting, tweak what needs tweaking, and talk about how to style it.

“I don’t really encourage my clients to buy my full ensembles,” says Noyes. “A dress is a dress, but if she’s buying a pant, I like to see it with her own stuff. That’s when it becomes interesting.”