Effective Technology Adds Value To Made To Order

The fashion industry as we know it is well due for a change. With Industry 4.0 driving digitisation and innovation, plus the pressure for more sustainable business practices (reinforced by amazing movements like Fashion Revolution), fashion designers and brands must adapt to the on-demand model. Made to order is one of the most disrupting market shifts resulting from this new behaviour.

There is no need to worry, though. Change is our only certainty, and it’s within everyone’s reach. It gets more and more exciting to see all these possibilities being built between physical and digital, technological and artisanal, and the made to order business model is combining technology and expertise to design products and services tailored to customer’s specifications and demands.

Made to Order vs Made To Stock

Have you ever had products that got stuck in inventory? If the answer is yes, then made to order might help you rebalance that issue. From luxury to mass-market fashion, we have seen how the Law of Supply and Demand has had devastating — and wasteful — effects in the fashion industry: Burberry famously incinerated over £90m in the last 5 years (according to the BBC), and H&M allegedly burns 12 tonnes of garments every year (according to an investigation on the Danish program Operation X).

That is because a surplus of stock (offer) usually has its price tag reduced to generate demand — what luxury brands see as reducing their brand value. Mass-market fashion, including fast-fashion, on the other hand, produces such an unimaginable amount of stock that at some point they have zero demand. Made to stock might serve some industries well, but its format within the fashion industry seems to be outdated and it’s been very criticised by consumers, who are more aware of the impact fashion industry has in the environment, and thus are demanding more sustainable practices, signalling a very important change in how people consume things and what they expect from brands and companies.

A photo of a shelf in a clothing store that is full of different pairs of trousers stacked one upon the other. The pieces are mostly brown, and we can see different price tags hanging off them. They are priced from $590 to $790.

In the overwhelming offer of available clothing to buy — in stores or online — made to order can help lessen the waste and gives the customer pieces with the feeling of exclusivity, garments picked especially for each one of them, listening to their demand.

Made to Order For Inclusivity In The Fashion Industry: One Size Does Not Fit All

You know the feeling: going to a clothing shop and having to try variations of sizes because a size 8 here might be a size 10 there… If everyone has different bodies, how can we expect the same size 10 to fit most people perfectly? In an overwhelming promotion of clothes offered online and in stores, the reality is only a small fraction of them are the right ones for our personal tastes, and some made to order startups are solving the curating issue around the huge offer consumers are presented with.

Pattern and model cutting vary from brand to brand, and even from country to country, according to cultural preferences and genetics in the body type. An on-going demand for inclusivity in the fashion industry has brought up how sizing is arbitrary and inconsistent — not to mention outdated when we consider the complexity of human bodies and how dressing properly affects the way each person creatively express themselves through fashion.

But how made to order can address that, amongst other issues? According to the report State of Fashion 2019, by Business of Fashion and McKinsey&Company, data analytics and automation help innovative startups to adopt new made to order production cycles. As a result, mass-market names will follow, rising just-in-time production and the importance of small-batch production cycles. Get to know two very innovative cases below:

On the left, we have a photo of a senior person tracing a cutting pattern on dark blue fabric. We can only see the person's hands. On the right, we have a photo (taken from the top) of a man dressed in a dark navy suit. His brown oxford shoes are out of focus. He is wearing a fancy watch on his left wrist and tiding his left sleeve with his right hand. We can't see past his upper chest.

Made to order (produced to supply a special or an individual demand)  is not to be confused with made to measure: fashioned to measurements specifically required, like tailoring. Both of them, however, can provide customers with an emotional attachment to the pieces.

Stitch Fix: AI Innovation in Made to Order

Founded in 2011 by Harvard Business School student Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix is an online personal styling service in the US using data science to find the best-fitting clothes for their customers. In 2019, the company was nominated as one of the most innovative companies by technology media Fast Company.

After signing up, each customer answers a series of questions about their body type, including height and weight, and rates some clothing styles according to their preference — a lot of data input upfront for the algorithm to work on before the first “Fix” is sent. Customers are also advised to create a Pinterest board of their fashion preferences, so the software can match their favourite shapes and styles to the company’s inventory. Aimed at people who dislike shopping (or have some difficulty finding what looks good on them), it offers “Fixes” of fashion: individual pieces tailored to their tastes and size, including accessories and footwear, sent to their homes. The customer chooses what they wish to keep and returns the rest.

But how is it done successfully, without the customers ever getting measured or choosing the pieces individually?

On the left, we see a cardboard box with "Stitch Fix" tape standing by a yellow door. In the middle, we see a woman's arms opening the box. She is wearing a blue and white striped jumper, a watch and some bracelets on her left wrist. She is also opening a white envelope. Inside the box, we can see four pieces of clothing folded. On the right, there are two images. On the top, there are a few folded clothes: blue jacket, a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, a blue belt, and a pair of white trainers. Below, we see the female version, with a folded orange blouse, grey trousers, a pale blue shirt, a striped blue and white T-shirt, and a pair of brown sandals.

