On-Demand fashion means that a brand only starts making a garment when an order has been placed, made-to-order and made-to-measure also have those same principles. The appeal of fast fashion was the ability to consume any and all trends at once, and cheaply, whilst also ordering clothes that would arrive in time for an event the next day, it was based on convenience. But, the true essence of fashion as an art form was lost. The market was flooded with fast fashion and now many consumers feel like ‘one of the herd’. Marshal Cohen, NPD chief retail analyst, says “fashion is no longer about looking like one of a million but one in a million. Brands and retailers that are driving the market today are about innovation and personalisation.”
The most common place we’re seeing made-to-order clothing is in small start up brands. Take for example, two British labels, Benjamin Fox and Olivia Rose, both offer bespoke, high quality dresses and tops that are made-to-order only. They are able to redesign the manufacturing process and made-to-order is the most economical way of doing things. Without a large budget, workforce nor a factory these women are making the clothes themselves, so quite possibly, they have no choice but to have strict made-to-order rules so that they can finically account for their supply chain and not get overwhelmed by the consumer demands. However, Ciara, founder and designer of Benjamin Fox says it’s also about values; “I aim to create sustainable pieces that have their own identity, giving customers a more sentimental view of their clothes.”
This shift can even be seen in bigger brands such as New York-based Prabal Gurung who says 25% of all their orders are now made-to-order.
These two brands have also been so successful because of Instagram. Both brands have a big presence on the social media platform and use that to connect with customers on a more personal level. Recently Benjamin Fox posted on her Instagram pieces of leftover fabrics and explained that people could have whichever garment they chose in any of the fabrics they chose - even more personalisation! A survey conducted by the fashion search engine Tagwalk in April 2020 concluded that 70% of consumers follow street-style trends rather than runway style trends. Consumers are looking to social media sites such as Instagram to find their clothes, which allows them to directly source their own personal style and find something different than the mainstream.
However, there is a problem, these are start up brands. Although they are leading the way for a new kind of thoughtful and personal fashion, they are limited in what they can achieve. Olivia Rose spoke to Vogue about the limitations of her brand, “because I hand-make everything myself, I can only make a limited amount in a certain time frame… A lot of people can miss out on ordering when they want because I can be fully booked with orders sometimes for weeks.” Also, their orders can take weeks to be finished and sent out.
The most iconic form of custom-made fashion has always been bridal wear, in the case of Joanne Fleming Design she offers made-to-order customisation with a “veritable jewel box of sensuous slithers of silk satin, clouds of gossamer chiffon, intricate French lace, and twinkling beaded tulle ....all finished with an exacting eye for detail.” However, there is also a lead time of 7-8 months for these dresses to be completed; one of the main reason this has worked so well is because it’s usually a one-off purchase. Olivia Ong, Prabal Gurung VP of global sales and merchandising, commented to Vogue that “custom projects are not aligned with any season in particular, so they really are one-off sourcing missions.” This means that people don’t mind waiting up to 8 months for a dress because it’s a special occasion, however doing this for an everyday wardrobe would be impractical.
Both the start up brands and brand notorious for made-to-order have struggled with the wait time for their products to be finished and shipped out.
There have been many innovative software designs that could help when it comes to scaling up a made-to-order business. This could be another reason we’re seeing a rise in made-to-order interest, because the technology is at a level where it can support it.
Vogue Business released an article looking at many different forms of on-demand technology, the first being Topology - a custom eyewear brand. In Vogue’s words its “augmented reality-enabled app measures and builds a 3D model of a customer’s face, previews how a pair of glasses will look and then converts the design into code for a computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine.” This machine is also used to make aeroplane parts and medial devices - the machinery is already there, it’s all about how you program the software. These glasses are altered and sculpted to perfectly fit your face, then delivered with prescription lenses in less than two weeks.
Eric Vardy CEO of Topology comments that “the first breakthrough success of applying digitalisation to fashion was to make the product cheaper and in record time.. The next stage of innovation will be using digital to make products better.” That’s exactly the development that is happening in technology right now; they want to focus on the quality of the product, rather then the efficiency that fast fashion has.
Knitwear is one of the biggest trends in made-to-order, given it’s manufacturing process it’s ideal to be made in small batches. Knitwear company, Ministry of Supply, has tested 3-D printing knitted blazers and dresses which allows customers to choose different styles and colours and within two days the items are ‘printed’ and sent to customers. That is astonishing! Given that you could receive the product in the same amount of time as most fast fashion labels, but this time, it’s made-to-order. Ministry of Supply say they can make 18 garments per machine per day, they spoke to Vogue about where the technology needs to go next; “‘Low resolution’ items like sweaters, which have fewer stitches per inch, are profitable. However, the time it takes to make a dense knit T-shirt wouldn’t pay off. And faster-moving needles would just overheat.”
One of the most promising developments for scaling up made-to-order is a patent recently purchased by Amazon that only starts making a garment once an order has been placed. Techpaker explains how it might work, “Your order gets fed to a machine via tech packs, that machine starts analysing all these orders, putting them on massive sheets of fabric, aligning them so production is efficient and optimised. Fabric gets cut, stitched together with robots, while cameras are watching it at all times to make sure nothing goes wrong.This is flipping everything we know about the clothing industry on its heads.” This would eliminate people designing products, building inventories and sending clothing to shops for people to browse. This could be another route towards fast fashion, however it would be a fast fashion process based on a more sustainable notion.
What could made-to-order mean for sustainability? Firstly the start up brands mentioned before, Benjamin Fox and Olivia Rose both use made-to-order methods to cut down on textile waste, according to Olivia Rose, “no items are pre-made as I like to have as little wasted fabrics and resources as possible.” Textile waste is extremely damaging to the environment as Planet Aid confirms; “the majority of textile waste heads to our landfills where they release greenhouse gases and leach toxins and dyes into the surrounding soil and water.” If larger brand also adopted a made-to-order manufacturing process that could seriously effect the level of textile waste.
In the United States alone, more than 15 million tones of textile waste is generated, this can be partly attributed to the fashion industry’s traditional routine of producing clothes before any orders are placed. The fashion industry needs to stop trying to predict what consumers are going to want to buy. Made-to-order could stop nearly all over-production. As Fashion United said “this does not mean that individual, per-capita consumption would decrease but that this insane, capital- and resource-devouring overproduction could be avoided.”
For now start ups will continue to lead the made-to-order trend, Pano Anthos, founder and managing director of XRC Labs, told Vogue that he believes the fashion industry is still three years away from on-demand manufacturing being mainstreamed. It is too difficult for big brands with a high demand and hundreds of orders being placed everyday to change it’s model right now, the software needs to catch up with our demand. However, everything is slowly moving in that direction. We, as consumers, are coming out of the fast fashion frenzy and starting to view fashion as an art form again, with it’s capability of self-expression and individualism, made-to-order is embraces all that fashion was meant to be.