Customised clothes online

10 Oct 2002

We live in a world where we expect everything to suit our own individual tastes and to be available instantly.

Toyota promises mass-customised vehicles within a five-day turnaround; Dell can build you a PC with whatever add-ons and whatever colour you wish; and Burger King will cook your burger without the pickles and lettuce, if that’s what you want.

Most people familiar with the European fashion industry are aware that it is getting tougher and tougher to compete on a cost level with Asian operators, whose harnessing of illegal sweat shops, cheap labour and materials also poses an awkward human rights dilemma to consumers of the Western World.

However, according to Susan Doyle of the Irish Clothing and Textiles Alliance (ICATA) at IBEC, Irish clothing manufacturers are turning to world-class manufacturing principles and lean retailing as a means of survival. “The principle is that if it can’t beat them on price, it can definitely do its best to streamline its costs and beat them on service.

“Mass customisation, quick response times and production of customised clothing as well as increased focus on design, marketing and branding is the way forward for Irish clothing manufacturers. There are some 14,000 people employed in the Irish clothing and textiles industry, and they’ve been through most of the pain of change in the industry.

Aided by investment in IT initiatives, companies like Magee are focusing on niches and quick response times for customised clothing, adding value and making for a very unique selling point.”

Synonymous with Donegal Tweed, Magee Clothing Ltd is leading the vanguard of European clothing manufacturers leaning heavily on IT to provide a unique, mass customisation service to a niche audience. The company is also one of a number of local manufacturers who have subscribed to a major technological movement led by academia and clothing chains in the UK that are pushing for the widespread usage of 3D non-contact body measurement and digital printing in the high street, aimed at speeding up the turnaround and improving the choice for consumers.

Mass customisation meets a diverse range of objectives – the customer desires uniqueness; freedom of choice; perfect fit or form; and competitive cost. The manufacturers want to differentiate from their competitors, to improve profit margins and reduce risk and returns. Retailers want to sell products at higher profit margins, increase variety and choice for the customer and minimise the inventory risk. At present, returned goods account for 30pc of all customer transactions per year.

According to John Walsh, marketing manager for Magee Clothing the company’s investment in IT is a diverse mix between enterprise resource planning (ERP) computer automated design (CAD) and computer automated manufacturing (CAM), an investment in excess of €1m – quite large for a traditional small manufacturer. The result is some 300 customised hand-woven and tailored suits per week, from some 250 computerised digital patterns. Due to the customised nature of suit manufacturing, selling online is not a real option, except perhaps for tweed sports jackets.

“Our system allows us to provide suits in all fabrics and sizes for a mere 20pc above what a suit would cost off the peg,” Walsh explained. “Moving to mass customisation through digital 3D scanning would help us to extend customisation to the internet and overseas, and eliminate the threat of error.”

That’s why Magee Clothing and other manufacturers are paying more and more attention to the work of Professor of Computers, Philip Treleaven, Pro- Provost at the University College London. Treleaven headed up last year’s National Sizing Survey in the UK which, using the latest 3D body scanning systems, measured 10,000 men and women of all ages and ethnic groups, with the aim of guaranteeing faster creation of clothing to suit mass customisation objectives. Stripping down to their underwear, the volunteers stepped into booths containing four sensors. In less than 12 seconds, some 150-body measurements were gathered.

“The aim is that every clothing store and tailor will have one of these booths in order to custom-make clothes to suit every individual’s tastes. The individuals will be able to use digital imaging to see how they would appear in different clothes and colours. As well as this, they can carry their measurements around on a smart card in their wallet and have clothes custom-made and ordered from any shop or website,” Treleaven said.

A further enhancement to this transformation of the traditional shopping experience will be greater accuracy through business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce. Already British Airways has subscribed to the model in order to guarantee fast, customised supply of uniforms and corporate wear, while Hobson, provider of uniforms to the British Army, aims to extend the service to the military. Other clothing chains, including Arcadia, House of Fraser, Debenhams, Monsoon, Marks and Spencer plc and Tesco, have also sponsored the research. “What has these companies excited,” Treleaven added, “is that mass customisation through this scanning technology will mean developing 2D and 3D visualisation systems for virtual shopping on multiple platforms – through the web, kiosk, interactive TV and WAP”.

Magee Clothing’s John Walsh is supportive: “At the moment, use of digitised fabric blends and investment in CAD/CAM and ERP have brought immense advantages to a small traditional clothing manufacturer. At present, we are relying on a loyal and traditional network of 100 tailors throughout Ireland to give us accurate measurements. My feeling is mass customisation through these technologies will enable us to enjoy our niche and yet extend our reach to multiple chains in the UK, the US and Europe without surrendering our guarantee of quality. Mass customisation will take the market by storm.”