Sydney, Australia might be known as the wondrous beachside metropolis we have to thank for Miranda Kerr, Rose Byrne and Finn from "Gilmore Girls." But lately, the city seems to have become a homegrown launchpad for technologically groundbreaking — and pretty chic — customizable fashion brands started by incredibly smart and impressive female entrepreneurs. Maybe you've designed a set of heels on Shoes of Prey, a footwear company founded by Jodie Fox in 2009. Or played with the proprietary 3-D Bag Builder on Mon Purse, a handbag line, founded by Lana Hopkins in 2014 (and which recently launched in the U.S. with a capsule collab with InStyle Editor-in-Chief Laura Brown).
That same year, former e-commerce strategist-turned-venture-capitalist (and serial entrepreneur) Nyree Corby founded Fame and Partners, the world's first mass-customized contemporary womenswear brand. The made-to-order line offers a Los Angeles-by-way-of-Sydney boho aesthetic, kind of like a Reformation with an Aussie twist. Shoppers can build pieces according to color, height and size, with additional preferred design details like skirt length, strap width, sleeve and neckline. Accessibility is also key: Sizes run from 0 to 22 with prices from $199 to $349, and orders deliver within seven to 10 business days of purchase.
Fame and Partners started small but ambitious, launching with evening gowns — more specifically, prom dresses — since those garments are the most difficult to manufacture on-demand. (High-achievers.) "It's been very easy to then start to diversify into pants, tops, skirts, other types of dresses, etc.," Corby explains over tea in a Manhattan café. Non-evening womenswear now counts as 60 percent of the brand's sales.
For Corby, the genesis of Fame and Partners wasn't so much an obsession with fashion, but rather more spotting a business opportunity within the industry. One day, while mulling her next step, Corby came across an article in her local print newspaper about a young woman's unfortunate experience purchasing a shoddily made and ultimately ill-fitting dress, which was represented very differently online.
"That was my moment of truth," she says. "Millennials are the most digitally connected demographic on the face of the planet. So why aren't they adequately serviced online — let alone via brick and mortar — as well? What is forcing this behavior? That just seemed strange to me." She threw herself into research and utilized the strategy and tactical skills she honed while bringing Australian retailers, including Cotton On and Australian department store Myer, online. "Fifty percent of womenswear is sold at markdown," she says. "How does anyone make any money?" The answer to both questions: offering customizable fashion.
So, Corby and her team developed what she refers to as a "secret sauce," a proprietary multi-level customization manufacturing system. For the production floor, they've completely reconfigured a production process similar to Ford's lean manufacturing system for automotive. The team also developed a software layer "that organizes and optimizes the labor" into efficient "pods" of a leader/mentor and workers. "We're evolving a set of skills, whereas a typical production line for, say, an evening gown would have 20 to 25 workers in a production line, ours has five," she says proudly.
China was Corby's first choice for setting up her manufacturing process, due to the country's skilled labor pool and infrastructure for textile manufacturing. Plus, the location offers accessibility to raw materials and allows her to keep production, warehousing and transportation in close proximity. But Fame and Partners ultimately narrowed down the factory to Suzhou, a region known for manufacturing wedding dresses. "I think the mindset in that particular region is a little more open [to Fame and Partners manufacturing process] because they're used to this idea of one-offs," she explains. The "secret sauce" is also replicable, so Fame and Partners can easily expand production to the United States and Europe, something the company would like to do in the future.
The company's innovative manufacturing process offers another benefit. "We are around 60 percent less wasteful than a typical manufacturing line," Corby adds. Fame and Partners' manufacturing system and skilled labor reduces offcut materials in the production process. Since the brand produces on-demand, it negates the need to keep stock, and hence marked-down overstock, on hand. For sales of pre-made (and non-customizable) pieces through Shopbop and Asos, the brand manufactures small batch orders on-demand.
On the front end, in addition to rapidly expanding categories and customization options, customer service offerings are continuously broadening. Corby recently hired a director of customer service and styling. "We took her from Louis Vuitton," she says. "We really believe when we're selling a personalized product, we need to provide a deep level of personalized customer service around that. We believe in a customer segment of one."
Aside from online chat support, Fame and Partners also offers by-appointment stylist calls to help shoppers assess wardrobe needs and give advice on integrating pieces into a customer's existing closet. The scheduled calls can be made through the shoppers' preferred mode of communication: Skype, WhatsApp, an actual phone call, etc. "Our vision, really, is to be a women's wardrobe atelier," Corby says.
As part of the Fame and Partners' aggressive expansion, in February the company headquarters relocated from Sydney to L.A., which offers a less aggressive time difference for team members in China and New York. The company currently has 60 employees total, with 28 based in L.A. "We expanded pretty aggressively into the U.S. market: Our direct business, our channel business and our wholesale business," Corby says. "It's been a really big year."
Fame and Partners is constantly developing and expanding its product categories, too. For holiday, the brand released its first line of made-to-order separates, the Inside/Out collection, which donates $5 of each sale to UN Women, Akilah Institute, Plan International and other empowerment initiatives around the globe.
The in-house development team also works creating deeper personalization options, starting with innovative sizing. "We've got three height categories today. We're rolling out three more next year," says Corby, pointing out that a traditional size 6 fits much differently on, say, a woman who's five foot ten versus five foot five. "Then, after that, we're launching our full version of personalized sizing, which is really a whole other level."
Despite its digital roots, Fame and Partners' future isn't exclusively online; the brand plans to open physical showrooms, plus a "digital custom shop" back in Australian department store Myer, which also features Mon Purse shop-in-shops in five locations. "We're in discussions with other people to roll out some bigger ones [in the U.S.]. as well," Corby says.
What is it with cutting edge customizable fashion brands and Sydney? "It's so funny. I just don't really know," she muses. (And yes, Corby knows Fox and Hopkins because the Aussie fashion-tech community really is that tight.) "There's a real fashion scene [in Sydney] and then an emerging tech sector. I think those two things have really converged." We can't wait to see what comes out of Sydney next.