A couple of weeks ago, a New York Times article entitled Sweatpants Forever swirled the fashionsphere.
The piece - which uses small and agile leisurewear brand Entireworld and its founder Scott Sternberg as the model for fashion brands resisting the current perils of retail - charts the fashion industry's recession, catalysed by the pandemic.
It argues that fashion's fast pace, number of seasons, the unfavourable wholesale deals brands often sign with online retailers and department stores, the 2008 recession, the rise of social media and a global pandemic has meant that 'fashion seemed to slowly annihilate itself.'
While brands like J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers and J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy over the last few months, the article explains, Entireworld, with its direct to consumer model and perennial styles, has thrived.
But, there is another breed of fashion organisation similarly flourishing under lockdown: 'made to order' brands.
Doing exactly what they say on the tin - making clothes only as and when they are ordered - these brands' business structures not only solve many of the fashion industry's aforementioned problems (the unfeasibly fast pace, paired with newfound pressure to create and produce more and more quantitatively), but also some issues relatively new to public discourse. Namely, fashion's exclusivity (particularly regarding sizing) and significant contribution to the climate crisis.
'It’s a far more ethical and sustainable approach because there is no overproduction, reducing the risk of excess unwanted stock going to landfill.' Emma Slade Edmondson, founder of ESE Consultancy which helps brands 'harness social and environmental good', said of the made to order model. 'It avoids encouraging a culture of wanting more and more newness at rapid speed,' she continued, 'Instead, it promotes slow fashion, quality and the love for one well-made piece that can become an heirloom.'
Where Did Made To Order Fashion Go?
Of course, the concept is nothing new. Up until the mid-to-late 20th Century, Western consumers either making their own clothes, or purchasing items made uniquely for themselves, was the norm.
However, with the dawn of fast fashion (a difficult date to pinpoint, but author Lauren Bravo estimates the 1960s in her book How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: 'The 60s spawned Inditex, which owns Zara, and Chelsea Girl, now River Island. They saw Paco Rabanne make disposable dresses from paper, and revived dandyism as a youth pastime for men and women alike') and the the offshoring of clothes manufacturing to developing countries (started in earnest in the 1980s), came a distinct shift in the average shopper's relationship with their own clothes and how they are made.
An intimate understanding of a piece of clothing's worth, with value placed on its longevity or quality, was largely replaced with a (somewhat understandable) desire for low cost and volume, leading to cut-cost manufacturing (bad quality, bad ethics, and bad practice) and a throw-away attitude to our clothes (meaning waste, waste, and more waste).
This is a generalisation of course. Bespoke and couture fashion has continued to exist for those who can afford it, and not everyone has prescribed to the same level of consumption, but looking at the stats (be it textile waste, worker's wages, or CO2 emissions), it's unfortunately a fair assessment that fast fashion reigns supreme.
The New Age Of Made To Order
Cue a new generation, largely birthed by Instagram, of small fashion brands attempting to bring bespoke clothing back to the mainstream.
Businesses like MaisonCléo (founded in 2016 with 79.1k Instagram followers currently), By Megan Crosby (founded in 2019 with 29.9k Instagram followers currently), and Olivia Rose The Label (founded in 2017 with 44k Instagram followers currently) are rapidly increasing in popularity, but not, notably, in scale.
'The process of making to measure for some brands can take up to three months, there will certainly be no competing with next day delivery offerings, and it’s a difficult operation to truly scale. But I think especially for those going into it with a more sustainable fashion future in mind, that really is the point', Slade explained.
Often using finite or limited fabric stock (MaisonCléo sources deadstock Couture fabric, while By Megan Crosby only buys high-quality fabric once her orders are in), and priding themselves on their small, reasonably-paid teams (Olivia Havelock of Olivia Rose The Label runs her brand single-handedly, while Megan Crosby of By Megan Crosby has a team of three plus sometimes seamstresses, that she, for example, pays £22.50 to create one 'Leah dress'), transparency, ethics, and sustainability are their calling cards.
'We offer a made to order model as it's the most responsible way of producing garments.' Sarah Bartlett, founder of Carnations (launched in 2020 and with currently 1,632 followers on Instagram) told us. 'It means there will never be unwanted stock, and therefore a need to sell garments off for low and unfair prices. With made to order the customer understands they are getting something really special, they see the value in it.'
These brands price themselves in that mid-range spot - asking for anything between £50-£250 for a top - i.e. expensive enough to ensure fair pay and quality construction, while still being a cheaper option than most designer items on the market.
'The benefit for brands is that prices can legitimately be higher because of a genuine increase in quality and therefore also the projected lifetime of the piece is longer.' Slade Edmonson detailed. 'Often, made to measure set ups allow for more transparency and better sight of your supply chain because it’s simpler and slower and many brands are more in touch with what’s going on.'
Plenty have followed Marie Dewet of MaisonCléo's lead in creating a public 'receipt' for an item, detailing exactly how they landed on the cost, including everything from fabric to studio space, and ensuring radical transparency.
'I’m really comfortable and confident in having these chats because my profits aren’t very big,' Amy Ward of Bug Clothing (launched in 2015 and with currently 9,416 followers on Instagram) told ELLE UK of her price transparency. 'What I make goes back into the business, supports other small businesses such as the companies that make my paper goods, the place I get my machines serviced, my materials, and I also give a percentage to charity. I feel very passionately about how much value we all place on our goods.'
