Until last month, it was something of a Herculean task for interested shoppers, of which there are many, to get their hands on one of Telfar's iconic "Bushwick Birkins." But unlike an actual Hermès carryall, exclusivity was never founder Telfar Clemens' intention. Demand had simply eclipsed supply. So for one single day in late August, the brand decided to do things differently.
Rather than exhausting supply, the brand would simply enable demand. In those 24 hours, an unlimited number of customers could pre-order a bag in any size, color or quantity, with "guaranteed delivery" by January 15. "This is a way to both support us, buy direct and guarantee yourself a bag," the brand wrote in a release, "even if you have to wait for it."
In Telfar's case, this made-to-order business model serves a myriad of purposes, the most notable of which, of course, is a democratization of the brand's signature product. But as growing numbers of brands seek to adopt better — i.e., more sustainable, more ethical, more personalized — sourcing, manufacturing and distribution standards, the made-to-order format is looking like it could tick all the right boxes. And as the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every single second, it also addresses the fashion industry's waste problem head on.
Still, though, there are a lot of questions, particularly for those consumers who are interested in dipping their toes in the still-somewhat-murky made-to-order pool for the very first time. To help make sense of it all, we took a page from our earlier resale guide and compiled this shopper-first primer on the state of today's made-to-order system — and where it could go in the (very near) future. We hope this helps you navigate whatever it is you're trying to shop, be it a pair of jeans superbly fitted within an inch of its life or, maybe, a Bushwick Birkin of your own.
First things first: What's made-to-order, and how does it work?
Back in 2018, we loosely defined the made-to-order model as that which "sees fashion brands tailoring each individual garment to the customer's size, body type and in some cases, style preference." And while that's certainly true, it's not just about the personalization of a garment to serve a customer. On the business side, made-to-order also enables brands and retailers to only make exactly what they need. That precision is especially attractive to those companies aiming to decrease their overall waste. (More on that later.)
Designer Autumn Adeigbo launched her eponymous made-to-order fashion brand in 2017, and has spent the last three years building a label in which the fashion industry's greater carbon footprint is top of mind. Clearly, her mission has legs: Over the summer, Adeigbo secured $1.3 million of institutional investments from roughly 15 investors, including Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake.
Adeigbo is publicly tight-lipped about the specifics of her supply chain ("I can't be as transparent as I'd like because it's such a competitive business," she says), but shares that her clothing — vibrant, sophisticated styles at contemporary price points — is produced locally in New York City, in female-owned and-operated facilities and over the span of two to five weeks. By making only what's ordered by consumers themselves, Adeigbo is able to purchase her materials in limited quantities and maintain very little inventory at any one time. This not only minimizes fabric waste, excessive manufacturing and surplus stock, but also enables a more intimate relationship with her suppliers.
"If the fabric is super-expensive and I don't want to keep it on hand, I work with textile mills that will do smaller quantities for me," she says. "It's important to partner with people who believe in where your brand is going and are willing to do what they traditionally might not because they believe in you as an entrepreneur."
Where can you shop made-to-order garments?
Well, lots of places!
Let's start with the luxury sector, wherein the concept of customized product that's created specifically for you is more ubiquitous. "Made-to-order is, honestly, as close to dressing like a celebrity most of us will get," says celebrity stylist Laura Jones, who, in 2018, founded The Frontlash, a fashion magazine about sustainability and activism. "It takes a little more time and effort, but the final result is always worth it — a piece that's unique and well-made."
In the ultra-high-end sense (think couture or fresh-off-the runway), much of this is achieved via pre-order, something for which Moda Operandi is known. In hosting online designer trunkshows, typically spanning two to four weeks, the luxury retailer enables shoppers to pre-order pieces that may have only just debuted on the runway that same day.
"Moda Operandi has been such a trailblazer," says Adeigbo. "I mean, I've bought from them and waited between three weeks to six months for my product because if I want it, I'll wait for it. And I'm not a fast consumer. When I buy something it'll be in my closet for a decade, probably."
But made-to-order is also gaining steam in the direct-to-consumer space, creating more accessible product at (much) lower price points. Some startups like Ministry of Supply and Rapha, which make businesswear and sportswear, respectively, produce their garments on-demand with 3D-printing machines.
In the contemporary space, Misha Nonoo was an early adapter, having shifted her business model to made-to-order production in factories in Peru and China back in 2017. Other categories still that feature zero-inventory supply chains include — but aren't limited to — ready-to-wear (Fame & Partners, Olivia Rose, MaisonCléo, SuitKits), activewear (Ultracor), menswear (Alton Lane, Stòffa) and footwear (Amanu).
Much of the onus falls on the customers themselves to research the current offerings in any given category. "A [lack of] widespread availability is probably the main barrier to consumption right now," says Halley Morrissey, vice president of business development at retail and consumer-goods accelerator XRC Labs. "You have to research to get it right, which isn't a bad thing."
What makes made-to-order such a big deal lately?
