Anyone who has waited until the night before a black tie gala can tell you it’s just about impossible to find the perfect dress when you need it. Shopping for clothes in a brick and mortar store allows the consumer to touch and feel the products. But what you have in mind–a certain color, style, or fabric–may not be available. Searching for it can be a fool’s errand.
Ordering the item custom made has traditionally been an option only for bespoke and couture customers. Creating individualized patterns can be time-consuming and expensive. Some shoppers can hop a plane to Southeast Asia and have custom clothing made for a song. But not everyone can get there, or wants to devote time on vacation for fittings in the hope that the finished product will meet their expectations.
Technological advances have created another alternative: economical individualized clothing (call it mass customization) for the middle market. Sizing algorithms and e-commerce enable companies to offer a variety of designs and fits at only slightly more than similar off-the-rack prices. Now consumers can buy made-to-order clothing and shoes online.
Levi Strauss & Co. helped lead the way with its “personalized pair” program in 1995. After a one-time computerized fitting, a customer could choose from among a range of styles, fabrics, finishes, and colors, and a pair of jeans could be individually manufactured based on the customer’s original specifications. The program didn’t last – it was discontinued in 2004, when domestic manufacturing was moved off-shore and customized work could no longer be managed long distance. But it opened the door for others to try their luck in this emerging retail sector.
The made-to-order trend has grown significantly in the last decade, on all levels of e-commerce, from solo operations to multinational manufacturers. And it appeals to customers of all ages. Some are looking for a bargain from a company that keeps its prices low by not having a brick and mortar presence. Others are willing to pay a premium, sometimes 25% more, for a taste of old world men’s bespoke tailoring and women’s couture fashion.
The proliferation of online made-to-order apparel suggests that buyers are hungry for customized garments. While buying these goods online isn’t likely to disrupt the retail industry, it is clear that retail apparel companies are busy creating new and innovative ways to reach beyond the traditional brick and mortar experience.
Some retailers have latched onto the made-to-order aspirational luxury trend by customizing fit, using customers’ measurements entered online, to produce a garment that fits according to their size and specifications. Others customize style, with a menu of options that can be combined in multiple ways, to create a unique finished product. Some do both. Here are examples.
Indochino, based in Boston, is one of the most popular online sellers of made-to-order menswear. For $29 they will send a tailor’s kit containing 16 fabric swatches, measuring tapes and a $29 credit toward a future order. By avoiding a brick and mortar presence, Indochino is able to keep its prices down. Recently a premium Italian charcoal wool suit was selling for $599. A similar one at Nordstrom by BOSS Black was listed for $795.
Kince deVera, a devoted customer of Indochino in Seattle, keeps going back because he says, “they will completely remake your suit if you are dissatisfied or send you a $75 check to have tailoring done locally.” He once ordered a shirt that arrived with a small spot that was easily removed, but the company issued him a complete refund.
Black Lapel is another site where shoppers can provide their measurements and get customized style, fabric, and fit. Upon request the company will send two free measuring tapes–one for the customer and one to share with a friend. Like Indochino, their prices are reasonable. A charcoal wool suit, in an all-season wool, was recently listed for $449. Black Lapel is also known for its range of formal wear, offered by few other online sites. If an item doesn’t fit, Black Lapel will alter it or even remake it at no additional cost.
Only a few companies offering customized fit cater to both men and women. Tailor Store is one of them, based in Helsingborg, Sweden. They provide made-to-measure clothing for men and a small line for women. While overseas shipping may be slightly more, they have more styles and options than most brick and mortar stores at a price that is comparable to or less than Nordstrom, Brooks Brothers, and other traditional mens’ clothing stores.
Returns for made-to-order Tailor Store garments can be tricky. The site says, “If you should not be satisfied with a made-to-measure garment, please get in touch with us and let us know the reason so we can find the best possible solution in this situation.” They request a photo of the garment being worn. The idea of having to send a photo of pants that can’t be zipped or a shirt that is too tight to close might cause some purchasers to walk away from their virtual shopping cart. All “solutions” are generated by email, which keeps infrastructure costs low, but can raise the blood pressure of a customer who wants to solve a problem in real time.
Charles Tyrwhitt, a British company that also sells to both men and women, is similar to Tailor Store. It offers a broad range of completely customizable clothing. For example, a customer can pick a basic slim-fitting shirt, adjust the sleeve length, add a chest pocket or monogram, French cuff and one of six collar styles. The result costs $200 for 4 shirts–comparable to Nordstrom ready-to-wear. The company recognizes that mistakes are inevitable, though. An item can be returned within six months for cash or credit, according to the web site, “no questions asked.”
Nike customization has been offered since 1999. Depending upon the options customers choose, it costs up to $100 extra to completely configure a shoe. Similarly, Converse’s customization plan allows the customer to choose, depending on the shoe, over a dozen attributes including graphic, and the color of each feature of the shoe, for as little as $10 more than the same shoe without personalization. Or, a customer can provide their own graphic and a Converse “Maestro” will turn it into a one-of-a-kind pair. Based on my afternoon watching the Maestros at work, no pattern is too bizarre or too complicated. It might even serve as a cheap (and temporary) substitute for a tattoo.
For a slideshow of this season’s most wearable shoe styles, click here.
Larger men have long been relegated to “big and tall” shops. BentleyBT.com is positioned to be the Victoria’s Secret of the big and tall guy. It offers underwear engineered for larger men. While the sizing is standard, the consumer can choose from among a number of styles, fabrics and colors.
