How Silicon Valley (and other global tech hubs) are helping luxury return to its roots.
The original principles of luxury were led astray by conglomerates’ mass market motives. Tech is helping new brands bring those standards back.
“A luxury brand that avoids the internet is effectively refusing to engage with its customers. . . . It is not listening to what its customers want, which is dangerous in any consumer-facing industry.” This is the thinking of Lyst CEO Chris Morton, and he gets it completely right. For some time now, esteemed brands under the umbrellas of luxury’s ‘Big Three’ — LVMH, Kering, and Richemont — have initially refused to embrace e-commerce. Many of them still lag behind even today. But this is to their detriment.
In its relatively brief history, the tech world (Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the globe) has laid many a complacent industry in its disruptive wake. With its rapid innovation and intense growth, it’s kept old industries honest, on their toes, and in a permanent sweat.
The luxury sector is certainly no exception. Here, the tech sector has forced even the most stubborn of luxury luminaries — Chanel, Fendi, Celine among them — to (reluctantly) embrace e-commerce. At the same time, it’s allowing emerging brands to equal or surpass existing companies like these in quality, and keep costs low by avoiding the need for a storefront. Furthermore, new technologies are also enabling new brands to create custom, made-to-order garments for shoppers. And in the process, the tech world is pushing luxury to return to its roots.
What luxury used to mean.
Prior to the 1900s, the showy, mass market luxury industry that we know today did not exist. Rather than ruled by multinational brands, clothing was the domain of individual dressmakers and tailors. (The best of them would make clothing and decor for the aristocrats and royals.) Generally these were made-to-order: Dressmakers rarely came up with their own ideas, instead creating whatever the client requested.
Then, in 1848, came Charles Frederick Worth — historically considered the first fashion designer — whose influence sparked the march towards full industrialization of the industry. His forward-thinking approach brought transformative, but subtle, innovation. For one, women flocked to him for his designs, instead of the old way of commissioning a dressmaker to create ideas that the client came up with. He also had connections within the textile industry which gave him access to the finest and most elaborate fabrics. And though these were still couture, made-to-order garments that required many fitting appointments and possibly weeks to months to produce, he paved the way for many of the designer names we know today. Then in 1937, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a study of women’s body measurements for the purpose of creating a standardized sizing system for the entire industry. This led to the opposite of couture: prêt-à-porter (ready to wear), standardized off-the-rack clothing.
In terms of industrialization, the tech boom has exacerbated this approach. Garments are produced with much quicker turnarounds, and nearly all brands focus heavily on e-commerce. Even the biggest luxury names that initially resisted this approach to clothing have started to make e-commerce a top priority. Technology has enabled faster production times, and globalizing the process has made it possible to have 26-52 design refreshes in stores per year instead of the normal two to four. For some newer brands it creates for better efficiency — and a global presence — without the overhead of a physical storefront.
As I described in an earlier editorial, “Who Made My Clothes?”, this rapid industrialization and emphasis on quick (and therefore, cheap) garments for instant gratification, has led to all sorts of environmental and social issues around the world. This increased speed of production is the direct result of brands, typically publicly-traded, that are trying to stretch profit margins. Aside from the negative impacts this speed of production has on factory workers, consumers simply find themselves purchasing lower quality garments.
But technology has also, in some ways, helped to reverse this mass market, off-the-rack approach. There is now a new class of online-only, made-to-order clothing that uses new technologies to bring us back to the careful craftsmanship and personalization before mass market production.
Who’s leading the way?
Silicon Valley is obsessed with turning industries on their heads, and in this case it’s bringing luxury back full circle to its original principles. Here, it’s not the tech industry’s interpretation of luxury; but rather, using tech to enable traditional fashion and dressmaking. Today, having tailored clothes does not require going to a meet a tailor in person. Instead, technology allows for quick shipping and custom-made garments all done at home. Some of the companies spearheading this tailored movement include:
Indochino (men’s suits): custom suits measured yourself at home by following their step-by-step guide online.
FitzGerald Morrell (gloves): Custom made gloves by sending the customer a quick fit sheet that includes a few instructions on measurements as well as tracing your hands on the included paper.
Margaux (women’s flats): Similar to FitzGerald Morrell but for women’s flats. The fitting kit contains everything you need to take your measurements for your made-to-measure order.
Trumaker (men’s suits): Measurements don’t occur online but they have a large network of “Outfitters” that will come to your home to make measurements then the suit styling is ordered online.
J.Hilburn (men’s suits): A bit more personal and hands-on. They have a network of traveling stylists who visit shoppers at work or at home to take their measurements and help guide them during the fitting process.
Proper Cloth (men’s shirts): Tons of options on fitting the way you want – sending in measurements, sending in a shirt that fits you well to be copied, sending in measurements of a shirt that fits you well.
True & Co. (bras): Using large dataset for custom bra sizing for women by answering a questionnaire of how various brands fit you and where your pain points are.
Still, this movement hasn’t been without its roadblocks along the way. Pat Morrell of FitzGerald Morrell says that educating customers on the benefits of these high-end goods is one of the most difficult parts of the business model. “The biggest challenge so far has been educating our customers about the nuance of the fitting process and why it takes us 6-8 weeks to deliver each pair of gloves,” he said. Furthermore, many customers expect everything to be “fast, cheap, and good”, and these companies are intentionally NOT that. Mr. Morrell says that “it takes [them] 6-8 weeks to deliver gloves because the process [they] exercise — customized-measuring, hand-cutting, custom-sewing — demands that amount of time. By crafting [their] gloves the old school way, [they] ensure that [their] clients end up with the best gloves they’ve ever worn.”
Another advantage for these slower, custom-made clothing companies, is in their ability to have a closer relationship with the hands manufacturing their products. With the use of technology, these personalized goods are comparable in price to standardized alternatives rather than 2-3x the price.
So not only can tech’s influence in luxury help alleviate some of the negative social and environmental impacts of the industry, it can also enable greater personalization. Shoppers can now buy unique items according to their tastes, instead of having to cede to whatever mass market brands decide is trendy. It may also help people develop a closer relationship with their clothing by purchasing it with greater intention. Indeed, a longer waiting period might encourage people to repair their luxury goods and take better care of them, instead of throwing a coat in the garbage when a button falls off.
Lean Luxe subscriber Amy Boone is a software engineer for LinkedIn and fashion history blogger for This Tailored Life. This editorial is adapted from a previous version on LinkedIn. The views reflected here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Lean Luxe.