It's Time For Mass-Customized Clothing And Apparel Products

Calling all product strategists at big name clothing and apparel companies: If you work at the likes of Gap, Macy's, Nordstrom, or American Eagle Outfitters, we at Forrester think you are currently missing out on an opportunity to delight customers, generate new revenue, and differentiate your offerings. We’ve been writing about why now is the time to experiment with mass-customized product offerings – customer-facing digital technologies have reached the point where customization is easy to deliver, and customers increasingly expect products and services will be tailored to their desires and needs.

Now it’s time for product strategists at big name clothing and retail companies to give mass customization another shot. Levi’s once offered customized jeans (from 1993-2003), but the offering was too far ahead of the curve – it didn’t have the opportunity to leverage the type of digital configuration experiences available today, and it didn’t offer buyers choice in features they wanted (like color).

We know that product strategists who want to offer mass-customized clothing and apparel products face customers who are stuck in an off-the-shelf comfort zone. We know that this customer resistance is holding back some product strategists at big brand-name clothing companies. Yet the return on investment could be significant. Incorporating customization into your product strategy will enhance current customer relationships and attract new customers that, up to now, have not been able to find what they want or need from your products.

As is often the case with mass customization, some plucky startup pure-players are showing bigger companies how this might be done. Companies like Blank Label, FashionPlaytes,, J Hilburn, Laudi Vidni, and Vastrm each offer lessons in different aspects of how to create mass-customized clothing offerings. Product strategists at big-name firms should look to these companies for inspiration.

One consistent learning from these startups? Fit is more important than style. Customized clothing should solve a unique user need – one not easily replicated through mass production. From a customer’s standpoint, why wait weeks to receive a built-to-order garment when there are dozens of choices available off the shelf? Custom fit honors the diversity of body shapes and sizing among consumers and represents a point of clear differentiation against off-the-shelf clothing options, as this example from Proper Cloth demonstrates:

In the near future, devices like Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect and 3D cameras built into mobile phones will offer an even better route to assess fit – literally scanning the bodies of prospective buyers.

We’ve just released a full new report on this topic for Forrester clients, which can be found here. We also welcome your feedback and comments -- do mass-customized clothing products have a bright future?


Customization project kickoffs

I have some experience in these projects for large brands. One reason customized products have little adoption among leading companies is because of the difficulties in leveraging existing infrastructure. Manufacturing and operations departments are forced to put up resistance to these projects because their resources are not as leveragable as everyone would like them to be.

Turning outside the company's resources to third parties can yield success, however the authority to do so in a leading company can be as difficult to obtain as starting a company ecommerce site was in the early 90s. Presenting a plan that includes proven case studies and specific experience is almost a necessity.

The ease for companies entering the customization market is improving, but still requires a motivated reach outside traditional project boundaries by existing or aspiring executives.

Thank you for sharing your

Thank you for sharing your informed perspective! In our research, we recommend that big brands treat customized offerings like a start-up, for the reason you have mentioned: They're going to require independent infrastructure (often located closer to customers, e.g. in the US or EU for buyers located in those markets). But I think your point on having the authority and internal willpower among executives to go outside normal processes is a valuable insight into the inhibitors currently holding back this product strategy at many companies.

Great article!

As usual, JP Gownder delivers great insight on mass customization. Apparel is definitely an area of huge potential - allowing consumers to be their own "fashion designers". I recently created my own jeans with indiDenim, and I have to say that picking colors and style elements was the most fun part of it - and fun is an important factor!

Carmen, thank you for the

Carmen, thank you for the kind words! You make an important point -- and our research agrees: Integrating fun into the experience of being a co-designer, for the buyer, is actually a critical success factor. While emphasizing fit in clothing, style and fun remain important factors. Thank you for pointing this out!

Offering both the Timbuk2 and Zazzle approaches


Thanks for this awesome article, very insightful. We're a small watch startup and trying to figure out how far down the customization path to go. We offer a lot of choice (you can interchange our watches), but we're not sure if it's possible for a *small* company to segment a "fully customized" side of the business from a "co-creation" side of the business. I'm distinguishing between Timbuk2 and Zazzle. Possible to do both?

Thanks. sorry if this question is clear as mud...


small biz co-creation

Hey Aaron, I think a small company can create a segment of sales for a single customized product (if that's what you are asking). And by co-creation you mean the customer applies their own design to the product?
Also, co-creation can generate a lot of buzz and contribute to overall traffic growth.

Basically you just need the software and manufacturing to be provided at a cost that matches the size of your business. There are a few products out there, I'll PM you a couple names.

Configurator Software Products

I'd be interested in the product names you mentioned also. Thanks in advance.


Sure, email me at absolin at gmail dot com, and I'll send some info your way.
(I found that there is no private messaging system to send info over)


Hi everybody,
almost one year ago I set up a e-commerce web site that offers tailored shirt.
My company is based in Italy.

I am aware that technology speaking the site is old, but It is my intention to invest, in the next future, to invest money to improve this aspect.

The site is (the English version is available).

Thanks for your attention.



I forgot to say that every feedback/advice will be appreciate. Thanks. Davide

Mass customization is about

Mass customization is about producing the right product. Driving this change is technology that allows clothing manufacturers to manipulate designs quickly at minimal cost.

Nice post

I have found a new website for American beauty products and apparels for men, women & kids.

the site is really nice.

Thanks for the post

hey thanks a lot for sharing the informative post with us. It is really helpful and nice.

keep it up!!

MC for apparel

Hello and thanks for this article. However I think you forgot one important aspect in your "business opportunity": The right to return. Due to the customization aspect, most companies will not be able to accept returns. Now, a customer is not just in charge of designing a product (lots of people think they are unable to do that) and is not able to feel & try on the garment in real live...but he is also not able to send it back. I think this is a k.o. criteria for customized apparel in an online setting and customers are not willing to accept all these risks.

Customization Returns

Mary Lou, you are right that this is a challenge, but there is a toolbox full of techniques to handle the issue for both the company and the customer. Below are just a few options. In the end, 70% of this issue may be solvable. I could design an attractive returns policy for almost all of the big customization businesses.

- Returns with partial refund. Cost-sustainable, discourages easy returns but provides an option.
- Returns with store credit. Raises the sustainable partial refund amount.
- Free shipping on all returns.
- Free shipping on items purchased with store credit.

Also, let's face it, the "customized" products out there really only have a few options. They're not truly custom, and those products have a high chance of being resold in the exact same configuration. Most popular bag color at Black on black on black. The top 10 configurations sell every day. Those returns are manageable.
- Company creates a discount store to resell return items
- Company has inventory management system to resell return items when the same configuration is ordered

Dear Benjamin, thanks for

Dear Benjamin,
thanks for your answer.
I am a student writing my DBA about Mass Customization. Further, I just launched a web side selling customized female apparel online. Is tehre a way I can contact you via mail?
I would really appreciate your help. Thanks

Returns advice

Sure, I'll take a look. I'm happy to provide advice on the basic ingredients of a returns policy for your site. We can coordinate over email.

Dear Benjamin, thanks for

Dear Benjamin,
thanks for your answer.
I am a student writing my DBA about Mass Customization. Further, I just launched a web side selling customized female apparel online. Is tehre a way I can contact you via mail?
I would really appreciate your help. Thanks