A varsity jacket covered in patches. Jeans frayed to their wearer’s liking. Trainers with their owner’s initials printed on the heel – customisation was one of 2016’s strongest trends in fashion. It’s set to take flight in 2017 as the consumers – once dictated to by the industry’s all-powerful designers – becomes the designers themselves.
Customisation used to mean the details: monogramming a bag or changing the colourways of some sneakers. Brands ranging from Prada and Louis Vuitton to Nike, Gap and Whistles allowed consumers to add or adapt existing designs to their own specifications. But, now, smaller startups are developing something that tends towards the bespoke, moving away from adding something to an existing design, to creating it in the first place.
Take Mon Purse, a bag company set up by Australian Lana Hopkins at the end of 2014. Using the same 3D technology as gaming, Mon Purse allows consumers to design their own bag, from the colour and texture of the leather to the lining and metal details. There are 6bn potential designs that could be created. Hopkins, who previously worked in media, partly based her idea around Build-A-Bear, the shop where children are able to create their own teddy bear, which the brand believes is “the most fun you’ll ever make”. “I spent a good hour building a bear for my nephew,” recalls Hopkins. “It was kind of like a come-to-Jesus moment – if I could get that excited designing a bear, imagine how my girlfriends would feel if they could design the perfect handbag?”
Build-A-Bear was valued at more than £157m in May 2016 and Hopkins, while not quite reading those numbers, is certainly financially on to a good thing. After Mon Purse was stocked in Australia’s Meier department stores last year, it was the bestseller across all handbags in a matter of weeks. Selfridges, says Hopkins, wouldn’t let her leave a meeting until they she agreed a deal that had the store stock the brand in London and Manchester. This year saw the brand grow 800%, suggesting that people love the ability to bypass the designer and do it themselves.
If Mon Purse is a consumer personalising the bag they wear, other brands are channelling consumer input into products they then sell on to other people. Everybody, founded by two ex-American Apparel alums Iris Alonzo and Caroline Crespo this year, selects individuals to design “what’s missing in their life” with everything from a T-shirt to a Mac the result. Eventually, the plan is to take ideas from anyone contributing to the website. “The only rule that we have is that we have to know how to make it,” says Alonzo.
Away to Mars, set up by Alfredo Orobio at the end of 2015, it calls itself “the world’s first 100% user-created fashion brand”. The website allows contributors to submit designs, with a community of 5,000 potentially working together. The most popular designs – from minimal T-shirts with a twist, to silver shirts – get put into production.
Orobio, who is 28, is targeting a 14-25-year-old audience, often through Facebook groups and social media, and user numbers are doubling every month. This next generation of consumers have grown up in a world where they can tailor everything from an Instagram account to a Spotify playlist, ready to share with others. For them, the idea of doing the same with clothes is a no-brainer – it’s fashion that needs to catch up. “It’s a paradox because, in some ways, fashion is all about novelty, with things changing every six months – but, in other ways, it’s very conservative,” says Orobio. The industry is starting to pay attention – Away to Mars now has support from the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, which works with young fashion businesses in the UK.
Maks Fus Mickiewicz, senior journalist at trend analyst the Future Laboratory, believes this shift to consumer power is only going to get more pronounced. “Fashion brands are realising that to stay ahead of the game they need to move away from imposing their aesthetic on others,” he says. “That’s not how the world works anymore. There’s a new dialogue with consumers.” Mickiewicz says it’s the tech industry that should be studied for next steps. “Technology companies develop software but there’s an openness to it being updated and changed,” he says. “It’s about fashion companies letting go of the idea of the creative genius at the top.” The most fun you’ll ever make? That’s a slogan that could go beyond teddy bears.
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