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The Rebirth of Bespoke

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In his fourth exclusive piece for WhichPLM, Mark Charlton continues his discussion surrounding fit in our industry. Here, Mark discusses the rebirth of the bespoke industry, and technology’s part in this.

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 discussed the components of fit, the future of e-commerce apparel fit, the trend of customization and opportunities in the product development process.

For this piece I’d like to turn my focus to the rebirth of the bespoke industry – why and how technology is in part responsible. Let’s begin with some facts we know to be true:

  • The customer is becoming more demanding with regards to apparel fit.
  • The customer is global and the complexities of catering for diverse global body shapes and sizes with one traditional regional size offer pose a significant challenge.
  • Apparel e-commerce sales are now a significant percentage of a brand or retailer’s distribution portfolio.
  • Return rates due to “poor fit” are unsustainable as the growth of e-commerce continues.
  • Millennials demand individualism and the ability to customize.

For all of these reasons we are witnessing a rise in the bespoke industry.

Back in the 90s, for more than half a decade, I worked for a bespoke tailoring manufacturer based in the north of England. My role was to create an algorithm to automatically alter tailored patterns based on an individual’s measurements, and in turn revolutionize the tailoring industry. It was pretty ground breaking for the 90s!

We successfully created, implemented and refined this algorithm, throughout the cutting process through to bespoke garment manufacture. The only glitch in the process was the resulting bespoke tailored suit fit was reliant on the measurements obtained from the customer. Skilled, experienced tailoring store staff were hard to find – something even more apparent today.

This is where technology is, in part, helping to solve this problem. 3D scanning has made capturing body measurements significantly easier. I say “in part” helping to solve the problem as a great fit is more than body measurements. Body measurements are critical and create the foundation for which you begin to tailor / fit. However, how the consumer wishes to wear their suit is the other factor that requires more art; ease over body is very individual and subjective. This also changes over time with the influence of fashion – yes, even in the traditional world of tailoring the influence of fashion has an impact on ease over body (how slim or loose is the suit, how long or short is the length / sleeve length, shoulder width / construction, lapel width’s etc.). This is also the skill of the tailoring store staff – how far to push the latest fashion.

All that being said, some brands have become very good at this bespoke process. The price point however, compared to mass-market one-dimensional size scales is relatively high, keeping bespoke somewhat elitist (and that is part of its allure). The high price point is driven mainly by the single batch manufacturing process that supports bespoke.

So, where is the middle ground between high end bespoke and mass production supply chain of a one-dimensional size scale?

Let me first explain what a one-dimensional size scale is. It’s one body shape and one grading scale – the typical XS, S, M, L ,XL, XXL. It’s impossible to fit all the variants of body shape proportions, body sizes and body lengths of the global population within 6 sizes. Fit will always be a compromise.

Fit and compromise are two words rarely admitted to in the apparel industry, because we strive for perfection. We don’t want to admit that the fit pushed into the marketplace is a compromise. We fool ourselves into thinking that because the garments fit our fit model perfectly that we have achieved perfection. But what are we striving for? A happy, satisfied fit model? Or a happy, satisfied customer? I will reiterate: it’s impossible to fit all the variants of body shapes / proportions, body sizes and lengths of the global population within 6 sizes.

The first step on any journey to a solution is admitting there is, in fact, a problem. Well, if e-commerce returns rates (typically hovering around 50%), are not enough evidence, then consider that as e-commerce grows to a larger percentage of your portfolio, that free returns policy will quite possibly negate any profits! This is a problem that needs to be solved.

So what do you do? Turn to bespoke? That’s one answer. I believe there is another: create more dimensions in your sizing offer. Why would you only cater to one ideal body shape? Why in such a limited size scale? Why not offer more body shapes, sizes and potentially length dimensions to your diverse global consumers, and in turn reducing the compromise of fit?

Of course there are challenges that need to be considered and solutioned, such as: how you solve SKU proliferation and balance this against excess inventory (aka markdowns); how you intuitively communicate this multi dimensioned size construct to your consumer and educate them on there size; how you change the mass production supply chain “push model” into small batch supply “pull model”.

These aren’t easy challenges to overcome, but are by no means impossible.

The time is now.

Acknowledge the rebirth of bespoke. This is not a passing trend; this is born out of consumer frustration with apparel fit.

I encourage you to think differently about apparel fit.

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.