During 20 years spent as creative director of Jimmy Choo, Sandra Choi has become used to having the final say. Whether it’s the pile of the carpet in Choo’s network of stores, or the models booked in its advertising campaigns, or – naturally – every tiny detail in the hundreds of styles of shoes and bags that the company releases each year, her job has always been to assume ultimate aesthetic responsibility for every aspect of the business. Until now.
This November, Choi and Choo are introducing a capsule collection that hands that responsibility over to their customers. Informally, Choi calls it “Pick and Mix” – the above-the-line title is, less irreverently, “cruise capsule jewel collection” – and the idea is to let clients partially produce the shoes they choose to buy. The process begins with selecting your shoe style (from a choice of six), its height and its colour. To these you can attach whatever you like, however you like, from a 24-variation selection of seven sparkling Swarovski buttons or 20 variations of seven “brooches” – some of which double up as straps or tongues.
So what’s going on? Has Choi had enough of designing the shoes herself? “Absolutely not!” she laughs at the showroom of Choo’s London office. “But this is about something else. It’s about giving you, the personal wearer, control. You own it. I love a pair of shoes where the left and the right are different, and I would totally do that. But here it’s not up to me.”
Choo’s initiative is just one example of the trend for diversification, customisation and the partial abrogation of creative responsibility in favour of the customer that is sweeping the luxury fashion industry. Over at Gucci Alessandro Michele, the creative director, is offering what he calls the DIY service. In both tailoring and casual wear, Gucci now allows customers of both genders to dictate fabrics, linings and buttons, as well as to add or subtract patches and monograms. The choice might not be infinite – if you don’t want the roaring tiger on the back of your souvenir jacket to be flanked by the cursive declaration “Blind for Love” in French, then tough luck – but compared with the “what you see is what you get approach” of just a few years ago, the transformation is impressive. Burberry, Anya Hindmarch, Versace, Tod’s and Karl Lagerfeld are just a few more high-fashion brands which, to a greater or lesser extent, are offering variations on the theme. When Burberry showed its collection in September, the clothes on the catwalk were instantly available all over the planet, as is increasingly the way when high fashion combines with digital technology; but when the audience flooded downstairs, they found an offering from the other end of the technological scale – craftspeople expert in silversmithing, embroidery, bookbinding, passementerie and ceramics making one-off products for the celebrity guests.
New sorts of variety are breaking down the fashion houses’ carefully honed, monolithic brand identity in other ways. Both Dolce & Gabbana and Prada are embarking on a policy (long espoused by Paul Smith) of making all of their stores look different, and offering goods that are particular to those locations. As Stefano Cantini, group strategic-marketing director of the Prada Group, told Women’s Wear Daily earlier this year: “Our customer is global and they find us wherever they are – so by carving out exclusive styles for different locations we are offering them the opportunity to collect on their travels and to purchase something that isn’t available everywhere…This goes back to a bigger strategy of offering the customer new and bespoke experiences around the world.”
Mass customisation is not a new idea. Alvin Toffler predicted in 1970 that it would emerge as an antidote to the monotony of mass manufacturing: a “third age” of industrial evolution would bring forth a near-infinite variation of mass-assembled goods. He coined the term “prosumer”, to describe someone who simultaneously produces and consumes an item. And mass customisation is beginning to happen in all sorts of consumer-goods businesses, where people want made-to-measure, personalised products.
Ironically, fashion’s fulfilment of Toffler’s futurology harks back to the pre-industrial. Two hundred years ago, all clothes were bespoke. Timothy Everest, a Savile Row-trained tailor who for 20 years has run his studio from the Shoreditch neighbourhood of London (now the centre of its tech industry), has recently opened a store on Redchurch Street in which he applies the hand-made, customer-diktat-driven principles of bespoke tailoring (prosumption by another, earlier name). Yet the clothes that are most associated with the bespoke – suits – are no longer a uniform for his customers, so Everest tailors a wide range of cloth and items: denim, knitwear and outerwear pieces rooted in military-, work- and streetwear. “Customisation is everywhere now,” he says. “Look at the playlists on your phone. People are bespeaking their world. For a long time fashion was driven by finding the new, the new, the new: but it has got to the point where that pendulum cannot swing any faster. This is a way of taking ownership of what you consume.”
Is mass fashion’s urge to customise the latest fad or a fundamental shift in the relationship of consumers to the means of production? The customers will, eventually, decide; but Toffler was pretty sure which way the needle was pointing: “As this practice becomes widespread, the customer will become so integrated into the production process that we will find it more and more difficult to tell just who is actually the consumer and who is the producer.”