March 26, 2020

Express Yourself: Mass Customisation and Individuality

We live in an era where individuality is prized more highly than at any other time in history. One could argue that this is principally down to the rise of the digital age, with social media at the forefront. This is, of course, largely true. However, to assume that this is the sole reason behind this cultural shift is somewhat shortsighted.

The History of Individuality

In order to trace the roots of the trend towards individualism, we have to go back to the First World War. The Great War was a massive shock to the social order; never before had we seen such overwhelming loss of life of young men. Some as young as fifteen reported for service, only to be annihilated, crippled, or scarred for life by what they found in the trenches. Back home, families, siblings, and friends found themselves ripped apart by such loss.

Suddenly, through a glaring vision of the impermanence of existence, the strict social codes that had governed the way people had lived their lives, the division of the aristocracy from the masses, and - perhaps most interestingly - the way young women saw their roles in society, all began to tumble down. Enter the Modernist movement, accompanied by novels such as those of Evelyn Waugh, and the poems of T S Eliot (The Waste Landin particular).

By the end of World War II, things were about to change even further.

The post-war years were a reiteration of those of the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. The social norms of the fifties soon gave way to the freedoms espoused by the Baby Boomers, preempted by the Beat movement slowly eking into the mainstream as the decade wore on. By the sixties, with Madison Avenue in New York, Carnaby Street in London, and the rise of rock n roll, everything was being torn asunder. “Why should we conform?” The new generation asked. As a tribute to those who fell for our freedom, so the youth began to rise up against all those that would seek to smother that freedom.

Fast forward fifty years, and here we are in a society where we are in constant communication through our computers and our smartphones, checking into social media several times a day. Here, the younger generation continues to push the envelope of that freedom. Gender identity is fragmented in Generation Z, for example, in a way that seeks to reach the logical conclusion of all the campaigns for equality since WWII. We are freer than we have ever been, and the quest to find and nurture one’s individual identity is therefore central to embodying and expressing that freedom.

But is the way that we produce and market products keeping pace?

Fewer young people are able to stitch their own garments than in the post-war era. Back then, our parents taught us how to sew and women (mainly) created their own outfits at home from scratch on a Saturday afternoon before their night out. Now, shops, markets, and websites selling one-off vintage pieces and custom-made boutique designs are teeming with trendsetting young people, all wanting to stand out from the crowd.

Why hasn’t big business kept up with this? Well, until recently, there was little alternative to the mass production model. Fashion, footwear and furnishings were designed in a trickle-down hierarchy from the catwalk to the street. More recently, street style has caught the eye of those designers at the top, creating a circle of trend. But still, once those trends reach the high street, having been mass produced, the trendsetters have inevitably moved on to something new. Excess inventory is the plague of the manufacturing world, creating vast quantities of waste, damage to the environment, and profit loss.

Enter the mass customisation movement. The demand is rabid, the technology is ready, and the time is now.

The Time Is Now

By implementing 3D rendering software capability on a brand’s website, the brand can offer an array of different options for consumers to choose. They can customise their products, whether they be clothing, footwear, jewellery, furniture, or watches. Cars are already customisable in this way, so why not bring the technology to the wider marketplace?

This is where social media enters the fray. While brands set to work creating custom products based on consumers’ preferences, the consumer takes the lead in promoting their unique purchases on their social media platforms. Promoting one’s personal identity through social media is one of the primary features of individualised culture.

Through 3D rendering on site, and mass customisation in the factories, brands are able to charge a price premium for customised products, whilst lowering their overheads. Excess inventory is drastically reduced, as is the cost of production. There is a wealth of opportunity for data gathering, which will drive the accuracy of predicting preferences in buyers and driving more targeted marketing campaigns. Affiliations with up-and-coming young designers and influential trendsetters will drive further improvements in the desirability of products offered. The consumer desire for uniqueness of product will be met as never before. Profits will soar.

The brands who implement these changes in their production model first, and those who do it best, are those who stand to benefit most. Early adopters, those who are ahead of the pack, mirror those desires set out by their consumers. This is a brand I can relate to, they believe. And, finally, they may be right.