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Customizable Fashion Is on the Rise

A slew of new startups put the customer in the designer’s seat. But is that where they want to be?

In an era when brand loyalty is low and demands are high, it makes sense that customization has taken off. Shoppers can design their own Nike sneakers, Brooks Brothers suits, Burberry trench coats and Longchamp bags.

A sense of control is appealing to finicky shoppers. Out of 1,000 shoppers questioned in a 2013 Bain & Company survey, less than 10 percent had customized a product. But 25-30 percent said they’d be up for it. And that’s enough for many brands that want to believe there’s potential in personalization.“While it’s hard to gauge customization, if 25 percent of online sales of footwear were customized, that would equate to a market of $2 billion per year,” Bain partners Elizabeth Spaulding and Christopher Perry wrote in their report.

Brands hope that customization will create a deeper connection between a shopper and the product she creates. Plus, given that one-of-a-kind products have lower return rates and can fetch higher prices, it seems like a no-brainer. It’s no wonder the bespoke tailoring — from Savile Row to Indochino, an e-commerce startup that lets you buy a made-to-measure suit without leaving the couch — is an eternal success story.

But while men can find custom suits at several different prices, the options have always been more limited in women’s apparel. Basically, it’s couture or CafePress. One is so rarefied that even many of the One Percent can’t afford it, and the other is so mass that it’s a turn off to those looking for sophisticated design. 

So it’s no surprise that a crop of new startups are aiming to change that.

The player who has arguably made the biggest splash is New York-based Tinker Tailor, launched by Moda Operandi co-founder Aslaug Magnusdottir just two weeks ago. Tinker Tailor offers two services. One lets a customer create a one-of-a-kind dress, top or skirt, starting with the silhouette -- there are 10 top options alone -- then moving on to fabric and embellishments. (The combinations are legitimately endless as well as beautiful. Street style star and well-regarded buyer Yasmin Sewell, along with the stylist Melanie Ward, are consulting.) 

While this made-in-New York option, which typically takes about six weeks to turn around, is compelling, what really sets Tinker Tailor apart is its partnerships with designers. The site has teamed up with more than 80 brands, including Rodarte and Preen, to create customizable options. For instance, an $1,850 princess dress from Preen is available in four different colors, while a $1,090 embroidered skirt from Martin Grant can be designed in two different lengths. (It’s $1,430 for the long version.) 3D imagining means that designers don’t have to waste money on a sample if a particular version proves unpopular.

Magnusdottir came up with the concept after dreaming of Cher’s closet in "Clueless." "But in my dream, you could match bodices with skirts and different sleeves," she says. "I woke up and thought, this should truly exist." To Magnusdottir, the customization process opens up fashion to a broader group of women—particularly those in the Middle East who need to cover up more. “When I was at Moda, I kept hearing from women that if it were a little bit longer, or if it had sleeves, or if was in the color she really wanted, etc., she'd buy it. People want more customized and unique products.”

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The pieces, much like Moda Operandi’s pre-sales, are only available for a limited time. Tinker Tailor currently launches about two designer sales per week, each of which stay on the site around two to three weeks, though some bridal collections are available for three months. Magnusdottir expects to ramp up that number as the business moves along. She hopes to introduce customizable accessories in the fall.

If Tinker Tailor has a foothold on the high-fashion world, Bow & Drape is customized clothes for the millennial generation. Launched via Kickstarter in 2012, Bow & Drape offers trend-driven clothing and accessories with tons of options for personalization. A pair of $135 tailored shorts, for example, are available in two colors and two lengths, with 71 appliqué options, 24 embroideries and 10 fonts for monogramming. Some pieces take under two weeks to produce, others take up to four, and everything is cut-and-sewn — or at least finished — at factories in New York and on the West Coast. 

Since its launch less than two years ago, the Garment Center-based company has grown from three to a dozen employees and raised $1.2 million in venture capital funding. “Our customer really values expressing herself,” says CEO and Creative Director Aubrie Pagano. “It’s not like guys with their custom shirts. I think she’s really looking for a statement piece.” What has surprised Pagano is customer interest in pieces beyond the dress. “We started as a fancy dress business,” she says. “But our girl is in her mid 20s, or early 30s. We don’t have a lot of occasions to wear them. Daywear pieces are our best sellers.”

Piol, another New York-based startup, is taking an entirely different approach. Founded in September 2013 by art world alum Anne Dayton — whose family, in turn, founded Target — Piol offers bespoke, made in New York dresses in five styles and over 56,000 combinations. (A cotton shift dress is priced at $545.) The major twist is that Dayton has licensed legendary costume designer Edith Head’s color theory and style rules to help inform customers' choices.

When designing a dress on Piol, the client is asked to share her hair, eye and skin color; the fabric options shown are based on that information. The dress takes three to four weeks to make, and Piol offers a full refund if the dress isn’t exactly right. “It’s really going back to custom dressmaking,” Dayton says. “The digital age has brought it back in an accessible way.”

Indeed, Dayton and her fellow entrepreneurs are all betting on the power of easy-to-use technology to make customization even more exciting for customers. Dayton has licensed Gerber’s AccuMark made-to-measure technology, while Tinker Tailor has developed a proprietary system. “It’s not like you can just open up a Shopify store,” says Pagano. “Technology is integral.”

Whether any — or all? — of these startups succeed remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: customized fashion is on the verge of breaking through. “It’s a big open space right now,” says Pagano. “There’s room for different sites that meet different needs.”

Above: A customizable look from Tinker Tailor's upcoming Roksanda Ilincic sale.