Is “Creative Custom” the Future of Menswear?

May 27th, 2014

As many of you know, I’ve been studying the tailoring business for many years. Formally in the Menswear Design program at the Fashion Institute of NYC, as an apprentice for years heading-up the measuring & fitting at Michael Andrews Bespoke, and as a consultant working with numerous custom clothiers both traditional and online.

I think I have a pretty good understanding of both the current state of the tailoring market, as well as the demand and expectations from the client side due to our open “ask anything” contact with readers and menswear enthusiasts from all over the world.

So where is the industry going? Guys are indulging in custom tailoring more than they have in decades, but some say the “old world craft” of bespoke suit making is dying. And it is. The experience of having one man cut your cloth, chat with you at your fittings, and hand-finish your garment to completion is one that will become increasingly hard to find – and afford. There are very few young tailors with dreams of starting this type of business. It’s not scalable, and even though it’s extremely expensive for the end client, it’s still difficult for a one-man-show craftsman to make a reliable living this way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been having fruitful in-depth conversations with the CEOs of the major players in the online custom clothing space. This is an area of the apparel industry – custom garments created and delivered online – that I think has huge potential, but has a long way to go.

Right now these “online tailors” focus almost exclusively on fit and delivery time, making it much more of a service-oriented business over a product-oriented business. “We will give you the best fitting suit in the least amount of time, guaranteed”. There is little emphasis placed on the garment itself, especially from a design or “innovative fashion” perspective. Ordering made-to-measure online still comes down to a multiple choice ordering system full of limitations and restrictions. It doesn’t feel very “custom”…yet.

As manufacturing, communication and technology continue to streamline, however, I see these business developing their ability to deliver garments that are truly custom and one-of-a-kind. “If you can dream it up, you can work with our team of designers to create something that is made special just for you”. You could source your own fabric, sketch your own design, and even make casual garments that aren’t limited to “suits, blazers or business shirts”.

In the always cyclical nature of fashion, this will be a kind of modernized return to the old-fashioned ways. Back in the day, for example, if you wanted a suit you had to go chose the cloth (or “speak for” the cloth – hence the word “bespoke”) and have it made by a local artisan. In those times, even within a more conservative environment where personality and clothing weren’t so closely related, men had the freedom to dream-up whole new garments and many of them took liberties with the designs of their personal wardrobes.

We’re already seeing examples of this “one-off wardrobe building” with forward-thinking wholesale manufacturers who are agreeing to much smaller minimums. Some of my colleagues, for example, often have one-off “samples” made by local LA clothing factories exclusively for their personal wardrobes. That alone, in my opinion, represents the very beginning of a “custom menswear revolution” that will eventually become an arms race for infrastructure, scalability, and the art of managing the nightmarish level of logistics needed to manufacture and direct-deliver garments that have never been tested.

The real question is, is that really what the market wants? And if we all become our own personal designers (or “assistant designers”), how important will the influential professionals who currently mass-produce the products that shape our lifestyles be?

Just some food for thought today.

 

Yours in style,

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