Fashion Brands Embrace Customers’ Cravings For Customization - CATEGORY Report today: TITLE

When American designer Virgil Abloh took a Sharpie to the midsole of his Nike Airs in May, 2017, writing out the name of the shoe line in quotation marks, the cultural firestorm he ignited was fierce. Soon, all over the globe, fans of his streetwear label, Off-White, picked up their feet to participate – in what was essentially a stroke of marketing genius – by jotting nouns surrounded by quotation marks onto their sneakers' soles, laces and collars. (And, in fact, Abloh went on to create a collection of shoes for Nike around that initial scribble.)

The simple act transformed shoes into statements that were personal, arresting and fresh.

Personalization is not a new concept in fashion or in athletic gear – kids have always sewn patches onto their denim jackets and drawn on their Vans. But the past three years have seen an increase in mass-customization offerings from brands following improvements in production methods.

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"While the whole industry has talked about mass customization for the past 15 years, it never had a breakthrough. We now see certain production methods that allow personalization or even tailoring," says Achim Berg, a senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. who advises fashion and luxury clients on optimizing apparel sourcing and distribution. "In the end, it's all a toolkit, so it's not completely built from scratch. Five years ago, it would have been impossible to do that when the whole [system] was built on volume production."

Customized production in small volumes is a new possibility that greatly assists brands in personalization. Adidas began taking advantage of this in 2015 when, after it opened a specialized factory, it started to allow customers to choose specific materials, colours and styles of shoes and other gear purchased online. Nike followed soon after.

Other companies are building customization options into their bricks-and-mortar stores. In April, tennis and golf brand Lacoste – celebrating its 85th anniversary and in the midst of a revival, following collaborations with streetwear brand Supreme and creative agency M/M Paris – will open a new renovated store featuring a customization bar at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto. Already a hit in Los Angeles and Geneva, the concept means customers can have names, initials and flags embroidered into the sleeves of their purchases at no additional cost.

"We are very focused on the customer experience. We want to move from a customer to a consumer, and from a consumer to a Lacoste fan," says Grégoire Brasset, vice-president of Lacoste Canada.

And it's not just a trend attracting sports labels: Many high-end brands are jumping on board, including Gucci with its DIY collection and Louis Vuitton, which since September, 2017, at multiple stores in Vancouver and Toronto, has given customers the chance to design their own belts, choosing from 14 different strap materials and 12 types of buckles. The options, which include calf leather, ostrich and crocodile for straps, and buckles in palladium, olive wood or shiny gold, allow for up to 240 variations of belts.

This opportunity is particularly beneficial to luxury brands in which the customer is often removed from the production process and only experiences the finished product. In-store customization lets consumers come face-to-face with some of the skilled craftspeople behind their goods and encourages a human connection to the brand.

Coach customers can create custom designs at its craftsmanship bars.

American leather-goods maker Coach taps into the trend with its craftsmanship bars, where in-store craftspeople produce custom designs. The company's craftspeople spend two years honing their skills by splitting time between the Fifth Avenue Coach House in New York and the Coach store they work in, and become a personal representation of the brand's identity, while also completing customizations on site in under an hour. A rendering tool in an accompanying app allows customers to choose their colours, pick their embellishments and visualize how the arrangements of roses, rivets and pins will look. (It also helps the craftsperson who marks out the placement of the customizations for each bag variety using stencils.)

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Canadian outerwear brand Moose Knuckles also employs an app to make customization of its fabric and patches more widely available, which it tested in a pop-up at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, ahead of opening its flagship store at the mall last November. "Fashion can be so uptight and elitist. We wanted to make the design process really accessible to everyone," says Moose Knuckles creative director Steph Hoff. "As a brand, we don't think fashion is precious. What might look like a mishmash of colours and patches to me might be perfection to someone else."

Moose Knuckles tested out a customization app in a pop-up at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre.

The way we shop is changing. From bidding wars on eBay to shoppable apartments and hotel rooms, where everything in the space from armchairs to clothing is available for purchase, brands are trying everything in their means to connect with their customers. Personalization has hugely expanded in the past three years, but it still has a long way to go.

"It's not a surprise that we see customization currently mainly in sneakers or small leather products. In order to see a real breakthrough in mass customization, you have to be able to take the measurements of a customer in a more convenient way," says Berg, who believes customizing fit through technology is the future of personalization.

Nothing says "personal experience" like inviting a customer to contribute to their purchase – whether it's drawing on their runners or hand-selecting fabric or a patch placement. The devil is in the details, after all.

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