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Apparel Brands Are Testing the Waters of Mass Customization

Although demand for customizable apparel continues to grow, from both consumers and apparel brands themselves, adapting production lines to provide the necessary agility remains a challenge for companies of all sizes. In the 2019 Personalization Report, created in partnership with Lectra, Sourcing Journal surveyed
 308 people across the apparel, accessories and footwear industries to find out what investments and adaptations clothing manufacturers need to undertake in order to make personalization a possibility. Respondents’ answers illuminate a number of trends across the market, as well as starting points for brands that are ready to move toward customization in earnest.

Brands are already taking steps toward making mass personalization an offering. Almost half of respondents, 49.2 percent, are already creating smaller production runs to better serve market needs, and 42 percent have secured factories with quick-turn abilities. They’re undertaking other initiatives to prep, too: 40 percent are manufacturing closer to market and 32.6 percent are shortening development timelines through digitization.

Technology is a major factor that’s keeping fashion firms from offering personalization, said one respondent, adding that the cost and time commitment prevent apparel companies from getting on board. Also, one respondent said, customization tech “requires a new business model which includes modifying one’s own factory or finding a sourcing partner willing to take on one-off or very small production runs.”

Production and assembly are by far the areas most in need of an overhaul in order to deliver on made-to-measure and customization. For example, factories like OnPoint Manufacturing have created systems that are agile enough to change processes within moments, switching functions from one garment to the next. That’s compared to a typical manufacturing facility in which the lines produce the same garments and garment pieces continuously. Add to that the need for major changes in allocation and sourcing and the timeline for widespread personalization looks like a long one to some experts. Jerry Hu, senior director for product innovation for Spalding Sports, said it could take another five to 10 years for true personalization to be cost-effective.

“The factories are looking for big volume orders so they can lower their costs and cover their overhead,” Hu said. “Factories would need two production lines, one for mass production and one small, almost a sample room, to manage the custom product. For a factory, they can’t allow the customized products to slow down the mass production.”

Predictions for when these business models could go mainstream varied, with 37 percent of respondents estimating it will take four to five years, 22.4 percent guessing six to nine years, and 20.8 percent reporting it will take only two to three years for these models to be the norm.

The disparate expectations are in part due to brands’ lack of action in supporting the necessary changes. Only 20.3 percent of respondents said their companies are investing in improvements that will facilitate mass customization and made-to-measure capabilities. The companies not currently investing a personalization-directed business model reported various reasons for not doing so—just over 20 percent will move forward as soon as customers demand it, while 13 percent are waiting on factory upgrades and 9.4 percent will only move towards customization if their competitors do the same.

Around a third of respondents, 30.9 percent, said converting to mass personalization is on their to-do lists within the next five years. Those companies are focusing first on product development tools, then factories. Of the companies that have already made strides, 34.9 percent said they’ve identified manufacturing facilities that are prepared to make personalized goods. Just over 27 percent are investing in product development tools, and 24 percent feel they’ve determined how to make the model profitable. And as one respondent pointed out, the move towards mass personalization will continue slowly but steadily as technology and resources become more accessible from a cost standpoint. “It’s a lot of work for not a lot of reward,” said one respondent, and the next several years will be spent balancing those costs against the potential returns.

Download the full report now.