Like a Rose

The art and science of customization
Posted May 17, 2019

Fashion is a portal into our hearts and souls; it’s a reflection of who we are. Both fashion and retail constantly evolve on cue with changing times, values and technologies. The reshaping of the industries has been exponential in our age of information and advanced communication and manufacturing techniques. It’s been said that fashion is akin to picking a rose. When first cut and put into a vase, a rose is fresh and appealing, its essence fills the air. Two weeks later it’s wilted, dead on the vine.

There is a rapidly shifting landscape in today’s fashion scene: Consumers, most notably millennials, are defining “mega trends” based on their lifestyles and core beliefs. Fast fashion, prêt-à-porter, and even couture, can leave a cruel and indelible footprint in our fragile environment and delicate eco-system. There is an awakening of sorts. Consumers still love fashion, but they want to be socially and ethically in-tune with the preservation of our planet and the treatment of others. They want to know who made their clothes and under what conditions they were made. Today’s consumers want to cut out excess and waste while still making a fashion statement.

Modern fashion seekers focus less on competing with others and more on their own quality of life. In the past, the industry was built on desire, consumption and continual change. Today’s shoppers are more demanding, with higher expectations and new values -- they’re challenging even the most customer-centric retailers. They know what they want, and they know when and where they want it.

It’s the astute retailer that recognizes the shifting needs of the well-informed shopper. The overarching goal of every new retail concept is to make the customer feel special, and create an emotional exchange between the customer and the store. The contemporary customer wants attention and an intimate experience. 

Always a reflection of who we are at any given point in time, and always responsive to new technologies, retail is now embracing a new fashion trend,: customization. An oxymoron of sorts, mass production, driven by advances in technologies such as 3-D printing, is producing product that appeals to individual needs, wants and desires.

With the ephemeral nature of fashion, brands today are struggling to respond to the latest trends. And as they try to create brand recognition and equity for their companies, their customers are creatively branding themselves. The innovative shoppers of the day see themselves as influencers rushing to post their finds on Instagram or other social media platforms. As technology leads us through the muddied waters of the retail arena, companies are turning to algorithms, surveys and data to determine what the customer wants. Not wishing to overwhelm or overextend, the new fashion formula is a kind of style editorial where retailers suggest what might be hot, but offer the opportunity for the customer to configure the trend to their personal preferences. Customization options are being offered both in-store and online.

And advances in technology are streamlining the customization process. The customer can place an order, and the next day, it’s cut, filled and shipped. There is minimal human interaction. Here, however, is the miss-step in the dance. People don't just want a box to show up at their front door, they want to touch and feel, they want to kick the tires, they want the experience. So the visionary retailer orchestrates a more syncopated and elaborate dance where the human element in the form of stylists, digital look books, and customization bars harmonize with algorithms and new manufacturing processes. Savvy retailers are designing collections or curating offerings that can be embellished with personal touches such as a collar, a button, a well-placed pocket, or custom colored stitching. In doing so, the customer has the ability to buy a mass produced garment and make it theirs and theirs alone.

Fashion, like a rose, is in a constant state of change. Both take an artful eye and some scientific knowledge to cultivate. The art of customization is humanization; showing something to customers that algorithms didn't show. The science is analyzing data. The success factor is the fine balance between art and science.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.