There is a universal truth about humans that nearly all clothing brands just kind of ignore: Our bodies are all completely different, and simply choosing a numbered size is far from a guarantee that an item is going to fit. As a result, we waste time in fitting rooms and spend our lives learning which brands make clothes or shoes that come close to fitting our bodies; or, if we have the time and money, we take our clothes to tailors, or if we're very wealthy and fancy, we get clothing and footwear made specifically for us.
At least, that used to be the case. A few startups are developing technology that retailers can use to help their customers find items that fit. Amazon is reportedly hiring a whole team dedicated to helping shoppers find clothing that fits perfectly. Additionally, a new wave of companies are making made-to-measure and perfect-fitting clothing and footwear accessible to all by scaling a process that traditionally entailed an expensive, private appointment with a designer or artisan that many of us wouldn't even know how to make in the first place. In today's turbulent retail landscape, it's a way to stand out and reel in loyal customers.
"Customers define great service as convenience, ease and experiences in which they are in control," explains Paul Doherty, Vice President and Divisional Merchandise Manager for Men’s Clothing and Furnishings at Nordstrom, whose new New York men's store features a technology-driven made-to-measure suit experience from Samuelsohn called the Custom Suit Visualizer: The interactive visualizer allows a customer to see a suit rendered in any color on an avatar with his measurements that ensures a perfect fit. "It's been a big hit with our customers. The visualizer anchors our made-to-measure shop and it's a show stopper," he says. "Customers may go through the visualizer experience or choose to go with another brand that offers made-to-measure with a different experience." Cult-favorite men's retailer Sid Mashburn also recently launched a made-to-measure shirting option on its website and in stores.
It's another element to the personalization/customization boom that so many brands and retailers have gotten in on over the past couple of years — only these companies set themselves apart by focusing not on monogramming or extensive color options, but rather, fit. And while custom suiting has been getting more accessible for years (see: Suit Supply), a few other categories are now getting in on the action.
"I think with the breadth of optionality that exists in the market today, the idea that someone can find something specially made for them, commit to it and not have to think about it again and come back for more colors and more styles as the business evolves is something that sets us apart and something that sets other made-to-measure brands in other categories apart," says Margaux co-founder Alexa Buckley.
It's worth noting there are also companies like Shoes of Prey, Frilly and Fame & Partners that target women and allow customers to customize pre-designed items and have them made to their specifications, but you're still choosing from an existing set of sizes — though the latter does allow customers to alter the hemlines of dresses and skirts based on height, in addition to offering an extensive size range of 00 to 22.
Scaling is undoubtedly the challenge when you're producing made-to-measure pieces in lieu of a traditional size run, and many of the founders we spoke with are admittedly still figuring that out. From a brand promising the perfect-fitting ballet flat, to a stylist-run operation making custom sandals in West Hollywood, to a company making made-to-measure men's shirts based off a questionnaire, read on for three companies that are on our radar, and some insight into how they're making it all work.
Celebrity stylist Anita Patrickson was on vacation in Capri, Italy when she stumbled upon a little shop making made-to-measure leather sandals. She was charmed and impressed by the experience, and after hearing that others (including her clients) had similar frustrations trying to find sandals that fit, she started figuring out how to bring her Italian experience to the masses, or, at least, a small storefront in West Hollywood, which opened this month.
She managed to fly out an Italian cobbler to train a group of employees who can now make a number of sandal styles right on your feet while you wait — it takes about 15 minutes and you can also choose the style, the strap and fabric colors, and more. While the service is currently only available in-store, Patrickson is working on applying technology that will allow customers to get a custom fit at home, whether it's by 3-D printing a cast of their foot or a software that creates a digital rendering.
In addition to providing a great fit and a luxurious, personal experience, the sustainability aspect of made-to-measure appealed to Patrickson. "I like the idea that we can cut off what we need and only use very small amount," she says. "This felt good, it felt like it wasn't adding to the problem; it was finding a solution."
In 2015, Harvard classmates Alexa Buckley and Sarah Pierson introduced Margaux, an e-commerce site selling made-to-measure ballet flats. Today, their model has evolved a bit, both from the front- and the back-end. They moved production from Queens, NY to Spain, which allowed for better product quality and the ability to create additional sizes more easily but also resulted in longer lead times; and while they still offer made-to-order shoes, they've been able to establish an extended range of off-the-shelf sizes with various width options based on what they learned from their custom business. Off-the-shelf now makes up about 85 percent of their business, while made-to-measure makes up the rest.
"Made to measure has been kind of a means to an end for us and it's been what's enabled us to deliver on our value proposition which is delivering the perfect fit," says Pierson. "Creating a made-to-measure system that was accessible, that was modernized, and that was rooted in the old-world heritage feel that made-to-measure brands have would allow us to deliver on our promise of creating these wear-everywhere shoes for our modern woman."
The brand has always sent fit kits to prospective online customers, but now also has stores and pop-ups in Palm Beach, Nantucket and San Francisco, with plans to open one in NYC this summer, where customers can be fit IRL.
Proper Cloth, which launched 10 years ago and has evolved significantly since, is a popular men's shirting brand that uses technology to allow customers to get an exact fit from the comfort of their homes. "Fundamentally, the challenge with custom is scaling it," says CEO Seph Skerritt. Over time, the company has developed increasingly accurate algorithms to maximize the likelihood of getting the fit exactly right the first time. It starts by having customers answer a series of questions from how much they weigh to how they like clothes to fit to whether or not they tuck their shirts in. "We have a pretty powerful data science approach that generates a custom size for our customer based on their responses to those questions. That has been the key to our scaling because it lowers the barrier to entry for customers to get started," says Skerritt.
The company has also broken down its shirts into very specific measurements, like the circumference of the collar and the width of the cuff, with each customer receiving a specific set of dimensions. On top of that, customers have access to modify those dimensions online if they receive the shirt and feel it isn't quite right. "We're taking away the requirement of, 'Oh my shirts don't fit, I have to go see my tailor and talk to him about it,' and we give the customers the tools to simply adjust things themselves," says Skerritt. Proper Cloth will accept multiple returns and issue multiple alterations or remakes if necessary, and even reach out to customers they haven't heard from to make sure they don't want any tweaks. "We really will bend over backwards to try and get things right," says Skerritt. "We end up getting a very high repeat customer rate and very high loyalty, so we’re able to justify doing what it take to get someone to a place where they really love their fit."
The company's next goal is to shorten lead times and lower prices. "We'll be able to push into a more accessible price point and we'll be able to compress [delivery time] from two weeks to one week," says Skerritt. "Then you're really competing with off-the-rack; you’re removing all of the problems of made to measure."