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A Fit Guru’s Guide to Customization

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In his third piece in an exclusive series for WhichPLM, fit expert Mark Charlton explores customisation, mass production and made-to-measure. He qualifies the difference between bespoke and customisation, and shares how he believes brands and retailers should approach their models.

I have a passion for great fitting apparel and for over 20 years I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings.

In my previous articles I talked about the components of fit, the thought process to the outcome of “does this fit me?” and the future of e-commerce apparel fit. It’s important to note when I talk about fit this is not one entity but a convergence of individual body shape, size, ease preference and trend adoption.

Customer customization, individualization, personalization, and bespoke are all buzz words in 2017. There is a cultural shift from “product is king”; I refer to this as brand push to “consumer is king” (aka consumer pull or consumer centricity). Along with this shift is a growth in the made to measure or bespoke clothing industry.

The best example I can cite, and a very successful customization model, would be Starbucks which, for me, is the original customer centric model. Choose your drink: size, caffeine / no caffeine, choice of milk, hot / iced, flavor, etc. Then your name is taken and this drink is uniquely yours, delivered using your name.

Apparel brands are ideating how to capitalize on this shift.  When I think of customer customization there are two paths: one is product customization and the other is entire outfit individualization or customization.

Product customization requires a very delicate balance between allowing your customers to design your products and retaining brand integrity. Take the Nike ID model as an example, where you can choose the color and fabric options of your sneakers but you cannot change the size, shape and position of ‘the swoosh’. Nike, I feel, have navigated the balance well allowing consumer individualization whilst retaining all the iconic ‘Nike-ness’.

For the purpose of this article, and staying true to my skill set and expertise, I am going to focus on the latter there. Outfit customization and individualization has been prevalent for decades, if not centuries. We all have our individual sense of style and unique skill of “outfitting” (putting outfits together to create our own look). Most, if not all, of us create our outfits from multiple brands, with very few people dressing head to toe in a single brand. We choose product from multiple brands and pair this product to showcase our individual taste and style.

Of course, this was the competitive advantage of the traditional department store and the shopping mall, being able to shop multiple brands under one roof and “customize” your outfit. We all know e-commerce has significantly impacted traffic in the traditional department store and shopping malls.

In order to personalize your coffee at Starbucks you need to understand your taste, wants and needs, then understand what Starbucks offers against your taste, wants and needs.

Taste, wants and needs are all very subjective and extremely individual, as is apparel. So how can apparel brands possibly know what you need? How does Starbucks know?

In short, Starbucks doesn’t know; what it does is seamlessly and easily offer you the choice aligned with their brand without overwhelming you, then offer a supply chain (in this case, a barista with a coffee machine) to individually produce your drink.

Seamlessly and easily are important words here. How can I define these? To me seamlessly and easily translate to removing the current pain points.
Uber removed the pain point of hailing a cab; Opentable removed the pain point of calling around restaurants for reservations; Amazon’s new Amazon Go concept will remove the pain point of grocery store lines.

Of course “fit” – be it brick and mortar store or e-commerce – is a current pain point.

One of the emerging trends we cannot ignore is the growth of made to measure or bespoke clothing. I believe this growth is due to consumer’s dissatisfaction with the current pain point: apparel fit.

Made to measure or bespoke is currently limited to mid-to-high-end price points compared to mass-produced apparel.I believe we will see a shift in the way that apparel is manufactured, as opposed to mass producing in tens of thousands in a limited size range (XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL), for example, and pushing this to the consumer. We will see small batch manufacturing in a much larger size range, to be able to satisfy consumer needs better with more mass customization. This will require an overhaul of the supply chains as we know them today.

I was asked recently to qualify the difference between bespoke and customization. My answer? Bespoke is made for you, whilst customized is altered for you, meaning in the customized model there is a basis in which to start from, then the individualization takes place. This is very similar to the Starbucks model.

With all these shifts we cannot forget the importance of fit communication. Brands know how their products fit, who they are designed to fit, how they would fit different body shapes & sizes and the trend or ease preference built into their products. The key to the seamless multi-brand personal outfitting experience is knowing how different brands fit and pair together, and then, if needed, how to alter or customize. We all know the insanity of sizing across brands and how vanity sizing has widened the gap on any sizing standards that existed across brands.

This is where I feel there is a huge opportunity for brands to not only reinvent their supply chain model to allow small batch manufacture in a broader size offering, but to accurately communicate how products fit the individuals. Put this through a constant versus variables filter (the constant being the product, the variable being a consumer’s individual body shape, size, trend / ease preference). An apparel brand cannot control the variables, which are infinite, however it can control how to pair its “constant” consistent fitting product against these variables.

As with most issues, communication is the key.

Mark Charlton With more than 20 years’ experience in the apparel industry, Mark Charlton is a technical leader who has worked with manufacturers, trading companies, direct-to-consumer retailers,omni-channel national and global brands. His key focus is product groups from M2M tailoring to lingerie and everything in-between. He has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level. Additionally, Mark has a proven record of driving and implementing organizational and process change from corporate teams throughout the global supply chain.