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You can't just sprinkle technology onto a problem to solve it

You can't just sprinkle technology onto a problem to solve it

by Ana Wang

July 24, 2015

My mother grew up in Taiwan surrounded amongst petite Asian classmates, and often lamented about having to get her clothing custom made because she was 5'7" with size 8 US feet, so much taller and bigger than everyone else. It was the 60s and 70s, and I'm not sure what the retail landscape in urban Taiwan was like at the time, except that custom is not the rarity it is today. 

I could never quite tell if she thought of this as a privilege or as a glaring reminder of every young girl's desire to simply fit in. 

I grew up to be the same height, my feet one size smaller. I notice that the way she and I shop is very different. If it doesn't quite fit for whatever reason, she still buys it, expecting fully that I can alter it for her. If it doesn't quite fit for me, I don't buy it, which has led to a lot of "missed connections" and wasted time over the years and why most of my wardrobe leans toward "relaxed fit", which I admit, isn't necessarily the best look for me when it becomes all I ever wear.

So I have a fashion/fit problem, and I'm too lazy to go to the tailor to fix it. (Does anyone really go to the tailor, anyway?)

That's why I started to think about custom clothing. To me, custom clothing's associations are instant: uncool, old-fashioned, a substandard niche of fashion today existing in small pockets that can in no way compete with the flurry of fashion that exists at our feet. But what it promises underneath that uncool-ness is something I can get behind: a glorious, perfect-fitting stable of clothes. 

There are those attempting to tackle this market, and they're right to try: Tinker Tailor, the most prominent example, is poised to succeed if I was to single out one player who is closest to getting it right. Except in this case, I think it's a big "Close but no cigar". EDIT: The morning after writing this, Tinker Tailor announced it was shuttering. 

Everyone seems to think the answer is technology. Technology, as if it's some sort of magical fairy dust that can just be sprinkled over a problem. The problem in this case is: how, in the 21st century, do we crack the custom clothing market? Is there a market, in today's day and age of cheap, fast, now? Or is there none, and custom relegated to a thing of nostalgia?

I'd forget about this as I forget about most things I wonder about, except something about the way people are thinking about it right now makes me tilt my head and wonder if we're just getting it all wrong, and, if only we got it right, if we looked at the problem underneath that custom proposes to really solve, that there is a huge opportunity here to shape the path of fashion in a really big way, the same way that fast fashion shaped the trajectory we're on now.

I'm intrigued by the idea that we're heading towards a future that uses technology in a way that enhances the human experience, not detracts from it, as most sci-fi films tend to portray. 

For example, right now, the companies trying to crack the custom fashion market are proposing that the problem that custom is solving is lack of choice, and that through technology, they can now offer more choice, easier than ever, providing consumers the ability to design their own clothing, to choose from an infinite number of possibilities: colours, sizes, styles, finishings, fabrics, on and on. The lure of infinite possibility is high, but is there still that lure when in today's fashion world, we are already offered that same abundance everywhere we look?

Alas, we come to the unique challenge of today's society: analysis paralysis. Choice overload. 

The novelty of "designing" your own clothes may seem fun at first, but it's not what people want. Not by a long shot. I design, and I don't even want to design my own clothes most of the time. 

To me, custom is all only ever about two things: fit, and impeccable service. Those two things both require a high touch approach. And those are the two things that are still really lacking when you sprinkle technology on a problem; as I've learned recently, great service isn't merely about being friendly and fast, and yet, too often, that's what online retailers equate to good service. 

I'm not suggesting that we have to go back and do without technology - in fact, I think technology is one of the best enablers of high touch service, and a great tool to encourage more humanity. But I do think that everyone doing custom right now is missing the point. And until someone out there gets it - and by 'getting it' I don't just mean that they make a nicer website and throw more money and get more press than everyone else, but that they really figure out both on the grand scheme how custom fits into today's world of instant gratification and on the micro level why any regular girl might trade in convenience and off-the-rack for custom - until then, we may never again experience the glory of the perfect fit, impeccable craft, and true service. And I may be stuck with my lazy wardrobe.

Photo: L'Officiel

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