The average guy can’t swing a dead Lolcat on the Internets these days without hitting an e-commerce company touting made-to-measure or otherwise customized-in-some-way dress shirts, suits, or trousers. Want a nice-looking button-down, fresh suit or pair of slacks in just the right size? If you’re a guy, no problem. All you need are a few standard measurements, and you’re clicks away from, say, a crisp new shirt from Blank Label, a three-piece suit from Indochino or a pair of wool dress pants from Modern Tailor, among many other choices.
But for women, there are far fewer options, and the ones that exist often specialize in, say, wedding gowns or shoes. Others, like eShakti.com, offer a few limited options for customization. You can change a garment’s sleeves or hem, but it’s not possible to see how the updated version will look until it arrives.
That there are so many more bespoke ecommerce companies for men these days makes sense when you think about the stereotypical differences between the ways men and women tend to shop, says Josh Goldman of Norwest Venture Partners, a firm that has invested such fashion-minded e-commerce success stories as Gilt Groupe and ModCloth.
"I’m not convinced yet that the store-your-measurements and order everything you want custom model is going to be a success in the women’s market," he says.
For guys, though, that very model offers the promise of avoiding the store altogether.
"Men think of shopping like going to the dentist," Goldman quips, which is to say, they know they have to do it, but they don’t set out thinking it’s going to be fun.
"Men want it to be super efficient, but still feel like they are getting great clothes," Goldman adds. "I think women enjoy the process of the actual shopping for things."
While not every woman loves shopping, women are generally thought to view the experience of perusing the racks and hitting the dressing room as more than a means to an end. It’s entertainment, something to do with friends on a Saturday afternoon. Add to that the fact that, while many men have been measured by a tailor or in a store at one time or another, far fewer women actually have their current measurements readily available. Others may not particularly relish grappling with the specific numbers defining their bust-waist-hip ratios. Nor is the knowledge that you have a 30-inch waist going to necessarily guarantee a particular dress with a 30-inch waist looks flattering on you. Beyond that, most women will tell you there’s much more to a great-fitting, stylish garment than simply getting the measurements right.
From new company Bow & Drape comes an approach that bypasses measurements altogether and focuses instead on garment shape.
"For women, we’re more complex. As far as sizing goes, there’s more room for error for women taking their own measurements," says Aubrie Pagano, founder and CEO of Bow & Drape, which launched last week after waging a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise over $30,000.
Whether it’s for psychological reasons or more practical ones, measurements and female shoppers just don’t mix, Pagano determined early on.
"What we saw in early testing was that women did not want to enter their measurements online," says the Boston-based entrepreneur.
That was an important lesson learned during Pagano’s time running Bow & Drape’s short-lived predecessor Zoora.com, which allowed shoppers to order custom garments from independent designers.
"Women are guided to silhouettes that they love," says Pagano.
Visitors to the site can browse item categories populated with variations on a core collection of six silhouettes designed in collaboration with Sarah Parrott, who recently appeared on NBC show Fashion Star, in much the same way you’d shop a traditional ecommerce store. But here’s the bespoke twist: every item in the collection – a scarf, a jacket, two skirts and five dress styles—can be customized. Directly from the product page, shoppers can experiment with different hemlines, sleeve styles, trims, buttons, necklines, colors and on-trend details such as peplums. All told, those variations mean there are some 30,000 possibilities for sale. Change an aspect of a particular garment, and Bow & Drape instantly renders a photo-realistic image of the new version rather than leaving shoppers to rely on their own imaginations or sketches.
"Without that process I don’t think the customer can love what they’re making," Pagano says of the image rendering technology her company built to power its online personalization process.
Rather than drawing inspiration from other custom apparel sites, Pagano says she took her cues for Bow & Drape’s customization experience from non-fashion companies such as Gemvara and Robot Nation, both of which allow shoppers to personalize products online and instantly view realistic renderings of their creations.
Once a shopper settles on a design she likes, she selects her size, just as one would in a traditional ecommerce shop. But to help with fit, Bow & Drape will send shoppers a free "fit kit" containing a muslin version of the garment in up to three sizes, much like you’d have access to if you visited a custom dressmaker. Women then have five days to try the mock garments on at home and settle on the right size before they buy. Once an order is placed, turnaround time is about two weeks, plus shipping time, and returns are accepted.
Another noteworthy aspect of Bow & Drape’s approach is something customers are likely to take little notice of, if it runs smoothly. While fashion labels have traditionally been hampered by manufacturers’ minimum order requirements and the high costs associated with producing small runs, much less one-off garments, Pagano is turning to manufacturers in Massachusetts and New York that have, she says, been more than happy to fill the gaps in their regular production schedules with smaller jobs. That her company has to pay a "a little bit of a higher price" than they would were they able to order in higher volumes is offset by the relatively low overhead that comes with being an online-only retailer.
"American manufacturing needs help, and there are sample rooms all over the Northeast that have extra capacity outside of the seasons where they can take on more volume. They have flexible capacity, and they can produce hundreds of garments per week if given the volume," she says.
[Image: Flickr user Carrie Cizauskas]