“Mass customization has taken off in the computer and automotive industry. Why not clothing?”
First of all, in a certain sense, it has. From a consumer point of view, outfits are extremely customizable. When we put together outfits we mix and match different articles of clothing in various combination’s to suit our needs for the day. Outfits fundamentally have a modular architecture: shirts, pants, shoes, jackets, etc. The components are interchangeable and we have millions of components to choose from. People often reference cars and computers as examples of mass customization being successful – but the internal components are not “custom” – it is just the combination/configuration that is unique. In this sense, our outfits have always been “mass-customized”.
Historically, for a product to be mass customized, it requires a modular architecture in which the individual components can be produced cheaply. The components can than be combined in different configurations to offer a mass customized solution.
Modular solutions are generally cheaper because more elements are mass produced, but performance is limited by the internal interfaces. Fully integrated systems generally have higher performance (not limited by standardized internal interfaces, but cost more because the system is more expensive to produce.
For the most part, garments have not developed modular architectures – and for good reason. It would be impossible to standardize the interfaces between different components of all evening gowns in a way that allowed for mass production of different components of the gown, while still providing the performance (style) demanded by customers. The fun of fashion is often in how the different pieces come together – the interfaces themselves – and you can’t standardize fashion.
However, in some cases modularity and standardized interfaces is possible: Custom t-shirt companies separate the actual shirt from the graphic on the front. The interface is standardized, so that they can combine any graphic with any size and color of shirt. Custom dress shirt companies standardize the interfaces between a dress shirt’s collar, body and cuffs allowing for various combination’s in this manner. This is partly made possible with T-shirts and dress shirts by the styles not changing as quickly as the rest of fashion. Colors may change, but the fundamental architecture of the garment does not. Quickly changing fashion trends may prevent this from occurring for other garments.