It’s a polycultural world, and we’re just living in it.
If you listen to Trunk Club marketing VP Akash Pathak, this shift toward polyculturalism explains a lot about why customization and personalization are taking root in fashion.
We Instagram everything (even if some say the IG aesthetic is over) and consumers all kind of want to be influencers in their right, showing off the little worlds they’ve created and curated for everyone else to enjoy, in hopes that they’ll give their stamp of approval with a like, a heart, a thumbs up.
Netflix serves up movies and shows you’re almost guaranteed to appreciate, Spotify riffs on your listening history to suggest new songs, artists and playlists to explore and Amazon knows you bought A so you’ll probably buy B.
All of this is enabling behavior in which consumers are personalizing the world around them in mini culture bubbles that only have room for the select things that meet their unique taste and reflect their individualized points of view. It’s why Pathak, speaking at Lectra’s Fashion Forward panel in New York City Wednesday, described the rise of customization and personalization as “a human truth” that forms the essence of who individuals are in 2019.
Data and numbers today play a much bigger role in how fashion is conceived and created but there’ll always be a place for the “human” art of instinctual curation alongside the algorithmic science of personalizing size and style en masse, agreed Pathak and Seph Skerritt, founder of customized men’s clothing brand Proper Cloth.
When it launched 10 years ago, Proper Cloth focused exclusively on customizable shirting and gave shoppers the tools to create the exact garment they wanted. But the company quickly learned that too many choices and options weren’t the solution that most men want. Proper Cloth, which now sells pants and neckwear with several new products in the pipeline, decided to pivot slightly and design seasonal collections, a move that resonated with consumers hungry for a little sartorial guidance along with just enough options to tailor shirts to their liking.
“We had a point of view that matched our vision,” Skerritt said.
Proper Cloth learns about new customers through an 11-question guide that asks about height, weight, age, ethnicity, fitness level and other points of reference that influence and personalize how clothing fits because, Skerritt said, “measuring your body is so tedious.” The company’s proprietary Smart Sizes algorithm crunches all of that data to calculate the size it predicts will best drape your frame to your liking. Shoppers always have the option to buy from Proper Cloth’s collections in standard S, M, L, XL sizes with no customization but, Skerritt said, most have “that one thing” that they absolutely must have—a shirt pocket, for example, or a larger, more prominent collar.
The MIT-trained founder acknowledged the delicate balance between giving customers a wealth of options while not overwhelming them with choice. Skerritt cited the challenge of creating a streamlined, customer-friendly user interface as one of the biggest hurdles in building a successful customization business, with standing up a sophisticated supply chain as the other. Proper Cloth manufactures in Vietnam and Thailand, countries that have the sourcing and production prowess necessary to make mass customization a reality.
Like most apparel retailers, Proper Cloth sees speed as a competitive advantage, and it set up its end-to-end process to remove as much human interaction as possible. That way orders are transmitted to cut and sew immediately and with two-day international shipping, customers can receive their made-to-measure products in a less than a week.
When speed is a concern, some brands choose to reshore or move operations closer to their U.S. customer base but Skerritt noted the dearth of American manufacturers with the “sophistication, reliability and ability to operate at scale” for a made-to-measure client.
Proper Cloth built most of its tech stack in house but also taps solutions from Lectra and CAD tools that factories use in their sewing lines. “Generally speaking, mass customization didn’t really exist so we couldn’t just go to the vendor that does this well,” Skerritt said.
Proper Cloth’s 200,000 customers are largely satisfied with their customized-sizing experience; return rates are extremely low for digital commerce, just 3 percent. But Skerritt said the 35 percent of customers who asked for further tweaks and tailoring to their orders struck fear into the company. The idea of having to remake a customized garment was “very scary,” he added, mostly because of how the associated cost would take a bite out of profits.
Then the 10-year-old company discovered that customers who did go through the remake process ultimately became much more valuable and loyal, Skerritt explained. Now, Proper Cloth encourages the “slightly dissatisfied” shopper to choose the remake road. The men’s wear brand finetuned operations so that it wasn’t re-making goods that were “just plain wrong” from the start and is doing more alterations “because minor tweaks would make the product even better,” Skerritt continued. “You can really dial it in for the customer.”
Skerritt admitted that its sizing algorithm is most accurate for customers whose measurements fall in the “middle range”—average enough so that Proper Cloth’s collected thousands of very similar datasets. But as most men with “outlier” measurements—very tall and thin, for example, or perhaps short and portly—start using the service, the algorithm is getting better and fitting these customers over time, he said.
At Trunk Club, personalizing style recommendations for customers requires the careful marriage of art and science. Algorithms take on the responsibility of picking out most of the items a client is likely to love, based on purchase history and preference, but flesh-and-blood stylists often are the ones who create moments of magic. Most customers appreciate Trunk Club nudging them outside of their comfort zone and exposing them to a product they wouldn’t have given a second look, Pathak explained.
“The algorithm is their comfort zone but the art of it is ‘let’s throw this as them and see if they like it,’” Pathak said of how Trunk Club highly experienced staff can delight a customer with the unexpected.
But this approach contains an element of risk, and the question becomes: how much risk is too much? If you push people too far outside their well-defined comfort zone and miss the mark, you don’t really have too make opportunities today to repair a rocky customer relationship because so many competitors are standing by ready to steal your market share, Prathak noted.
Advocates of personalization, customization and made-to-order fashion say it could help consumers rethink their consumption patterns, and encourage them to value products they’ve actively co-created: making fewer but better things. Skerritt admitted that he struggles with the question of sustainability, a multifaceted challenge that fashion’s finally starting to take seriously.
Edouard Macquin, who now leads the Lectra Americas business, cited the oft-used comparison between fresh fish and fast fashion. Everyone loves a catch of the day but no one wants that fish two weeks later when it’s well past its prime. That’s the situation we’ve gotten into with collections delivered at lightning-fast speeds to consumers whose tastes change with every passing trend and inventory stockpiles marked down to reflect their diminishing value.
“We need to get away from that model because it’s definitely not sustainable,” Macquin said, “but you still need a business model that’s profitable.”