In 2018, Burberry came under fire after the U.K.'s largest luxury house revealed in its annual report that it had burned approximately $37 million worth of clothing and cosmetics. But it was, and is, not just Burberry that takes part in this practice: All across the retail and consumer industries, companies will often destroy excess inventory so as to prevent out-of-season items from being sold at a discount, thereby damaging brand exclusivity. And according to think tank New Standard Institute, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. We're buying more, but also wearing less, and that's creating enormous amounts of waste, too.
The cycle continues into supply chains: For business models like the ones employed by fast-fashion retailers, a constant demand for new, cheap clothing has led to exploitative, even dangerous labor practices, alongside already-environmentally-harmful production methods.
To be clear: Just because a fashion brand has no inventory does not mean that it is "good" for the planet and/or the people with whom it works. A label can minimize its excess fabric while still sourcing that fabric from shifty suppliers. But by moving less product upfront, a made-to-order brand can ensure the garments it's making will be created, and worn, with intention.
"Online returns have gone through the roof due, in large part, to wrong sizing or ill-fitting garments," says Morrissey. "And now with a pandemic, people are buying many sizes and trying them on at home. But we feel the supply-chain waste from all of those returns, as well as the production, could be mitigated with on-demand manufacturing, where pieces are customized to your size and made in relatively small batches."
XRC Labs works with Nimbly, a supply-chain-management startup that's creating a network of state-of-the-art knitting machines to enable on-demand manufacturing for participating partners. Nimbly conducts an audit of each brand's business model, and finds and queues up an ideal factory mix that reduces waste and emissions.
In some cases, slimmer inventory models like the ones Nimbly is affording are also less expensive for the brands themselves. Maybe a label finds itself with excess inventory after basing seasonal production numbers off lofty estimates, or maybe its wholesale partner over-ordered units that just haven't sold. As Jones explains: "Many brands are suffering from the cost of overproduction, and are both burned out and have been burned by retailers who order stock under contracts that benefit the retailer more than designer and often end up hurting a brand financially."
So yes: Made-to-order production has the potential to address some of fashion's most glaring pain points, especially as consumers continue to advocate for a slower, more conscious model — one in which we wouldn't mind waiting weeks for a delivery if it meant the garment was created with care.
What's next for made-to-order into 2021 and beyond?
As promising as no-inventory may be, it's not for all brands — at least right now, when moving toward on-demand manufacturing could require a top-to-bottom business overhaul. And because a made-to-order supply chain can be more slender than one that revolves around something like unit estimates, it could also eliminate positions — which, if you're a brand that upholds responsible and ethical labor practices, could have a negative effect. A retailer doesn't have to commit to an entirely made-to-order fulfillment model to embody the low-waste practices that it represents.
"All retailers are looking for that silver bullet of a better range-planning tool that will marry their sales performance data with predictive analytics with market trend insights to help them produce closer to demand and help them achieve a much stronger full-price sell-through so they don't have all this excess inventory," says Morrissey. "Make the right amount of stuff, and then make it more sustainably."
But if there was a moment for otherwise uninclined brands to test the no-inventory waters, Jones believes it's now, when the industry at large is deep in a state of flux. As a jumping-off point, consider a designer like Prabal Gurung or Antonio Berardi, both of whom attribute 20-25% of sales to made-to-order, according to Vogue Business.
"Much like advancements in tech in general, on-demand manufacturing is only going to get better, faster and cheaper," says Morrissey. "It's certainly not going to go away. It's the future of the apparel industry." In 2016, investor and futurist Ray Kurzweil even predicted that people would be 3D-printing bespoke clothing in their homes by now, which, as Morrissey says, "we think is a little aggressive."
Though to solve fashion's waste crisis, why should it be the shoppers' duty to 3D-print clothing if the fashion houses themselves generate the lion's share of global greenhouse gas emissions? (For reference: Just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of emissions worldwide.) If anything, the pandemic has proved that brands are able to move swiftly in times of need — so when we discuss if (and when) made-to-order will trickle into the mainstream, it's really up to brands to make that decision for themselves.
"I saw a lot of the big fashion houses making headlines by deferring some of their manufacturing resources to create PPE," says Morrissey. "So to me, they demonstrated a level of nimbleness that I'd love to see them replicate in the on-demand manufacturing space. I'm encouraged by that, and I look forward to seeing luxury brands act much the same way when converting some of their share of inventory to newer ways that are more sustainable."
People should still make educated decisions as to what they're purchasing and what the ramifications are for their purchase, says Adeigbo. Jones suggests starting small: Invest in something with a smaller buy-in, like a headband or, speaking of PPE, a cloth mask, so you can start to understand how shopping made-to-order is a different experience; follow made-to-order brands that match your style on Instagram; trial some DIY made-to-order by taking ill-fitting pieces in your closet to a local tailor.
"While made-to-order is a really encouraging way to shop and consume consciously, I don't know that it's entirely realistic for everyone," says Anita Patrickson, Hollywood stylist and founder of customizable sandal sandal brand Amanu. "But what I do know is that we need to buy less, buy better. And I think we need to demand that brands are transparent in the process. From the farm to the factories to the shipping to the labor costs, and we just have to get out of just this over-consumption. It's killing us, and it's killing the planet."