Startups Help Shoppers Take Fashion Into Their Own Hands

Fashion is personal, so it makes sense that existing players and startups in the fashion space would adopt a personalized approach to reaching customers. Do-it-yourself fashion is a growing trend in sites that appeal to the clotheshorse crowd, and both established and upcoming players talked to us about the space’s progress and what’s coming next.

Custom Clothing Meets Maker Chic

BurdaStyle.com founder Nora Abousteit isn’t new to DIY fashion. Her site’s been operating as a hub for designers, hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts since early 2007. The site’s roughly 500K monthly visitors browse, download, and in some cases buy patterns uploaded by its users; site members can also post their creations to share with the community, and opt to sell finished projects directly through BurdaStyle. Abousteit said in an interview that part of what she sees as driving an interest in DIY fashion is a desire to be different, but that it also goes beyond that.

“DIY fashion is becoming more popular because of the yearning for uniqueness in the sea of mass production, yet also because people simply want to make something,” she said. “Making stimulates your senses (touch), learning new skills and mastery makes people feel good.”

Abousteit is on the verge of taking what she’s learned in managing BurdaStyle and applying it to a new, extended incarnation of the DIY fashion trend. She’s just completed a round of Angel funding for Kollabora, a “social marketplace for craft and hobby supplies with multiple maker communities” aiming to launch in private beta in the next couple of weeks. Kollabora not only provides the inspiration and how-to that BurdaStyle offers its users, but also connects them with suppliers and makes sure they get their hands on the right materials.

“It can be so tedious to find the supplies that someone used,” she notes. “And then you end up either using the wrong materials in the wrong way and have a sub-optimal result, or you end up not making anything at all.” By combining access to “inspiration (what), instructions (how), techniques (learning), and the supplies (physical goods) you need to make the project,”  Abousteit says, “Kollabora offers all elements and also in context to each other. ”

Custom Without the Work

Not all fashion startups are convinced users also want to be the producers of their own goods. What about customers who want the custom aspect, but not the work? Proper Cloth founder and CEO Seph Skerritt created his site in 2008 based on the belief that people would pay for custom-tailored dress shirts online, so long as the process was quick and painless. Proper Cloth has been profitable for the last year, the company told us.

Skerritt said in an interview that when he began, “there was really nobody who was really savvy at e-commerce offering anything at all” in the area of custom-fit, high quality fashion online. “In the last few years, there’s been a ton of made to order, made to measure suits and jeans companies popping up.” He said his customers always seem to want more in terms of customization options, and the desire for custom clothing shows no signs of abating. But he also believes staying focused on delivering the best possible product in a specific area, i.e. men’s dress shirts, is the way to go.

When asked about the recent spate of fashion-related subscription services like Birchbox and the just-launched Frank & Oak, Skerritt said it’s “definitely an idea that has potential for a healthy subset of customers,” but noted that “subscription for the point of being a subscription service is kind of a gimmick.” Instead, Skerritt says that any subscription service Proper Cloth might offer would be aimed at making sure the solution is all about adding value for the customer by taking additional hassle out of the shopping experience.” Truly accurate personalized recommendations are what would make subscription services genuinely interesting in the fashion sphere, Skerritt believes, but it’s something he thinks will really help strengthen the trend of custom clothing offerings, and it’s also something Proper Cloth is actively working towards.

Bespokeable, a new startup currently in closed beta, combines elements of both BurdaStyle and Proper Cloth’s approaches. It works by connecting shoppers with tailors and craftsmen, allowing users to not only shop for custom-fitted garments, but also to entertain competing offers from multiple garment-makers, and work with specific tailors to provide input in the design process.

Founder and CEO Nicholas Marx thinks this is the key not only to providing more customization options to shoppers, but also to expanding the business quickly. “Since these tailors bring their own fabrics to the market, our model also allows us to offer a larger number and variety of fabrics than what a single site/tailor can offer,” he said. “Additionally, since we’re not tied up in the production/distribution side of things, we can expand into new areas more quickly and easily than the other DIY sites who also source the products sold on their sites.”

Control Over Design, Sourcing and Price

Bespokeable, like Proper Cloth, believes recommendations are a key part of the DIY fashion model, but Marx says all the site’s recommendations are handled by real people; tailors make recommendations to users based on what they’ve ordered previously. “To help the tailors make better recommendations, we already show them what the person looks like, their color & style preferences, as well as what they already have, but we also plan to supplement this with other data that we’re currently collecting from transactions,” Marx told us.

As a company, Bespokeable is only just getting out of the gate, but Marx pointed out that the company already makes money by charging sellers a transaction fee for every successful sale. And despite only having launched recently in closed beta, Marx says the site already has 211 buyers signed up, and 23 tailors from six countries to bid on customer requests. United Styles, a site launched in October of last year, offers a similar experience, but Bespokable’s bidding model should conceivably result in better prices for users.

DIY fashion is all about providing customers with input and choice when it comes to the clothes they buy and make. A survey of the founders we spoke with indicates that the key to staying relevant in this market is making sure companies not only stay abreast of what each customer wants, but also provide them the easiest experience possible. People may want uniqueness when it comes to fashion, but that doesn’t mean they want to work for it.