Customization in fashion has never been hotter. Pins and patches have made a massive comeback; brands like J.Crew and Marie Claire St. John have made the monogram cool again; and Burberry's Scarf Bar allows customers to get an It item that's all their own. Even Gucci is getting in on the game, offering customization options to its most popular bag.
Shoes of Prey, an online-native shoe customization brand, was ahead of the customization bandwagon. And rather than use customization as an additional option for customers, the entire business is founded on it. Australian Jodie Fox launched the brand in 2009 after finding someone with whom she could commission her own shoe designs, which were a big hit amongst her friends. Alongside CEO Michael Fox and Chief Technology Officer Mike Knapp, Fox created a customizable shoe company from the ground up. Unable to find any existing technology that met the standards they were looking for, the in-house team at Shoes of Prey built the site from scratch. The brand reports that over six million pairs of shoes have been designed since launch.
Fox calls the commitment to in-house technology development "mission critical," and it's what sets Shoes of Prey apart from its competitors. "I think we're really lucky that we started out with technology in our toolbox," Fox says. "I think there are a lot of companies that are really big, and have been very successful over the years, just starting to introduce it, it's naturally challenging because there's so much legacy in the business."
"When someone is building the technology for you, it's not as intimately connected with your purpose and your business," she explains. "I think technology has the potential to make things so seamless — the trick is, you have to know exactly where those friction points are to take full advantage of it."
But the whole point of the technology is that the consumer doesn't even notice it. "The best feedback we can possibly get is, 'I'm having so much fun.'" Fox says. "It's about really being able to focus on the shoe itself, and the creativity they want to put into it, and the technology should serve them in a way that they don't even notice that it's there."
Here's how it works: Customers log on and start customizing their shoe, choosing from dozens of fabrics ranging from leathers and suedes to silks and patterned cottons. (If you want to see and feel it in person first, samples of up to five fabrics can be ordered for $15.) Just about every detail, from heel height to toe shape, can be changed, and details like straps and bows are also available. While the materials are sourced from all over, production is based in Guangdong, China, where the company opened its own specialized factory in 2014. By controlling the manufacturing process rather than outsourcing, as the brand did when it started, it's able to make changes more quickly and produce faster.
Shoes are then made and shipped within 14 days; recently, the brand added an express option for $50, which cuts that time in half. Shoes of Prey has a 365-day return or remake policy, meaning customers are never stuck with a shoe they haven't seen in person. I can attest that the process is fun; at first, the sheer amount of choices is daunting. Once I got into the groove of things, though, it was hard to stop. After a few hours of play, I have six pairs of shoes saved and the itch to create several more.
But what's even more interesting about the technology, is that it makes Shoes of Prey immune to many of the challenges that plague traditional retailers. For instance, when customers customize their own shoes, it eliminates redundancies in stock. Over the past 12 months, Shoes of Prey has an 18-percent return rate, the majority of which comes from customers who opt to remake shoes rather than receive a refund. (If you're curious, the "vast majority" of returns go to charity partner Good360.) Most e-commerce apparel players average a 40-percent return rate.
Shoes of Prey keeps a log of every design submitted by customers; this way, the company is able to collect useful data on trends that can be passed along to retailers or other partners. "We can look at geography, we can focus on age, we can break down to see who is buying high heels, who is wearing certain colors," Fox says. Specifically, Fox cites this as a solution to the problem retailers face when forced to put excess stock of boots on clearance after a short winter, but it could also shield retailers from the ever-changing current of trends. A customer is dying for platforms when single-soled shoes are in? No problem. Pops of neon dominate the spring runways, but it's only October? You can give your customers access to the the trend without having to wait six months for it to hit stores. And retailers are already taking note: Last year, Nordstrom partnered with the brand to bring the Shoes of Prey experience to five brick-and-mortar locations and its e-commerce site.
The technology could also be harnessed by young designers who don't yet have the resources to launch their own shoe collections; Shoes of Prey has already worked with fellow Aussies Romance Was Born and Tome for select collections. "We're really pumped to be able to get behind those designers so they're not going out of business," Fox says. The collaborations ranged from simply producing key styles for the runway, as they did for Jonathan Simkhai in Spring 2013, to offering fully customizable runway styles, as they did with Tome in Spring 2014. Shoes of Prey's most recent collaboration is with beauty brand Butter London, which includes fabrics inspired by the shades and finishes of a limited-edition nail polish set to debut this fall.
Shoes of Prey is just getting started. Each year, the founders meet with their team of engineers to discuss potential new projects, prioritized by what's possible and what each could do for the brand. They also regularly invest in existing technologies, like 3D printers and oculus rifts, without necessarily having an idea for how they could fit in to the design process. "There are so many things that are up and coming, and the majority of it, we do here; it's hard to describe because they don't really have names, because we build it," Fox says. "We think that's the future in the way manufacturing can happen. It's never that we necessarily know where to start, we just identify something in technology that's new and different, and we play with it and understand it a bit more intuitively to see how that might work for our business."
There's no shortage of ideas, either. Fox's ultimate dream project involves bringing her customers a fully intuitive shoe wardrobe they can create with a 3-D printer at home. Though the technology of 3-D printing is still still evolving, footwear lends itself to the medium more easily than other apparel categories, albeit in a limited way. Still, Keegan Schouwenburg, CEO of 3-D printing company SOLS, told Fast Company last year that we could start seeing mass-marketed 3-D printed shoes in "three to five years" — so Fox's dream may not be so far off.
Until then, though, Shoes of Prey is focusing on using technology to find new ways of making its customers happy. "I think that as long as you have imagination, the technology is something that is a way to do fun things," Fox says. With handbags, boots and accessories — not to mention a potential IPO — on the horizon, Shoes of Prey has plenty of imagination left. And plenty of funding to get there, with a range of investors having showed their confidence in the company's concept. Last December, Shoes of Prey raised an additional $15 million, backed in part by Nordstrom.