Retailers like Unspun, Laws of Motion, RedThread and measure and manufacture are using new technology to measure an individual customer virtually in hopes of creating the perfect fit. Other companies like eShakti and Azazie work by asking customers to enter their measurements.
And while the mission of these companies may seem laudable, there is a steep learning curve for companies and buyers before these companies can scale. The fashion industry is littered with examples of brands that have already tried and failed to bring personalized fashion to the masses. Getwear closed its custom jeans business in 2015. Australian custom footwear brand Shoes of Prey, for example, closed in 2019. And, British cycling gear the Rapha brand closed its custom division in 2021.
Here, Modern Retail breaks down what drives the success of custom DTC brands and what they face.
Pros: Lack of inventory avoids unnecessary waste
The convenience of e-commerce has given rise to new habits of trying on clothes: customers can order multiple sizes and colors of an item to try on, select the best fit, and return the rest. But these orders have resulted in higher return rates, which not only creates headaches for retailers, but can also lead to unnecessary waste.
Beth Esponette, co-founder of bespoke denim company Unspun, was appalled at the waste she saw while working in the fashion industry. There were “far too many clothes” being made that might never make it into a customer’s closet, she said, compared to when people’s parents or neighbors could make them new clothes.
Esponette and Kevin Martin co-founded Unspun in 2019.
“We started asking ourselves the question, ‘How can we build on demand? How can we use technology to bring us back to how we used to do things? “Said Esponette.
The brand launched with physical locations in San Francisco and Hong Kong where customers used a body scanner to get custom measurements for a high-quality pair of custom jeans. But the pandemic halted expansion plans, and Unspun turned to e-commerce, creating an iPhone app-based measurement tool instead.
Unspun’s Martin said the company is on track to double its year-over-year sales in 2022 for the second consecutive year. He said he sees growth potential in the custom industry because not only is it more sustainable to have less industry, but it could be less expensive without the cost of transportation and housing inventory.
“I could see brands leaning into this more because it’s more clearly aligned between the unit economics and the production side,” he said.
Carly Bigi, founder of custom women’s clothing brand Laws of Motion, sees custom clothing as a way to create less waste in the fashion industry by reducing inventory. Products are made to order and delivered within 10 days.
“On-demand supply chains are a straightforward solution that is measurable and has meaningful impacts on our planet,” she said.
Cons: Price levels can be prohibitive for all buyers
At Unspun, prices for custom denim are over $200. But Martin said the brand intentionally wants to position itself in the same price bracket as other high-end denim brands — which represented an $8.5 billion industry in 2021, according to analysts at Research and Markets.
“Although we’re roughly the same price, we’re a custom pair completely tailored to you from a standard size,” he said.
The brand also partners with manufacturers who pledge to pay decent wages to employees, Martin said.
Galina Sobolev is Director of Marketing at StyleScan, a software company that enables brands show customers clothes and jewelry on models of different sizes, heights and skin tones. Her clients include London-based designer Natasha Zinko, clothing brand Royal Revival and jewelry brand Millianna. Although custom clothing has a long history, especially in men’s suits, it’s not in everyone’s budget, she said.
She said brands that can market garments with a visual tool like StyleScan can provide better fit accuracy and lower return rates without becoming a custom sizing operation; the software starts at $66 per month, she said.
“In a dream world, we would all like to have a tailor [London’s] Savile Row come and make our custom suits and dresses for us. Your average consumer doesn’t have that option,” she said.
Pros: Inclusiveness and sizing accuracy for customers
At Laws of Motion, the company uses an artificial intelligence-based adjustment system. He analyzes over 1,200 size options before selecting one for a customer based on fit testing and photo analysis. Compared to traditional sizing, the options range from double zero to 40, Bigi said. Customers can get 100% refund if the product is not suitable for them.
“It’s large-scale customization,” Bigi said.
After a nine-month test pilot this year, the five-year-old brand is now also aiming to license the technology to other apparel companies.
And while it’s common for brands to have a size guide that shows shoppers how a piece might fit them, Bigi said such tactics don’t make sense if the size doesn’t exist for the customer. .
“The ability to produce these sizes on demand allows them to eliminate inventory risk, mitigate the risk of dead stock, and produce only what customers order,” Bigi said.
At Unspun, the primary goal is to provide the most precise fit for the customer, Martin said.
Return rates at Unspun are five to six times lower than standard-size denim companies, Martin says, because the product is designed for the customer. Returns processed are more likely to be style or color related than fit.
Customers also receive a pair of jeans that fit their unique shape, which might not be true for traditional sizing, Martin said.
“There are so many different ways to shape a 30-inch waist, and all of these different shapes totally change the fit,” Martin said.
Cons: A New Learning Curve for Buying Behaviors
One of the toughest hurdles in personalized fashion is getting customers to change their behaviors.
At Unspun, Martin said the focus is on educating customers to make sure people understand the process.
“What we’re doing is new,” Martin said. “It’s not the same as walking into a store and picking something up. We need to explain how it works, we need to explain what it is, we need to clarify what it isn’t.
Esponette added that although “it’s a hurdle to jump,” the company employs a customer service team to help new buyers understand the technology. But word of mouth is just as helpful, if not more so, she says.
“Once someone does it for the first time and then they tell their friends, those people have no problem because they are able to communicate it through their friends,” Esponette said. “And so that’s kind of where we’ve had the most success. But I think if someone is new, it just takes a little time to understand.
The company also brought iterations to its customer process. For example, an early version of Unspun’s technology required customers to choose certain design elements of the jeans, such as the color of thread to use. But such design-specific details proved overwhelming for some customers. Now, customers just have to choose a color and a style, like bootcut or skinny, for their product. And while they can do other customizations, there are automatic options for height, thread color, and hem length.
Other client brands have also learned that offering too much choice can be a limiting factor. Shoes of Prey aimed to allow customers to design their own shoes. But it closed in 2019 after 10 years in business after starting to target mass-market consumers.
“We learned the hard way that mass market customers don’t want to design, they want to be inspired and shown what to wear. They want to see the latest trends, what celebrities and Instagram influencers are wearing and they want to wear exactly that – both the style and the brand,” co-founder Michael Fox wrote in a Medium post.
Unspun’s Esponette is also aware that there may be limits for the industry. But for denim, where many customers may struggle to find an off-the-shelf pair that fits their body properly, it can help create a better product that makes the customer feel good about themselves. , said Esponette.
“I think there will always be products that aren’t personalized, they’re just out of the box. And that’s fine,” she said. “But for some products, it really makes sense.”