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10/07/2015

From Algorithms to Canvas Jackets: The Expanding World of M2M

Alberto Castiel III is planning to purchase a custom sportcoat with all the bells and whistles. He’s envisioning something with such advanced details as throat latch, bellows pockets, turnback cuffs, and even a belt in the back. A ticket pocket and working buttonholes are, of course, assumed. He plans to commission it from The Andover Shop, a longstanding men’s wear shop in Harvard Square.

While the Roman numeral after his name might suggest that Castiel is a well-aged gentleman who could write a check for this unique garment without a second thought, he is in fact a member of the millennial generation, a college student who happens to be a clotheshorse. Like other tailored-clothing geeks his own age, Castiel has acquired a precocious amount of taste and knowledge that pre-Internet poppinjays can barely comprehend. But while Castiel has the information and desire to crave such a garment, it’s something he has to plan and save for.

But he feels it’s worth it.

Millennials fueling online custom clothing
Thanks to their all-powerful mobile devices, millennials are used to getting exactly what they want and getting it at the best possible price. Customization is a given with them, and convenience a high virtue. This makes them the perfect target market for the innumerable online custom-clothing services that have launched over the past several years, such as Indochino, MySuit.com, and OwnOnly.com, which offer dress shirts and suits with promises of perfect fit, great price, and a plethora of customization options. But as their careers and income advance, will millennials make the jump into the rarified world of custom tailoring, or remain content with the less costly simulacrum?

“The Internet and bespoke are not compatible terms,” says Mark Rykken, a men’s wear veteran who’s worked at Britches Of Georgetown and The Alan Flusser Custom Shop, and currently heads the made-to-measure program at Paul Stuart in New York. “Online MTM isn’t going to affect anybody on Savile Row or the higher end of the business. The guy who pays $2,000-$5,000 for custom is not going to buy his suits online.”

For Rykken, part of the appeal of custom clothing is the experience that surrounds it. Certain men like getting measured, leafing through fabric swatches, choosing the details, and then patiently waiting. It remains to be seen whether millennials will value this experience and be willing to pay the surcharge. “Online MTM is clearly going after the millennial generation. They may not yet value the traditional bespoke experience, but they might become our customers down the road when their career takes off. It will have given them a taste of customization and then hopefully they’ll want to go off and get the real thing.”

Taking a hybrid approach
Computers can do a lot — like beat a grandmaster at chess — but when it comes to tailoring a suit, microprocessors come up short. “A suit is all about the shoulders,” says Eric Powell of Ratio Clothing, “and there’s so much about the fit of the shoulders that goes beyond measurements, such as the slope of the shoulders, how rounded they are, and the position of the neck. At this point it’s very difficult to get that right without seeing someone in person.”

Ratio Clothing is an online made-to-measure service specializing in custom dress shirts. It also offers suits, but those can only be satisfactorily done from the company’s Denver, Colorado headquarters. Shirts, however, are quite another animal. Ratio started with basic shirt sizes based on neck and sleeve length, then built its own algorithm based on customer measurements. The algorithm is a set of formulas that takes an input and produces an output, filling in the blanks in the process and predicting sizing based on a vast amount of collected data. New customers provide their basic size along with their height, weight, age and fit preference and Ratio’s computer cranks out the specs. “It’s pretty accurate,” says Powell, “about 90 percent for first-time customers, and the alterations for the other 10 percent are pretty minor. So we’re very happy with the way it works.”

It’s also far more accurate than having customers submit their own measurements, Powell says. For some inexplicable reason, people are terrible at it, even when a friend or spouse assists. “I don’t know why it’s so hard, but whenever anyone sends us detailed measurements, the result is often worse.”

For manufacturing, Ratio uses the Garland Shirt Company in Garland, North Carolina. Custom shirts start at $98, with $125 as the sweet spot. The suits, which are ordered in the Denver retail store, also use an algorithm but are guided by human judgment. Much can be solved by a visual assessment of the person and the slope of his shoulders. The computer is also able to help avoid getting stuck with the house style. “You’re able to avoid the biases of the tailor,” says Powell. “You may have very specific desires on how something should fit, and if your tailor doesn’t agree with that, biases can get injected into the process. The ideal approach is a hybrid where you have human element but data can inform your decisions in sizing.”

This is like your grandfather’s tailoring, actually
Based in Bangalore, India, Luxire.com is another popular player in online custom clothing with a specialty in trousers. While fashion brands have marketing budgets and social media campaigns, Luxire relies on satisfied customers and word-of-mouth. “We spend zero on advertising,” says Ashish Arya. “We send out emails just a couple of times a year. Pants with the highest level of tailoring, made in quality wool from mills like Dugdale or Vitale Barberis Canonico can run as low as $150. It’s an unbeatable option for someone who knows what he wants.”

Knowing what they want is something Arya is certainly seeing more of. “I see a trend of people slowly moving towards custom clothing. Our new website makes it easy for the casual shopper to order like he orders RTW, and then gradually put the thought in his mind that that the fit needs to be better. Over time, we see ourselves being the best online MTM option.”

Oddly enough, while Luxire operates online, it doesn’t use computer-generated algorithms to ensure fit. “Apart from selling online, we are a very old-style tailoring house and use plain-old human judgment to make things fit better. We only use technology where it will not compromise quality, such as using CAD for only basic pattern making. Patterns are then finished by hand to make sure they are perfect. The human hand is best at reading the curve of the seam at the back or the arm-scye.”

For suit fit, Luxire asks customers to send one of their better-fitting jackets for Luxire to replicate. “If that is not an option, we send a canvas jacket the customer tries on at home, then sends us images we use as a guide to improve the final jacket.

Some customers also take the canvas jacket to a local tailor to improve fit and then send it back to us for replication, which has been working well.”

One of Luxire’s customers is none other than Alberto Castiel III, our precocious millennial clotheshorse. The student at Boston University, who operates a blog called Rep Ties & Regattas, has sampled Luxire’s trousers (which he might just pair with that fancy jacket he’s saving for), and being able to get exactly what he wants has eroded his taste for off-the-rack clothing. “Going back to ready-to-wear clothing after you’ve had garments custom-made for you is akin to traveling first-class your entire life and subsequently being seated in coach,” he says. “Purchasing clothing made specifically for your body causes you to rethink impulsive buying habits, as more thought and consideration is put into selecting the right fabric and styling details. Now that I’m transitioning to having more custom pieces in my wardrobe, I plan on limiting my clothing expenditures down to a few substantial purchases per year, as opposed to many on middle of the road-quality items.” 

Christian Chensvold is a New-York based Apparel contributing writer.