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Digital innovation brought huge change to the landscape of apparel retailing, and now it is beginning to exert its influence over manufacturing, with more apparel firms creating opportunities for garment customisation.
From Spotify playlists to sandwiches, consumers are well versed in custom building their purchases according to individual tastes. For younger, fashion-forward apparel consumers, feeling unique is vital. Customisation offers the chance to stand out from the masses as an individual, communicating their personality for all to see.
For apparel manufacturers looking to invest in customisation, there are numerous benefits to be had. Customisation brings the feel-good factor that a garment was created specifically for the consumer, and consumers expect to and are happy to pay a premium for this type of exclusivity. Brands that allow modification and personalisation of their designs are also perceived as more creative and cutting-edge, generating consumer loyalty and outshining competitors as a result.
When opting for customised products, customers pay before their item is put into production, eliminating the risk of excess inventory and future discounting – a major advantage for apparel retailers. Lastly, from the all-important CSR perspective, this reversal of the manufacturing chain should make for less waste.
Sportswear at the forefront of innovation
The fledgling customisation trend has been led primarily by sportswear, with designer and start-up brands more recently picking up the mantle. NIKEiD, launched in 1999, was the first. The online platform allows customers to have tailor-made sports shoes, with a vast range of styles, materials, colours and patterns on offer. Nike-owned Converse followed suit in 2005 with a similar offering – it now offers customisation online and instore. In 2014, adidas launched the mi adidas app, allowing users to create shoes printed with their own Instagram images. Looking ahead, the brand has plans to allow shoppers to embroider names and logos onto shoes in-store.
In terms of high-street clothing brands, Uniqlo is one of the first to try its hand at customisation; its UTme! app enables consumers to create graphics and text for printing onto t-shirts. In luxury, Hermes allows consumers to monogram scarves, but colours and patterns are limited. Meanwhile, the Burberry Scarf Bar lets customers monogram initials on scarves made from fabrics of their choosing.
Beyond the established fashion brands, new arrivals and start-ups are seizing the opportunity to offer customisation. In the US, Apliiq lets consumers customise basics with pockets, panels and linings, while Bow & Drape offers appliqué graphics and letters; both import pre-made garments, which they then customise. UK-based Knyttan offers a range of knitwear – style guidelines such as colours and fit are pre-selected by designers, and within this framework, consumers create their product. Meanwhile, Australian retailer Shoes of Prey and UK equivalent Upper Street both allow customers to design their own footwear from a selection of styles, fabrics and colours.
While customisation offers a host of opportunities for fashion brands, it is not without its challenges and there have already been victims along the way. Tinker Tailor, a mass customisation platform for designer fashion, closed its doors in 2015 after less than a year in operation. Meanwhile, Burberry Bespoke, a customisation service for luxury trench coats, has been quietly disbanded. A key issue is the time it takes to manufacture a customised item – timely delivery is a must in the impulsive world of fashion where the desire for an item can quickly diminish over time. Customised pieces from Tinker Tailor could take three to four months to reach consumers. Part of the solution is customising closer to the customer allowing for a quicker turnaround; obviously this requires an initial outlay.
Overwhelming consumers with too much choice can also prove problematic. Too many options can be intimidating for someone with little design experience. In addition, a finished product lacking aesthetic appeal is far from ideal for the brand. Here, a compromise is key – and this is evident in most of the brands that are finding success in customisation. Designers must set the parameters within which consumers can work, safeguarding the brand but still allowing the creation of a product that feels individual.
Given the difficulties involved, customisation is unlikely to become more than a niche corner of the apparel market anytime soon. The desire for customisation is there, however, and businesses targeting younger fashion-forward consumers that do not offer an element of personalisation risk losing revenue and customer loyalty over the longer term as demand for personalisation grows. At this stage, it would be wise for these apparel brands to consider how they can integrate a degree of product customisation alongside regular stock to their existing business model – Nike is a prime example.