Customisation has become central to our culture. We can customise our music playlists in a way once reserved for time-consuming tape-to-tape recording. We can customise the range of functions we can perform on our smartphones via apps we choose at will. We can even customise our lifestyles, the way we present ourselves to the world, via social media. So why is the fashion industry so slow to keep up?
In general, that is. NikeiD has been running (excuse the pun) since 1999. That’s nearly two decades of mass customised footwear, configured with a choice of materials and colours to customers’ individual specifications. Converse, which is also owned by Nike, now makes 10 to 12% of the sales at its New York store as customised versions of their famous Chucks. The success of these massive brands is proof positive that, at least in footwear, there is a huge market for mass customised goods.
As for clothing, however, the industry has been slow on the uptake. At the higher end of the market, mass customisation has proved a flop. Perhaps the reason for this is the reason people purchase luxury fashion in the first place. Those who opt for designer brands are buying into the specific brand or designer. They respect the creative authority of the brand they’re investing in, and therefore are less willing to interfere with that in any way.
Another reason that high and mid-range fashion brands may be hesitant to embrace mass customising clothing is the worry about brand dilution. The concern is that, by giving consumers too much say in the design process, the brand aesthetic will be undermined.
“I don’t think that complete free-for-all, white canvas customisation works. What works is certain parameters that a designer has left for the consumer. It’s potentially 10 or 20 percent designed by the customer, enough that it feels individual, without tampering with the creative direction of the brand,” says José Neves, founder and CEO of Farfetch and an investor in Knyttan, a custom knitwear start-up.
This is completely correct. The key to successful mass customisation, as exemplified by NikeiD, is to limit the options consumers can choose from. The process would involve guiding the customer through the process, and allowing them style parameters in which to work. The process should be easy, straightforward, and take very little time or skill to accomplish.
Knowing what looks good and fits well is, of course, the fashion houses’ jobs. There is an opportunity, therefore, with mass customisation to apply this deep knowledge to create a real architecture of fashion, a fragmentation and inter-weaving of styles. Indeed, by offering mass customised versions, the fashion house has the opportunity of broadening their line, creating more dynamic collections, and reaping the financial benefits.
Speaking of those financial benefits, let’s talk profits for a second. Firstly, there’s the matter of the price premium. A mass customised line commands a higher cost than mass-produced versions. This will, at first, cover the costs of initiating the line in the first place. Once this is in place, the price premium on the customised products begins to turn a profit, as it takes no more money to produce than the mass-produced line.
Following on from this, we come to inventory. Because customised products are paid for in advance, there is no risk of excess inventory, or of the ensuing discounts when 100% of a mass-produced line is not sold. Excess inventory is costly, due to storage and disposal, as well as taking a profit hit on those discounts.
The most famous book about mass customisation, named (of course) Mass Customisation, by Joseph Pine and written back in 1993, calls the method the ‘new frontier in business competition’. He also, crucially, wrote: ‘Customers don’t want choice. They just want exactly what they want’.
Customer demand is notoriously hard to predict in the fashion industry. Trend-driven sectors like fashion effectively throw, um, jam at a wall and wait to see what sticks. Where products are made to order, however, there is the golden opportunity to see precisely what it is the customer wants, and offer more of it. This doesn’t just boost profit margins, it informs designers about what’s working, and therefore what’s likely to work in future.
Whilst luxury fashion has not succeeded at mass customisation to date, re-addressing the way they execute the model could offer a more creative way forward that will resonate with consumers into the future.
There is one particular concern for any fashion brand thinking about mass customisation that bears consideration. As Pine puts it: “We’re so used to buying off the rack, we’re so used to — women in particular — living with sacrificing our exact size requirements. And we’re so used to buying things on sale, that it’s very difficult to get around that”.
Writing back in 1993, the landscape was very different to that which we see now in the digital age. The current and upcoming generations of consumers are more focused on personalisation than ever before, thanks to social media and a rising tide of identity politics. Used to ‘smart’ digital products, like those apps on our smartphones we pick and choose as we please, our expectations are now very different.
So how does a fashion brand continue to surprise and delight its customers? How can a brand make itself more individual, more in tune with the individualistic needs of the consumer? Mass customisation solves that problem outright, allowing the customer the sense that what they have purchased is unique and original, personal to them.