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.
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.