Customisation versus Bespoke

The fashion industry is always moving. It’s the ethos behind it, really. Fashion moves us, shakes us, tempts us and encourages us to try something new.

The latest disrupter to our world in fashion is known as customisation.

It’s happening all over the fashion world: with handbags, shoes and clothing! It is also happening with consumer goods as well—do you remember Coca-Cola selling bottles with your name on it, as did Nutella? That’s all part of customisation.

There are a number of factors behind the increase in customisation. Creating a point of difference in a tough retail market can give your brand exposure and create a successful profitable business. One highly positive way to view customisation is the pinnacle of customer service. It makes your customer feel special. You are able to give them something that no one else can.

It’s exciting and interesting. But also very tricky for a start-up. Customisation can be quite cost-prohibitive for a start-up. Perhaps if you are lucky to have partners or investors, you can dabble in this latest trend, but generally speaking, it makes for headaches for you, the designer, and your manufacturer. It is important to understand the difference between Customisation, Made to order and Bespoke (or made to measure).

Customisation is the first level of making something individual. It is where the customer gets to personalise their product. If you’re designing a T-shirt, your customer, through customisation, can request to have a short sleeve T-shirt, instead of the long-sleeve tee you’ve designed. Or, request for their own initials to be placed on the front pocket or a split where a seam would normally go. Of course, you want to give your customer enough choice in details to make it individual while keeping within the parameters of what is capable. What do I mean by this? To understand the parameters it is important to understand the basic economics of mass production (by mass I mean more than one garment).

The price of these products is determined by the cost of making the product (fabrics, trims and make costs) plus margin, plus mark up to wholesale and then the retail mark up.

In order to keep within a reasonable price-point, you must keep the initial cost of fabric and production as low as possible. The way to do this is through bulk production. We start this process by creating a production marker (laying the pattern pieces on the fabric in the most cost effective way. This allows for greater than 75% usage of the fabric which is very high) you then lay fabric on top of each other in multiple lays, sometimes 100 lays, to reduce the time to cut each garment (this is called bulk cutting). Garments are then sewn in a production line of a few machinists all working on their individual machines at the same time to utilise machinery and time. Economies of scale reduce the cost of production.


You would leave features, such as lengths, splits or printing or embroidery to be finished to the customer’s individual order at the end of production. For example, you could make silk pyjamas with an embroidered pocket which is sewn on at the end of the sample. Hundreds of pyjamas would be sewn in the production environment and only when the pyjamas are purchased would the pocket be embroidered and sewn on, creating a customised garment.

Made-to-order is when the customer can choose more significant changes to a design, such as fabric and major design changes. This is the one I am asked about the most. A young designer has a dream to be the next Shoes of Prey or similar, but it is trickier than you think. Why? Let’s imagine the process involved. The workroom of a business that produces this product would either start with a card pattern or a pattern printed off. A cutter would find the roll of fabric and drop it onto a table to pull out a length required, lay the pattern pieces on top, trace around it or pin the pattern on, and hand-cut a single garment to the requirement, utilising about 60% of the fabric. The machinist would then change approximately three machines over to the correct colour thread and then a sample machinist will sew this garment—requiring more complex skills than that of a production machinist.

This is what we do at Sample Room, but for designers creating their own range. We create the patterns and sew the samples. This process is time and labour-intensive of highly skilled staff which is therefore expensive.

Finally, bespoke or made-to-measure is tailor-made to your customer’s measurements then designed and sewn accordingly. Picture the elderly Italian tailor or wedding dress designer/machinist who works in a small, but crowded, room with an old Singer sewing machine in the middle, with a lamp next to it. Rolls of fabric are resting along the length of one wall. Tape measure constantly around their neck, tailor’s chalk never far from their reach, nor a pencil. Tins of Dorcas pins are on a measuring table. This person designs and creates suits or jackets or dresses specifically for the one customer, to his or her own measurements. And the result is a perfect fit, with smooth lines, and seams that sit in the right place. Imagine a tailored suit or wedding dress.

Customisation does not compare with made-to- order or bespoke.

From my experience, when speaking with the many people who seek to provide a customised business—which is effectively a made-to- order business—I believe it is only possible if you are willing to invest in machinery, a small factory and hire full-time cutters and machinist (if you are lucky enough to find quality sample machinists who are as rare as hen’s teeth). Finding a factory either locally or overseas who is willing and able to do this for a client would be a miracle. I won’t say it is impossible, as we are seeing products and designs customised, but locally, for anything highly complex, it is hard to deliver to your customer within a time-frame and price-point that the majority of customers are seeking. The other problem is that consumer laws are tricky around this area of business. There are ways to protect the designer from expensive returns that cannot be resold, but this may go against your beliefs surrounding customer service that drove you to deliver it in the first place.

I recently said to one client, who started this business model for dresses where you could select a number of components and fabrics, ‘Would you let someone come to your website and order a princess neckline, empire line, long gathered dress, with mid-length puffy sleeves in lemon yellow satin?’ Most of the population cannot visualise this, yet they can order it at a premium price with no refund policy. I’m calling it now: the unhappy customer.

I don’t know about you but sometimes we can be paralysed by choice, it is too hard and so you turn away. I would rather someone designed a range that suited my body shape and lifestyle and showed me how to wear the clothes in multiple ways that reflect my personality.

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