With fashion calendars thrown into disarray, factories scrambling to complete delayed orders, and consumer demand at an all time high of unpredictability, it feels like chaos is the only constant in the current fashion landscape. Upon closer inspection, though, custom-designed clothes and shoes are quickly solidifying themselves as part of a rare trend that is poised to endure whatever 2020, and beyond, has in store. And you've probably already been embracing it.
Customization, the concept of allowing the consumer to take an active role at some stage of the design process, is certainly not new. Even bespoke tailoring and couture, bastions of fashion's good ol' days, were preceded by small batch, made-to-order operations. Fast forward over a century, past the emergence of mass-produced designer collections and fast fashion, to find the industry is following its oft-bemoaned cyclical trajectory, and returning to the concept of small batch and made-to-order offerings. According to some of the brands who are approaching customization in different ways, not only are there a myriad of benefits, but also our industry's most glaring imperfections may have inadvertently given rise to the trend that will ultimately save it. How's that for cyclical?
Take Anita Patrickson, stylist and founder of Amanu, the made-to-order sandal brand she launched in 2018, for example. With a laser-focused product selection — two sole colors, and just 12 core styles — she was able to spend considerable time sourcing high-quality materials and creating an in person experience that highlights the craftsmanship process. It's a model that provides a greater connection to the product and, hopefully, a consequently longer relationship with it. It's been so successful that Patrickson has just launched an online customization shop, to enable shoppers who don't have access to one of her outposts — or are observing social distancing — the ability to partake. "With COVID-19 causing us to close our doors we had to rethink everything," explains Patrickson. "But I realized moving online and creating a new process needn't mean losing all the moments and practices that make Amanu so special." The new platform allows customers to make all of the same selections as they would in person, fill out a fit card to return along with the style via a pre-packaged label, and receive a finished product that is unique to their foot and molded by hand. This form of customization in both design and fit sets a new bar for the luxury sandal industry, and not just in the finished product. "We are the dirtiest industry after oil and we all need to be held accountable," says Patrickson, who points to this slower, more considered approach to consumption as a way to retrain ourselves to make fewer, more lasting purchases. "We need to consume way less and at a much slower pace, and on-demand is a much higher touch point for the customer, they can receive a higher level of care that also forces us all to slow things down." It's something that a tailor-made sandal certainly achieves over a poorly constructed, ill-fitting, mass-produced style. People are also realizing they need fewer things as a result of this new normal. "I think people want less but better quality, and more ethical and sustainable brands that they can buy into, knowing they are doing something good."
The sentiment of doing something good is also at the core of Lagos-based brand Elexiay. Elyon Adede founded the crochet ready-to-wear label with the goal of honoring and preserving local artisanship while minimizing environmental impact. "Craftsmanship and female empowerment are vital at Elexiay," explains Adede who exclusively employs women and has personal relationships with each of them. Much like Amanu, Elexiay launched with an exclusive focus on one category; crochet. The craft is taught in many after school programs, so Adede decided to create a business that would share a piece of her childhood heritage with the world.
If that sense of community wasn't enough — and Adede plans on introducing more Nigerian crafts to the brand's offerings in future — she cites personal connection as the key reason she adopted the made-to-order model. "I decided to tailor every piece according to the beauty of each individual's body — every inch, every curve, for the everyday woman in whatever color, whatever style, whatever size she chooses." This wholehearted acceptance and celebration of different body types also reinforces the concept of fewer, more meaningful purchases, because no closet item is more cherished than an expertly tailored piece of clothing. "Every woman is beautiful, I say that without any hesitation or doubt in my mind," says Adede. "Regardless of size, color, shape, all beautiful. I’m on a journey of self love, choosing everyday that I love my body whether or not it fits into the standard US size chart." Celebrating all body types, which is more easily achieved through made-to-order designs, is an approach that democratizes the joy of fashion. And it's certainly something that the consumer has long been craving.
Of course, none of this is to say that an on-demand model is easy, or cheap. Celeste Markey and Elizabeth Shah, co-founders of newly launched Careste, spent six months establishing their initial supply chain, which now means they can create an item in eight days, and ship it to a customer within 12 days of the order being placed. While it takes considerable effort to get off the ground, this slower, more considered approach to offering luxury wardrobe staples, means brands aren't saddled with vast amounts of costly and wasteful inventory. "Covid wreaked havoc on traditional supply chains when brands were forced to cancel orders from their factories, leaving literally millions of unfinished pieces on the ground which saddled factories with debt and inventory," explains co-founder Celeste Markey. "In contrast, because we make on demand, we are nimble and able to work with a shorter development calendar."
The result is mini capsule collections, tailored to what the customer wants in real time, like their most recent '29 Palms' capsule which was designed as a response to changes in lifestyle during quarantine — and is already shoppable. By combining this made-to-order model which reduces waste, with real-time design in response to the current climate, they believe Careste is more finely attuned to what the customer wants. "By creating products individually and on-demand, we are able to eliminate all of the excess waste created in the industry by mass production, creating a new, sustainable business model in the industry and a new way for conscious, luxury fashion customers to shop."
With the environment and sustainability even more front of mind in the shadow of this global pandemic, it is an approach that savvy brands can no longer ignore. And if you can also combine environmental consciousness with inclusivity and support for local communities — all qualities consumers have all shifted to put more attention towards — then you're really onto something. In keeping with this year of twists and turns, it's fitting that 2020's most enduring fashion trend has little to do with aesthetics, and everything to do with values.