Is mass customization in apparel possible?

Someone I’ll call Thomas writes:

I’ve been seeing more and more mass customization type apparel companies and they have been mostly men’s formal (shirts, suits, etc.). What are your thoughts on that? I have your book and have been reading your blog and I believe you have written about just-in-time manufacturing/custom manufacturing in years past. Now that technology is improving and costs of overseas manufacturing seem to be rising with some “hard line” products coming back to the US. What are your takes on “mass customization”? Could it be done with apparel?

Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Sorry, maybe that isn’t funny but it was the first thought that came to mind. Yes it is possible within given parameters and I’ll answer it in the context of a start up business option.

Other than the obvious, there are two central issues with respect to Mass Customization -or MTM for Made to Measure (manufacturing)- that must be determined. The first is timeliness and the second is product diversity.

With respect to timeliness, how quickly do you plan to ship to your customer? In a day, a week, a month, two months, more? There are no set criterion but much of the discussion of MTM seems to imply that delivery should be relatively fast. If long lead times (a month or more) aren’t an issue, it is typical for MTM enterprises to have their production outsourced off shore. If you want to deliver more quickly, it will probably have to be domestic and you’ll have to be the one doing it. If you’re asking whether it is possible for you to do it cost effectively domestically, the answer is yes but again, there are a few hurdles that I’ll get into further down.

With respect to product diversity, the products your MTM enterprise will produce have to be relatively static, namely mostly shirts or slacks or suits etc. as you mentioned. It is entirely possible to have other types of products but the base style will be tightly focused. Meaning for example, a range of pant styles with different waistband options but going from a suit to a ball gown is untenable.

Other than the front end which requires some sophistication in compiling orders and specifications, the reason the product you sell must be tightly defined is for three central reasons:

  1. Rapid and ongoing pattern changes  for each order means you’ll need CAD software and someone to drive it (again, CAD software won’t make patterns for you anymore than Word will write a book for you). You’ll also need a plotter or a CAM cutting solution.
  2. If you offer customers the option of selecting from a range of fabrics, you’ll have the overhead of carrying fabric inventory.
  3. Lastly, the best and fastest method of single unit production requires a well designed sewing cell or sewing pod with given machines for each operation arranged next to each other so operators can walk from machine to machine in the flow of making a garment.

If you have all the above -to include the electronic infrastructure for order taking- it is possible to cut, sew and ship a product in very short order such as a day or three (depending on a back log if any). The costs of such a set up to include human infrastructure are considerable. For this reason you probably don’t want to invest in something like this until you have sales to drive it. Which means you have a chicken or egg problem.

I think you can only create something like this in stages. First create a product and cut and sew to order by yourself. A lot of people do that -the issue is being able to scale and know when it’s time to finesse your operation which is again, done in stages.

Some people think the solution is to hire a contractor and I’m not saying you can’t only that I don’t know of any contractors willing to do single orders on an ongoing basis. You may find individuals who are willing to do it but again, you’re probably going to have to get the item cut for them. It then becomes a bit trying in managing customers, having the means to adjust patterns, cut the fabric and then deliver the work to whomever will sew it. Ideally it’s you and somebody else working together in the same space because a lot less time will be wasted ferrying stuff to and fro.

As challenging as a set up like this is, I think it is a great goal to aspire to. As long as you have sales to drive it, it can be done although of course, you’ll have to have the resources to acquire the equipment and a space from whence stuff can get done. It can require significant capitalization but then that depends on your definition. I had a client who installed a cell like this and I was surprised at how little it cost. I expected it to be twice as much. Their package included machines, consulting and training for a cost of $35K. That’s not to say that is a complete and total cost because they had interim consulting (with me) before they could get to the stage of implementing a cell like that and they also had software and typical work room amenities such as cutting tables, cutting equipment, furnishings and the like.