Sitting apart from the current norm where a buyer may see (through targeted ads or expensive runway shows), buy, and receive a new piece of clothing in a matter of hours, these brands demand patience and restraint, with pre-order models that mean clothes may take weeks to arrive on their doorstep. They attract their customers with brand ethos and perennial styles over convenience and trend-driven designs.
And attracted they have been - MaisonCléo's weekly drop sells out in minutes, while both By Megan Crosby and fellow newcomer Before July (founded in early 2019 with 3,287 followers on Instagram currently) have had to temporarily close up shop while getting through their orders in recent weeks. What was the making of a few dresses as a side-hustle, has become a fully-fledged business for many of these designers and creators: Crosby had to relocate from her bedroom to a studio mid-lockdown to handle demand.
And despite the semi-exclusive nature of limited stock and manufacturing capacity, made to order brands have the potential to be wholly inclusive, not only as the designers themselves need no formal training (though many have it), capital, or industry 'contacts' to start their brand, but because most allow for completely bespoke sizing (and sometimes colour and fabric too).
'For me,' Slade Edmonson told ELLE UK, 'the opportunity for offering size inclusivity is a big plus, particularly when it comes to sustainable fashion - as many of the brands offering collections still don’t offer even up to a size 18. Made to order brands can cater to this market producing one-offs in deadstock or natural fibre fabrics without running the risk of holding inventory that might not sell.'
As Slade Edmonson said, reasonably-priced, sustainable, and size-inclusive clothing is something of a sartorial white whale. Currently, ecologically-minded 'plus-size' buyers are scrambling for few second-hand options, even fewer quality and modern designer options, and are being left, ultimately to buy fast fashion that actually caters to their size.
'I know that there is a problem in the fashion industry surrounding sizing, it’s tough to find pieces that fit with mainstream brands,' Crosby said of offering bespoke sizing. 'I have an entire part of my website dedicated to totally custom and bespoke orders now as they are so so popular - it’s such a fun service where people can get absolutely anything they want made. At least three quarters of the orders on regular product is made to custom measurements.'
Made to order brands not only allow size 16 and upwards consumers rare access to invest in relatively affordable, sustainable clothes that are stylish and fun, something they of course, like every consumer, deserve, but for everyone to have a slice of the personalisation pie.
'Today’s consumer desires personalisation, an item which is one of a kind and holds a story, and above all, consumer’s value experiences.' Nina Van Volkinburg, Lecturer in Fashion Retail at London College of Fashion, UAL, detailed.
What Is The Future Of Made-To-Order Fashion?
With consumer appetite increasingly focusing on the bespoke, experiential and personal, it's perhaps unsurprising that other fashion businesses are turning their attention to made to order.
'Made to order fashion is a huge opportunity for retail.' Van Volkinburg explained. 'When retailers zoom out and start thinking bigger than strictly the garment, there are opportunities to experiment with new forms of collaboration and consumer led experiences which go beyond single transactions. You can build loyalty and a meaningful connection with customers.'
Some brands are widening their scope by beginning to offer bespoke services alongside their off-the-rack selection, namely Cawley Studios (who launched this service under lockdown) and Clio Peppiatt (who launched their service back in 2017).
'My thinking behind this is the more individualistic our approach,' Founder Peppiatt said of her bespoke beaded dresses seen on Jorja Smith and Lady Gaga, 'the more personal and special the garment and the greater it’s sentimental value to the customer.'
And department stores are getting in on the action too - MaisonCléo has been creating limited collections for e-commerce giant Net-A-Porter since 2019 where, their Senior Fashion Market Editor Libby Page told ELLE UK, the brand 'drove sales' due to their 'very loyal customer base', while Olivia Rose The Label has taken up space at historic superstore Selfridges.
Under lockdown an important part of any made to measure process - the taking of measurements in person by a seamstress - has been unavailable, with brands relying on customers measuring themselves (something that has been actually largely successful according to the brands we've spoken to and made easier by some creating their own 'how to' guides), this is something Whitney Cathcart, the co-founder and CSO of 3DLOOK, wanted to address.
'We saw a huge demand for contactless body measurement solutions from made-to-measure companies who needed a simple way to measure their customers to stay in business.' Cathcart said of the inspiration to create the Mobile Tailor, which 'enables[brands] to send their customers a measurement link via email or SMS and receive over 70 measurements on a personal business dashboard in under 30 seconds', using just two self-portraits sent in by the potential buyer.
'Not only does this enable [brands] to operate online, but allows them to scale up, since they are no longer limited by the physical location of their customers.' Cathcart said.
But, while reducing human error, ensuring good fit, and attempting to limit returns is of course a good thing, made to order brands should perhaps be wary of scale. Isn't their intimate, small, and slow nature what makes them so appealing to increasingly mindful consumers?
'It’s a good way for people to socialise themselves into the idea of a slower more organic and sustainable way to do fashion,' Slade Edmonson said of the slower, but ultimately more gratifying experience.
'You have to wait longer, both you and the maker have to put more thought into the piece itself and it will undoubtedly cost more. But the idea is that it will be worth waiting for – the fit will be better; the cut will be for your body and not the unattainable body that the fashion industry at large makes for, and the piece will be something you hopefully love and treasure for a very long time.'
So, if good quality clothing and happy and healthy creators is what you want, why not treat yourself with a made to order item? Get to know the future of fashion now.
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