The direct-to-consumer apparel space has been uniquely driven by innovations across all product categories, including intimates, activewear and workwear, providing options department stores just didn’t deliver.
A number of men’s DTC companies are differentiating themselves even more by going boldly into a new era of customization, enabled by both technological advancements in personalization and shifting consumer attitudes.
Today’s shopper wants choice and made-to-measure pieces offer just that.
“The direct-to-consumer movement has substantially increased the number of brands that exist when it comes to any individual consumer product, from clothing to toothbrushes,” said John Ballay, co-founder and CEO of Knot Standard. “Consumers are now choosing individual brands that align with their product needs, their personalities, and even their personal ethos.”
And to cater to this plethora of tastes, the new wave of brands offering customization are intentionally shaking off the hallmarks of a bygone era. “When most people think of tailoring, they think of a stuffy shop and a kind of outdated feeling, maybe a shop owner who is really classic and not in touch with contemporary trends,” said Derek Tian, co-founder and CMO at Black Lapel. The Black Lapel experience, both online and in the company’s New York showroom, is decidedly more contemporary. “A big part of it, for us, is sharing the expertise—explaining to customers why we make certain choices or what they can expect from different materials and fits,” Tian said.
Many of those brands take personalization one step further, making the product completely custom. In doing so, they breed a type of loyalty that men’s wear hasn’t seen historically, said Eric Powell, founder and CEO of Ratio Clothing. Customization crafts a new form of convenience. “Once you’ve had custom clothing made, it’s very hard to go back,” Powell added. “Once your size is locked in, the experience is pretty much like any other modern e-commerce experience. A few clicks and you’re done.”
Developing the tools
The level of customization in these DTC companies runs deep, too, allowing for almost limitless permutations.
At Knot Standard, Ballay said, some customers don’t realize their products really are made from scratch. “Each garment we make represents an individually unique pattern,” Ballay explained, in contrast to other made-to-measure brands that use a combination of pre-existing patterns to build a garment. The difference is clear in the quality of fit, Ballay added, creating a true bespoke garment as opposed to a customized one. “Internally, we call our process ‘digital bespoke,'” Ballay said. “Every garment is being made for the first time, and once it is delivered to the client, it will be the last time we ever make that garment.”
Knot Standard creates a “Style DNA” profile for each customer, and in its stores, that consumer’s information is displayed on a proprietary “Style Wall” to help navigate the customization process. The immersive tool modernizes the tailoring experience while imbuing consumers with a sense of agency, Ballay explained.
Ratio Clothing also has a tool that guides consumers through the customization process: a fit algorithm that Powell created himself.
In the first years of Ratio’s life, Powell had a hand in every part of the business, and would speak directly with customers to help them determine exactly what type of fit would work. As the company grew, Powell, who has a data science background, developed a proprietary algorithm that he said is a major factor in the brand’s success. “Our sizing algorithm has become really good. Shockingly good,” Powell said. “It’s as successful as an in-person fitting with a tailoring expert in our hometown [Denver] showroom.”
Rather than asking customers to submit body measurements, Ratio Clothing uses a survey that asks questions about height, weight, fit preferences and build, and constantly adjusts the algorithm over time. For example, an early version of the fit process asked consumers to submit their typical suit jacket size–but a large portion of the customer base had no idea.
“It started as me going back and forth over email, asking questions, and using my intuition,” Powell said. “But then I thought, ‘I can build something and apply a little rigor to this process.'”
Serving the masses
The “mass” part of “mass customization” is arguably the hardest to tackle, said Tian. While some comparisons to the auto industry are apt, men’s wear companies work within much tighter budget confines, especially at the beginning of a company’s inception.
“When it comes to sourcing materials, as well as finding factories, it was really just about searching and searching and searching for the perfect fit,” Tian said. “We work with factories in China, because we knew we needed to be able to scale.” There simply aren’t enough U.S. factories to allow a company like Black Lapel to grow, said Tian, and while the company also considered using European factories to craft pieces, he found a dearth of experts there as well. Working in China, Tian said, helps Black Lapel move quickly and deliver an accurate product without pricing out its customer base.
Powell said working with a custom product actually opens up opportunities to experiment with new fabrics and give consumers a wider range of options than they might typically encounter.
“A lot of the men’s fabric shirting mills have a thousand fabrics they offer, all of which you can order in small batches,” Powell said. “But on the flip side, we want to bring a more differentiated approach, so we actually do a lot of in-house fabric development.”
Having close relationships with mill partners makes that possible, Powell said. Last year, Ratio Clothing developed a blend of Merino wool and Tencel branded lyocell fibers with a partner mill in Taiwan. The company also just released a collection of vibrant summer prints designed in-house.
“It’s something you would have never seen in a swatch book from a custom program 10 years ago, Powell said. “The challenge in custom clothing is creating a differentiated brand and value proposition within the space.”