Trendspotting: Fashion E-Tailing Gets Personal

Custom-made clothing used to be reserved for the rich--think pretentious executives craving perfect shirts. Or the unfortunately shaped--picture your local tailor, gently letting out waistbands all around the neighborhood. Or else it is something pursued by slightly zany fashionistas, including all those nonconformist teens arduously gluing tiny crystals to their iPods, cell phones and sneakers.

For the most part, however, every time a mass marketer has tried to reach out to these individualists, it hasn't exactly caught fire. Burger King may let customers have it their way, but most clothing marketers can't pull it off.

Remember Levi Strauss & Co.'s ballyhooed customized jeans program a few years back? No? That's okay--no one else remembers either. There were so many denim possibilities on the market, the company says, including Levi's own expanding line, "there was no longer as great a demand for customized denim." Target, too, backed away from its effort to customize clothing.



But increasingly, marketers are recognizing that Web-based personalization continues to be one of the true great advantages the Internet has over the brick-and-mortar world. Both Nike ID and Converse, for example, offer online shoppers the ability to customize their footwear.

Lands' End, now owned by Sears and a pioneer and cult favorite for women seeking swimwear, continues to provide custom clothing to its devoted following. And at sites like or, consumers can order the perfect-fitting denim creations.

One company that hopes to succeed in this space is It doesn't exactly customize clothing, but registration is a process that requires a tape measure and about 10 minutes. Based on the results a woman enters, myShape assigns her one of seven body types, and then directs her to her own "online boutique" in which everything matches her specific measurements, coloring and style preferences.

Louise Wannier, CEO and founder, has tapped into the long-running Cold War between women and retailers: Mass retailers create clothes based on the rail-thin teens and young women who are the heaviest shoppers. So grown-up women--significantly beefier than the fit models used by designers--struggle to find clothes that don't ever seem to fit quite right.

While the problem is an old one, it has grown worse as American women have gotten heavier, and as the American retail landscape has become more competitive. Sure, talking shape diversity sounds great--but to survive, buyers can't afford to always have something for everyone: They have to stock what sells the most and moves the fastest, leaving a lot of disgruntled women empty-handed.

"Finding clothes that fit and flatter them is just a tremendous problem for most women," Wannier says. "And fit is only the beginning --women don't want to dress the same way as they get older. Their taste gets more sophisticated, they have different ideas about personal style and comfort." The company, launched in 2006, and has already registered more than 100,000 women.

Taking measurements is tricky: For one thing, in these days of non-sewing households, most women don't even own a tape measure, and so myShape mails them out free to shoppers. (She estimates that 50% of visitors request one.)

On one hand, just the introduction of the tape measure is a wonderfully upscale concept. Who doesn't love being measured by a kindly, competent sales person, whether it's at Victoria's Secret or Bergdorf Goodman? "And the upper class has always loved that kind of attention to fit detail," says Athol Martin Foden, publisher of the Silicon Valley Marketeer. "But doing it yourself isn't the same--it's confusing. Where exactly are my hips?"

Still, fashion marketers expect companies that continue to try and find fit solutions to do well, even if bigger companies can't. "There is definitely a frustration among women that one size is not the same from brand to brand, and with sizing in general," says Ciri Fenzel, of Breathe Retail Consulting, based in Washington, D.C.

"Manufacturers certainly recognize it and are trying to make shopping easier," she says--adding that while working in marketing at VF Corp., which markets Lee and Wrangler jeans, the company tried hard to communicate with women in advertising and signage. "But even things like 'relaxed fit' mean different things to different women," she says. "So companies like myShape have a tremendous opportunity."

Besides, she says, women's fashion sense has been honed by stores like H&M and Target, which constantly introduce new merchandise, so the selection is always changing. "So even if fit is still an issue at those stores, at least women are rewarded with a good selection," she says.

Who knows? Maybe 2008 will be the year marketers like myShape finally find a way to provide women with both.

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