Will Technology Make Custom Clothing More Affordable?

Simon Davies

From tech startups to e-commerce titans, the quest is on to bring custom-made clothing to a new generation whose income would usually prevent them from being able to afford it. Bespoke clothing tends to be exclusive to high-end stores and is often seen as a rare luxury to all but the wealthiest of people.

The problem is that most of us are walking around with comparatively ill-fitting clothes; however, with the introduction of custom-sizing tech, not only could the fashion industry be transformed, your wardrobe could be too.

The problem with the size of our clothes

Despite the fact they are one of the most commonly worn items of clothing in history, we have come to begrudgingly accept that our t-shirts won’t quite fit most of the time. A so-called medium in one store may be too large and too small in the next. The problem dates back to the 1800s, when advances in technology meant that clothing could start to be mass-produced. Prior to this, as all clothing was hand-tailored, customized sizes were the norm and more affordable for the masses, who would simply own far less clothing.

Even t-shirt manufacturers have come to accept that there’s a problem, with one suggesting three primary reasons why t-shirt sizes vary so significantly. First, there is no restriction on standard clothing sizes, so although agencies such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) may have certain expectations, physically enforcing clothing sizes is technically impossible. Sizing varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, which brings us to our second reason: vanity sizing.

Vanity sizing is the process of stores labeling clothing in a smaller size than it actually is. The theory is, not unsurprisingly, that people will be happier buying clothes that they feel thinner in. If that makes you feel slightly disturbed, the third reason that the size of clothes differ significantly from store to store is because some businesses do the opposite. In trendier stores, sizes labeled large are anything but. In 2006, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch came under fire for eliminating its plus-size clothing, saying that “we don’t market to anyone other than…cool, good-looking people.”

Of course, there’s another reason why machine technology has been inferior to the human hand when producing bespoke clothing: the simple fact that bodies come in a wide range of different sizes. There is no one small, medium, or large, and that is a problem machine production hasn’t circumvented…until now.

The rise of bespoke clothing technology

Custom clothing has been described as the future of fashion, and, through the use of automation, that future may be very likely. Amazon’s patent for an “on-demand” apparel manufacturing system can quickly fill online orders for suits and dresses. This would, in theory, be able to make mass-produced, custom-made clothing, and in turn make custom clothing more affordable.

It works like this: The customer enters their exact measurements and other information like style, color, etc. Various computer-driven systems then produce the clothing. First, the aptly named cut engine cuts out pieces of fabric. Then a robotic arm places the fabric into a conveyer belt, which delivers the pieces to a sewing station, where an automated sewing machine (basically a robot) stitches them together. The entire process is monitored via cameras to ensure quality control.

However, it isn’t just Amazon that’s looking at ways to produce machine-made, custom clothing. In a piece in Apparel News, Andrew Asch talked to the inventors and entrepreneurs behind Susarel, a California company that aims to build a fully integrated vertical factory with an automated sewing component that will eventually produce custom clothing.

The plant will be able to produce all sorts of clothing – not just high-end suits – including t-shirts, yoga pants, leggings, board shorts, and hoodies. Susarel’s project will focus on energy-efficiency and being eco-friendly. However, the important thing for many consumers is whether or not it will actually make custom clothing any cheaper.

Will this service eventually become truly affordable?

Susarel seems to think so. Because this tech will allow it to produce clothes domestically in the United States, it believes it will benefit from tariff-free trade. Tom Keefer, one of the entrepreneurs behind the business, reasons that “[although] the cost of the factory build-out will be higher in order to incorporate these technologies, the resulting efficiencies will makes us cost-competitive with offshore manufacturers who handle the lowest-cost labor pool.”

Susarel is planning a soft launch next year, while Amazon’s patent is still just that: a patent. So all this talk of cheap, robot-made, custom clothing remains hypothetical. However, one business is already using a combination of tech and the human hand to bring genuinely cheaper custom clothes.

Copenhagen-based startup Son Of A Tailor offers t-shirts created to fit the wearer perfectly by producing them via a specially developed online algorithm. It works by asking the user five questions (height, weight, age, jeans, and shoe size), then using what it calls its Ideal Size Algorithm to calculate a perfect-sized tee. The pattern is then laser-cut before humans take over, stitching the garment by hand.

Although Son Of A Tailor only offers t-shirts, this combination of machine and human may be the best way to get affordable, custom clothing today.

For more on technological change in manufacturing, learn 6 Surprising Ways 3D Printing Will Disrupt Manufacturing.

About Simon Davies

Simon Davies is a London-based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues, and solutions. He works explores new markets and disruptive technologies and communicates those recent developments to a wide, public audience. Simon is also a contributor at socialbarrel.com, socialnomics.net, and tech.co. Follow Simon @simontheodavies on Twitter.