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Clothes Make The Man, But The Web Makes The Clothes

What a dress shirt says about the future of retail.

Clothes Make The Man, But The Web Makes The Clothes
[Illustration: Raymond Biesinger]

When I was a little boy, my father took me to his tailor in the sleepy Delhi neighborhood where I grew up. I distinctly remember Binks—its chaos; the reams of cloth, yellow chalk, and measuring tape; and even the smell of tobacco and chai. I felt like a grown-up as I was measured by the old tailor master. He noted my measurements in charcoal pencil, and a few weeks later my father brought home three crisp, white poplin shirts, which fit me perfectly and cost less than $1 each.

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I experience this visceral sense memory when I visit the bright San Francisco loft that houses ­Trumaker, an online menswear company that ­specializes in custom-made shirts. Trumaker is one of a growing number of upstarts—J. Hilburn, Knots Standard, Incense Shoes, Modern Tailor, the list goes on—using the Internet, advanced logistics, and a new breed of production methods to revive the idea of mass customized shirts, blazers, suits, and even shoes. Personalized fashion and other consumer items have long been a fantasy of many Internet entrepreneurs. Until now.

What upstarts like Trumaker are doing is applying your body measurements to a made-to-­measure pattern to give you a near-custom ­experience. Custom doesn’t translate to bespoke, in which the pattern is completely personalized just for you, but it is a step beyond what’s known as made-to-measure, in which a premade pattern can be enhanced with a few personal preferences like collar style. And it’s miles better than what you find at mass retailers, where shirts can be too tight, too loose, too long; the sleeves bunch up; the torso billows like a boat sail; or all of the above.

Trumaker is the brainchild of former Bonobos executive Mark Lovas and cofounder Michael Zhang, and Lovas says their company’s secret sauce isn’t that secret. It’s software that takes all the data about a person—fitting details, sizing, and measurements including photos—and puts it through a ­simple algorithm that creates an optimal pattern for each individual. “The more shirts we make, the more our system becomes efficient and fine-tunes our algorithm,” Lovas tells me. This pattern (which is based on a few master ones) is sent to a shirtmaker in Malaysia, where machines laser-cut the cloth and then workers stitch a customized shirt.

If you followed the PC boom closely, then you know that mass customization, when done right, can produce impressive results. Through most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Dell Computer was a red-hot company thanks to its ability to allow everyone to create their dream computer—so long as they stayed within a few parameters. Customers paid up front. Dell carried minimal inventory. And it was wildly successful.

Fast-forward to today, and you start to see the similarities between Dell’s model and these online custom-clothing upstarts. Except they’re ­focu­sed on goods we buy more often than a computer. Like Dell, they charge before they cut the fabric, and there is no inventory except for the raw materials. No markdowns, either, and if the software does its job, no returns. “The more predictable, accurate, and consistent pattern data is the real breakthrough, as it allows us to automate about 70% of the process,” Lovas says.

These companies are far from being retail giants, but they point to a new reality. The Internet allows anyone to create and aggregate demand, and it allows them to cheaply tap into new technologies to automate processes that previously required humans.

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A few weeks after I visit Trumaker, my shirt arrives. The fabric is luxe, the buttons are top-notch, and there’s even a little “OM” embroidered inside the collar. The experience is a world away from that little tailor shop of my youth (and the price is about 140 times more than what my dad paid). But Trumaker, in one shirt, reintroduced me to the long-forgotten concept of a good fit.

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About the author

Om Malik is a partner at True Ventures, an early-stage investor. He is also founder of Gigaom, a Silicon Valley–based, tech-focused publishing company.

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