Silicon Valley has completely disrupted many industries and fashion is no exception. The tech industry has kept every other industry on its toes with its rapid innovation and growth. In the case of fashion, it’s been able to convince the most stubborn luxury companies to embrace e-commerce while simultaneously allowing for newer brands to keep costs low by not requiring a storefront. A new movement is gaining strength to utilize new technologies to create custom, made-to-order garments for the average consumer.
Prior to the 1900s, there wasn’t much of a fashion industry like we know it today. Clothing was dominated by individual “dressmakers” or tailors and the best of the best would make clothing and decor for the aristocrats and royals. Generally these were “made-to-order” meaning that the dressmakers rarely came up with their own ideas and instead created whatever the client requested. This was also a time when most people (generally women) knew how to sew and would make garments for themselves and their families. For these people, a dressmaker may still have been employed for special occasions.
Then came Charles Frederick Worth in 1848 and later the full industrialization of the industry. Charles Frederick Worth is considered the first “fashion designer” as women came to him for his designs instead of commissioning their own ideas. He also had connections within the textile industry which gave him access to the finest and most elaborate fabrics. His success as a designer opened up a whole new career for many people and quickly gave rise to the designer names we know today. Note that these were still couture, made-to-order garments that required many fitting appointments and possibly weeks to months to produce. Later, industrialization brought us the off-the-rack clothing we’ve all become accustomed to. In 1937, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a study of women's body measurements for the purpose of creating a standardized sizing system which the entire industry could follow. This led to the opposite of couture: prêt-à-porter (ready to wear), standardized off-the-rack clothing.
The tech boom has exacerbated this approach to quickly made garments and nearly all brands focus heavily on their e-commerce platforms. Even the biggest luxury names that resisted this quick access to clothing have started to make e-commerce a priority. Technology has enabled faster production times and globalized the process making it possible to have 26-52 design refreshes in stores per year instead of 2-4. For some newer brands it’s an opportunity to have a more efficient and widespread connection while also cutting out the costs of a storefront.
As I described in one of my earlier posts (Who Made My Clothes?), this rapid industrialization and emphasis on quick (and therefore, cheap) garments with instant gratification has led to all sorts of environmental and social issues around the world. This increased speed of production is the direct result of brands, typically publicly traded, trying to increase profit margins. Aside from the negative impacts this speed of production has on factory workers, consumers find themselves purchasing lower quality garments.
Now there is a new movement of online-only made-to-order clothing that uses new technologies to bring us back to the careful craftsmanship and nonstandard sizing of pre-industrialization. The tech industry is obsessed with ‘disrupting’ industries and in this case it’s bringing fashion back full circle to its roots as an industry. In this case, it’s not the tech industry’s interpretation of fashion but rather using tech to enable traditional fashion and dressmaking. Now a meeting with a tailor might not require going to a physical location but rather utilizing quick shipping and computer vision to create custom made garments. Some of these companies include:
- Indochino (men’s suits): custom suits measured yourself at home by following their step-by-step guide online
- FitzGerald Morrell (gloves): custom made gloves by sending the customer a quick fit sheet that includes a few instructions on measurements as well as tracing your hands on the included paper.
- Margaux (women’s flats): similar to FitzGerald Morrell but for women’s flats. The fitting kit contains everything you need to take your measurements for your made-to-measure order.
- Trumaker (men’s suits): measurements don’t occur online but they have a large network of “Outfitters” that will come to your home to make measurements then the suit styling is ordered online
- MTailor (men’s shirts): use computer vision to create a custom shirt after taking a photo through their mobile app
- Proper Cloth (men’s shirts): tons of options on fitting the way you want - sending in measurements, sending in a shirt that fits you well to be copied, sending in measurements of a shirt that fits you well.
- True & Co (women’s bras): Using large dataset for custom bra sizing for women by answering a questionnaire of how various brands fit you and where your pain points are
This movement has encountered some roadblocks on the way. Pat Morrell of FitzGerald Morrell says that educating customers of the benefits of these garments is one of the most difficult parts of the business model: “The biggest challenge so far has been educating our customers about the nuance of the fitting process and why it takes us 6-8 weeks to deliver each pair of gloves.” Many customers expect everything to be “fast, cheap, and good” and these companies are intentionally NOT that. Morrell says that “it takes [them] 6-8 weeks to deliver gloves because the process [they] exercise -- customized-measuring, hand-cutting, custom-sewing -- demands that amount of time. By crafting [their] gloves the oldschool way, [they] ensure that [their] clients end up with the best gloves they've ever worn.”
Another benefit of these slower, custom made clothing companies is the ability to have a closer relationship with the workers that make the clothing since it’s not the assembly line used for larger fast fashion chains. With the use of technology, these custom made garments are comparable in price to their standardized counterparts as opposed to 2-3x the price (granted, this is comparing to department store quality, not the ultra-cheap H&M or Forever 21).
Not only can this movement help alleviate some of the negative social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry, it can also enable greater individualization as opposed to wearing whatever the industry decides is trendy. It may also help people develop a closer relationship with their clothing by purchasing it with greater intention via customization and a longer waiting period which would encourage repairing and caring for clothing instead of throwing it in the garbage when a button falls off.