Made to measure manufacturing

Quick, who’s the largest custom suit manufacturer in North America? I suppose the question is rhetorical; few are going to guess. It’s Coppley Apparel Group in Ontario Canada. With a 30% increase in sales this year, Coppley’s success is an indicator of the continuing growth of made to measure manufacturing, the closest example to pull or lean manufacturing a company can realize. With over 600 existing employees, they’ll be adding 200 employees over the next year. Coppley has employed three key strategies to meet the demands of custom clothing. These are technology, retail buy-in and implementation. [By the way, I’m cribbing this from the most recent edition of Canadian Apparel Magazine -from which you can read select articles on the web- but it taxes all but the most determined visitors. The magazine is not free anymore but I think the subscription is worth it ($35 USD). I think it’s a great publication regardless of on which side of the border you reside. I’ve been getting it for years; it’s just so … friendly!]

Their cutting edge process is surprisingly simple; it relies on an eight foot length of gridded paper, a digital camera and a laptop computer. The process starts by photographing the customer in front of the grid. While measurements still need to be taken (17), it doesn’t require the precision of a tailor to do them. The critical elements of slope and aspect are captured with photography. Once the suit has been ordered, dimensions are sent to operations, where using a Gerber CAD/CAM system (Coppley is using it off the shelf; it’s not custom configured for their use) cuts the item. From the time one has ordered the suit, it is delivered inside of one week anywhere in Canada or the US. Pretty amazing. All told, the company has six million skus. Selecting from five basic bodies, customers can choose fabrications (600 selections), vent style (sides or back or I’d imagine none although the article doesn’t say such), pocket style, two or three button, single or double breasted and so on. My my my.

Retail buy-in
Usually, the trickiest thing about flying a made to measure operation is retail. Few companies are organized in such fashion as to be integrated into the traditional retail store. Obviously, retail outlets sell goods they have on the floor, how can they sell an item that doesn’t yet exist if they’re not the ones making it? Coppley has employed two central strategies. First, they package the measurement process and technology and train retailers to use it at low cost. Coppley pays for the training sessions, a factory tour, meals, room and board and sells the kit (laptop, camera and grid) for $1,000, much lower than the actual kit cost of $2,400. It seems to be working for them; retailers are wild about it, gaining a premium margin of 20% for custom sales. Accordingly, the twelve annual training sessions fill quickly. The article explains:

“Our business is growing exponentially as retailers look for opportunities to be more profitable,” says Jones. “A subset of that is not to carry the kinds of inventories they once carried. So, if they once carried 200 suits and did no made-to-measure, and today they carry 100 [ready to wear] suits and 100 made-to-measure suits, they are a way more profitable store because they haven’t had to pay for the goods up front like they used to do. When they sell made-to-measure, they collect half the cost when they sell the garment. The fellow returns in seven days and they collect the balance. Ten days later the have to pay us as opposed to paying up front”.

The article is a tad sketchy on implementation details but Jones explains that their in house tracking systems manage it all. Their systems cross 12 different departments providing up to the minute detail on every unit in the process. Through tracking, if something goes awry, the problem is discovered and corrected quickly. I’d be interested to know what they’re using for that or if it’s something they’ve developed in house.

In summary, the example of Coppley shows the nascent promise of made to measure. With the appropriate technology and implementation, I’d expect this aspect of lean manufacturing in the apparel industry to continue to grow.

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  1. kay says:

    Because I really don’t want to make DH another suit (and he’s hard to fit), I called the closest retailer to see what the prices and procedures look like from their end. They have sample books of fabrics and style guides, and the suit comes back, they say, in 4-6 weeks. Prices quoted were from about $995-$4K US, depending on fabric. Not bad for close to custom tailoring.

  2. J C Sprowls says:

    Another company I’m keeping my eye on is Astor & Black. They have “upped” the game re: made-to-measure and custom-made manufacturing. What’s astonishing to me are their package prices and turn-around times.

    I’m seriously considering buying a package from them so I can understand how well they train their sales staff.

  3. Tonya says:

    This is exactly what I would like to do for my plus size line. I visited their site and they only do men which I would guess is a strategic decision. I would think that the critical fit points for a man’s suit are fewer than for a woman’s. I also think that men’s expectations of fit are a lot less nitpicky than most women.

  4. I own a womens boutique in Canada and this is a concept that I have currently introduced into my own store. After years of working in the boutique, I have come to realise that selling and buying suits for women is tricky. Tiny waist -big hips, petite, tall, plus size – you get it. In my store, I take thorough measurements (for cashmere coats, suits, pants suits, skirt suits) go through an extensive fabric swatch collection with my clients. Send them out to be made and my customers are thrilled. In our case, the wait time is a few eeks, but most don’t mind waiting. It fits perfectly. Prices range as you correctly say -$900-a few thousand.
    Keep up the good work. I simply cannot beleive how much work and research you put into what you do. Everytime I think you cannot surprise me, you do. Well done.

  5. J C Sprowls says:

    Tonya said: I also think that men’s expectations of fit are a lot less nitpicky than most women.

    Au contraire! Men are peacocks.

    Believe me, I’ve thought about how to bring MTM and MTO to market, a lot. I think it’s possible. But, the initial investment is high and there are risks that need to be mitgated/managed.

    The only way I see this fleshing out is to invest in a single-ply cutting system and a broad library of blocks whose style numbers are based on a SKU-like system. This ensures fast and accurate cutting without requiring too many skilled people.

    I also foresee flaws in the various systems out there, today. I think everyone playing in the MTM/MTO market is trying to find workarounds. Coppley’s looks like one of the more sound approaches. My issue with most MTM programs is they insist the Consumer (or, worse – an unskilled Salesperson) take measurements. Frankly, I didn’t *understand* measurements until I started drafting patterns – that’s the flaw I need to see addressed.

    As a business, I don’t want to assume the risk for a Consumer making a measurement error, resulting in a poorly-fitted garment. I’ve been there a dozen times during the early stages of my career thinking I could draft anything to spec. Truly, I can – if the specs aren’t full of lies.

    The 2nd flaw is “how do I validate the specs are within tolerable ranges *and* achieve the fit I need?” For example: a client once insisted he had a 15″ drop (diff between chest circ and waist circ). I drafted a 9″ drop on his pattern because I thought 15″ was too severe. It ended up the best fit for him was a standard 6″ drop. The 15″ difference was an invention in his own mind. Is it appropriate to enforce a rule to never cut beyond a 6″ drop? Experience with past clients tells me that is not necessarily the right thing to do. Is the business rule to then tell them MTM is not the way to go and see a tailor in-person? When do I make time for personal fittings when I’m saddled with production?

    The thing about tailored clothing is: if the fit is off (even during a baste/forward fitting), the assumption is the craftsmanship is also off. While I – moreso than most tailors – embrace and use technology and equipment, there’s a part of me that clings to certain processes because they keep holding true.

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