Stitch Fix: a made to order service that uses an algorithm and AI to analyse the fashion preferences of its subscribers after a lengthy quiz. Customers can even provide more information by downloading the brand’s app and playing a daily style quiz! Credit: Images courtesy of Stitch Fix

The answer is a mix of algorithmic and human curation: the merchandise team measures each piece of clothing, tagging texture and aesthetic, also taking into consideration customer’s requests too subtle for AI “I need something to wear to my ex-girlfriend’s wedding,” for example). Customers are also able to request specific pieces they have seen on Instagram as well.  Stitch Fix is not making bespoke pieces for each customer — the company purchases clothes at wholesale from over a 1,000 brands, including high-end names like Kate Spade, and designs some pieces in-house combining data from popular garments according to their merchandise team, guaranteeing new clothes which predict high buying rates. The made to order business model is still being applied in the sense that is tailoring its offers to each individual, and for that algorithms drive all the moves. The company only profits if people choose to keep the pieces (there is a fee charged for each Fix, but this is credited toward the customer’s purchases), so the innovation lies in sending them exactly what they’ll like and will fit them.

By analysing all the data entry up front, by listening precisely to what each customer wants — listening to their demand — Stitch Fix is able to provide an extremely profitable made to order service: the company made US$ 1.2 billion in 2018, according to Fast Company, and it is now considered to be reinventing online retail in the fashion industry.

Unmade: Customisation and Customer Engagement

Founded in 2014 by Hal Watts, Ben Alun-Jones, and Kirsty Emery, Unmade’s initial idea was to provide highly customisable knitwear direct to consumer. Now, however, the company has chosen to provided B2B (business to business) services, collaborating with names like Christopher Raeburn, Opening Ceremony, and MoMA. “Opening Ceremony, for example, really understands how the relationship between brands and their customers is evolving,” Hal Watts told Fashion United in 2018. “Fashion designers used to tell people ‘this is what you should wear’. With social media, this relationship has been changing. We aim to extend the conversation,” he continues.

Unmade’s innovation is a software that can help the fashion industry to move closer to an on-demand supply chain model, allowing people to customise items according to some predefined parameters. In their partnership with Christopher Raeburn, for instance, it allowed customers to reinterpret his spring-summer 2016 collection; with MoMA, people could create their own interventions on a classic Breton striped piece. Fashion tech that is innovative and fun as well.

A collage of three images. On the left, we see a black and white photo of a woman in jeans and a striped long-sleeved T-shirt that has interventions on it, turning into whirls on the left sleeve. On the top right, we see a knitted jumper in red with a blue geometric pattern. We can read a tag that says "Farfetch". Below this image, we have a detail of a knitted black and white jumper with a loop texture. There is a cursive "L" on the chest area, on the right.

A software already integrated into a knitting or printing machine that’s able to read customers’ interventions in patterns to create a garment that’s completely unique: the brilliant idea of Unmade. Personalisation beyond a simple monogram embroidery… Credit: Image courtesy of Unmade

After personalisation, the order is sent directly to the factory, where the individual orders are integrated into the existing production — a made to order process that doesn’t interfere with the rest of the production line, but it is included in it instead, with no extra costs. There is no more excess stock — no need to reduce the price –, and the customer also gets a product that is one of a kind. “I think we should ask ourselves how deep customization can go,” Hal continues. “Adding your initials to a handbag… Is that all we can offer in terms of customization? We aim for a deeper relationship, a much more interesting proposition”. That way, brands can form a much deeper relationship with their customers, building a strong community.

Unmade’s software started with knitwear and has already moved to print, and embroidery and laser cutting should be coming out soon as well.

Made to Order For a Sustainability Demand

In an interview with Fashion United, Hal Watts (one of the founders of Unmade) states that “10% of all clothes go straight to landfill because they are never actually sold,” and we have seen similar statistics from Fashion Revolution. Made to order can bring a lot of sustainability to the fashion industry, such as:

A photo from inside a shop. We see the top of three rails with lots of clothes hanging. Above it, there is a neon writing that says: "Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We're #2"

The fashion industry is due for an imminent change. Sustainability is one of the results of the made to order business model since fewer clothes are produced, reducing waste along the supply chain.

  • Reducing waste: made to order reduces material expenses and material waste in the fashion industry, which has an enormous effect on the supply chain. When we waste textiles (sending it to a landfill if it’s not biodegradable), we are also wasting resources like water and energy, amongst other things, used along the production line.
  • Customisable/personalised production: made to order implies that the products might not be immediately available (though we have seen with Stitch Fix that this isn’t necessarily true). However, it allows for a wide range of customisation and personalisation — custom prints, interventions, and even shapes — that are far more interesting for the customer, adding a lot more value and making it worth waiting for the (possible) extra time to get the piece. According to Deloitte’s Consumer Review report “Made-to-order: The rise of mass personalisation”, more than 50% of consumers expressed interest in purchasing customised products or services, willing to pay more for a customised product or service.
  • Less inefficiency: generally, the manufacturing of the made to order business model takes place after the customer has placed an order. This means that all the resources are put to good use, and innovation and technology are working together in manufacturing products as efficiently as possible.

The on-demand business model requires all the attention on the customer, which will change the way we consume fashion goods — be it as an end consumer or a B2B player. Fashion buyers and designers, for example, can have their textile demands heard all over the world: sign up to our platform to know more.

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