Anyone considering an operational model like this should come with us to the TexProcess show this coming April where there will be a lean cell in action and to talk to the people from America’s 21st who set it up. It is neat to watch, the demonstration draws quite a crowd. I still remember the first time I saw them in action probably circa 1996. The stitchers were making zip front canvas working jackets with pockets. I’ll tell you how long it took them to make each one -on average, 11 minutes- even though you’ll swear I am lying. Again, go to this show; it will pay for itself. The show is only held every other year so if you don’t go now, you’ll have to wait until 2014 to begin your nefarious quest of world domination via single unit production.

Questions? Comments? I’m sure I left tons out. Be a dear and let me know what that was.

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9 comments

  1. Hi, great post and interesting read. I am co-founder of http://www.unitedstyles.com. our vision is to enable anyone anywhere to design and buy their totally unique fashion- design. we go further than mass-customization and produce all fabrics and prints on demand. we have launched just 3 months ago and have been shipping totally unique consumer created designs from day 1. so yes it’s possible. Best, Xander

  2. Bente says:

    This is interesting, but searching about it I find mostly articles from 10 years ago. Would be interesting to know the names on some of this mass customization companies that “Thomas” mentioned.

    After reading a bit more I understand that the words Mass Customization is a mix of “mass” and “customization”, not a MTM (made to measure) manufacturing. It combines the low unit cost of mass production with individual customization.
    Sounds quite unrealistic, really! But ok, I get the interesting future in this: satisfy the customers wants.
    I cannot see how a start-up can survive doing this as there will be needed a huge investment in software investment to be able to configure the products fast enough to satisfy the customers.
    An approach to customization could be interesting: have different collar and cuffs to chose from, different colors/patterns, different buttons etc.
    I would say; if you want to have huge and exciting challenges…go for it!

  3. Kevin says:

    If you use google (and probably bing too) you can select to see only results from the past year (or past 24 hours, what have you).

    Doing that I found two articles that mention Indochino, Blank Label, J. Hilburn, Anto Distinctive Shirtmaker as example companies; I imagine that if Thomas is reading the same news articles I am, these could have been among the ones he mentioned.

    The first manufactures abroad but its lead time was, at least for the author of the article on slate, only 2 weeks. It seems like a lot of these companies had more money than they knew what to do with at first — Indochino raised 4M from venture capitalists prior to its launch.

    Here are the articles: two about the companies, and the latter about the funding Indochino received.
    http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/29/image/la-ig-custom-shirts-20120129

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/shopping/2011/09/hot_collars.html

    http://allthingsd.com/20110329/indochino-stitches-up-4-million-round-to-fund-mens-custom-apparel-site/

  4. JoAnne Hopkins says:

    This is basically what we are doing in my company right now..
    I’m constantly adjusting patterns, and have 2 sewing stations in my living room (1 for the overlock, the other for the coverstitch)..
    This is really fascinating..
    I’m gonna “pray” for a miracle, I’d love to attend that show..

  5. Bente says:

    Nice stories Kevin. I specially enjoyed reading about Blank Label and J. Hilburn.
    I am still in doubt about what can be called Mass Customization Manufacturing though.
    It still has to be Mass Manufacturing. Seams like these companies you mentioned above would fit the terminology.

  6. Ted says:

    Kathleen,
    As always thank you for your post. I get so much value from your candid writing and your systematic viewpoint on manufacturing processes/lean, etc.. Look forward to connecting with you at the show! Plans have been made, dates blocked off. Never been to Atlanta so we’re trying to make a road trip outta this.
    And for your reader “Thomas” Keep the faith and just ask questions and surround yourself with smart people like Kathleen! ;)

  7. Marie-Christine says:

    Here’s another somewhat-customized option I’ve found recently: http://www.moi-meme.com/ Offers options for the most common ‘deviants’ (except plus size, grrrr!) with a basic array of styles and your choice of neutral fabrics, with flexible pieces and not just standard suits. Cleverly aiming at a market of women who don’t have that many options, and with a much more professional website than usual for clothes. They manufacture in Vietnam, with a turnaround time of 4 weeks.

  8. Brina says:

    Marie-Christine
    The Moi-Meme site says that they will be offering plus sizes soon and a person can sign up to find out more/give input.

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