When it comes to style customization, options strictly for women are more specialized and in general, more expensive. Two of the more popular retail sectors are shoes and lingerie.
Hourglass Footwear is a small but growing Seattle online shoe company. For about $200 a customer can click on one of five shoe styles, from flats to platform stilettos, and then choose among a few dozen whimsical designs that are applied by hand by one of the company’s 10 artists. Designs have names like Burlesque (an iridescent blue paisley), Red is the New Black (floral with a red background that would befit Lady Gaga), or Kiss the Sky (black graffiti-like floral on a gold background). Hourglass takes special design orders–a popular trend with brides. The owners keep their shoes affordable by buying quality shoes wholesale. They can also repurpose a pair of shoes a customer already owns. They won’t take returns or exchanges on custom orders. But because the designs are hand painted, errors happen, and they will fix them at no cost, except for the shipping.
Joker’s Closet, which launched this year, is an interactive site for women who prefer architectural footwear. Each season it will launch a curated palette of styles, colors and textures to choose from. Joker’s Closet aims to give the customer the level of customer service and customization that they have come to expect with companies like Starbucks, says Ashley Ebner, its founder and CEO. Customers are given control over placement of color and textures on seasonal designs, and can go as far as selecting the stitching colors. Price points are in the $285-$500 range. Many of these shoes could easily take you from board room to a va va voom night on the town. Ebener says they offer 100% customer satisfaction, with full refunds or exchanges for any reason within 14 days of receiving the order. Shipping is free, worldwide.
The luxury Italian leather goods company, Ferragamo, recently began a program allowing customers to design their iconic Vara bow flats. Varas have been worn by socialites and royalty, including Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and women of all ages today. But they set the customer back approximately $550. For that price the purchaser can choose the size, shade of patent leather, color of grosgrain ribbon, the type of metal used as the bow’s ornament and the heel height. The silver heel is both on trend this season and timeless.
Other popular sites include: Shoes of Prey, which allows the shopper a number of choices for about $200. Shoe Design Studio provides only four styles, but every feature of the shoe can be customized, from heel height, toe cap, lining and sole, to create thousands of different combinations (about $300). Nina Shoes is terrific for brides and bridesmaids with many wedding-appropriate styles that can be dyed to match just about any wedding ensemble. For $9, a bride-to-be can purchase a bridal swatch book before ordering. Based in London, Upper Street, another popular site, sells Ballet flats starting at $300 and higher heels up to $405, with an additional cost for premium materials, Swarovski gems, studs or diamante straps. Upper Street also sells swatches to help avoid expensive mistakes.
For a fashion forward gal with a penchant for metal spikes or thigh high boots and a sky high budget, Chiko Shoes is the site. If you can get past the fact that it is not the most attractive or user-friendly site, just about any look can be created with their prototypes and options. And the most demanding footwear fashionista can upload a sketch and they will design a shoe unique to you. The Company is located in Hong Kong, so shipping can be tricky (see below). But they do allow 365 days for returns, as long as the shoes are unworn. Once you wear them out the door and realize you have made a mistake, it’s too late.
Not to be outdone, Neiman Marcus launched a design your own Manolo Blahnik program in early June. The made-to-order pump is available online in 5 heel heights and 20 colors ranging from traditional black to daring leopard suede. All that for a tidy sum of $595. This is for the woman who is willing to go to great lengths and expense to be unique.
In the lingerie category, Cora Harrington, the founder and editor of The Lingerie Addict, a lingerie blog, recommends two sites for style customization: BodyRock Sport known for making bespoke sport bras that are both pretty and practical. They come in a range of fabrics, colors, styles, a choice of embellishments, and they also feature hidden pockets for items like your iPod and car key. Cora also recommends them for their line of fashionable mastectomy sports bras which have gotten rave reviews from the breast cancer community.
Next on her list is What Katie Did bespoke corsetry, known for its large online selection of retro lingerie, including made-to-order bespoke corsets, heavily influenced by the 1940s and 1950s. Both sites are for the confident and experienced online shopper only, since made-to-order lingerie is not returnable.
Lingerie fit for a queen—literally–can be purchased from Rigby & Peller Online Lingerie, known both for their made-to-measure undergarments (which must be fitted in person), and for their Royal Warrant of Appointment as Corsetieres to H.M. Queen Elizabeth (in other words, bespoke granny panty-makers for the Queen of England). This is not a budget option, but for the woman who shops online, takes her undergarments as seriously as her designer wardrobe, this is the place to go for bespoke lingerie. Apparently, if the Queen doesn’t like her purchase, she can return it within 28 days if unworn, no questions asked. And the same policy applies to commoners.
A Note About Foreign Vendors
Keep in mind that all foreign purchases must clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP. The rules are Byzantine. An item of clothing must be sent with a CBP Declaration, indicating the contents, cost, weight and country of origin. Depending upon the value, a CBP agent may prepare additional paperwork, and possibly assess a duty (usually only for items valued over $2,000) and then release the item for delivery. Some items are subject to quotas, such as made-to-measure suits from Hong Kong, which could be held until the next quota period. In other words, a screaming deal on a made-to-order wedding tux from Hong Kong can lead to another kind of screaming on your wedding day, when it’s still at Customs.
This is a guest post by Wendy S. Goffe, a trusts and estates lawyer with Stoel Rives in Seattle. Her recent articles for FORBES include “How To Find Comfortable Shoes That Don’t Compromise Style.” You can follow her on Twitter.