The sustainable brands redefining luxury with made-to-order business models

Olivia Gecseg Monday, 16 September 2019

In last week’s blog post, I looked at pricing models for sustainable brands and touched on some of the key differentiators you should be seeking to promote when approaching your pricing strategy - such as natural fabrics or durable construction methods.

It’s interesting to see how many of these qualities already exist in the minds of consumers when they consider what makes clothing (or any product) value for money. And what this essentially means is that brands have a ready-made market for designs that are ethical and sustainably manufactured.

If we compare the core definitions of “luxury fashion” and “sustainable fashion”, it’s easy to find similarities. Luxury, or haute couture, is often:

  • Made-to-measure/made-to-order, i.e. not “off the rack”
  • Artisanal or promotes craftsmanship
  • Manufactured with a hand-made element, such as embroidery
  • Considered to be very high quality and therefore long-lasting
  • Manufactured from natural materials, such as silk, cotton, linen, etc.

And we’ll find the same qualities promoted by sustainable brands too. The core difference however is that unfortunately for luxury fashion houses, these qualities can sometimes amount to nothing more than very good branding. As seen in this recent ethical ratings assessment by Good On You on the major couture houses, in reality luxury fashion can be considered aspirational to such an extent, that it is aspiring to something even it itself cannot attain.

Now let’s look at the completely alternate side of the system: large-scale demand for on-trend clothing from the mass market has led to a symptom of fast fashion retailers over-producing poorly-made clothing from synthetic fabrics. Manufacturing to a grand economy of scale has allowed these companies to attach shockingly low price tags to their products - prices that are not realistic for ethical and sustainable methods to be used.

By contrast, sustainable fashion designers today are redefining how consumers perceive luxury by offering genuinely well-made and beautiful clothing. Backed with strong ethics and often a compelling brand story, sustainable fashion brands are serious challengers to traditional luxury fashion houses.

I want to focus on what is supposed to be one of fashion’s biggest luxuries: made-to-order or customisable clothing. In three case studies, I’ll explore how sustainable brands are adapting the made-to-order model to counteract one of the most damaging impacts of fashion today: waste


Why is made-to-order better for the environment?

Made-to-order means that customers can chose products customised to their specifications. Opposite to a make-to-stock or “off the rack” model, this drastically reduces the potential for wastage or surplus stock. Manufacturing will typically begin once the company receives an order, guaranteeing the demand in advance, in contrast to presuming that a certain style will be popular and making large quantities in advance of any solid evidence that it will sell.

In fashion design, made-to-order applies not only to the “model” or type of garment, but to its size and fit, colour, detailing and functional spec (such as pockets, zips, collars, etc.), which leaves stock open to fluctuating tastes and trends in the market.

The drawbacks to make-to-order are that customers need to wait longer for their products, because they cannot simply go into a shop and buy “off the shelf”. Making large quantities in advance will create economies of scale, so manufacturing costs are cheaper.

However, the increasing consumer taste for sustainable or “slow fashion” is changing perceptions of how quickly items should be available. And overall these drawbacks seem tiny in comparison to the huge negative effects caused by over-production. With vast quantities of stock in the fashion industry going unsold and ending up in landfill, releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere or even burnt, made-to-order offers a desirable alternative to the made-to-stock model for sustainable brands.

Made-to-order might first appear as a highly expensive model which can only possibly work for brands with the clientele prepared to pay big bucks for tailored clothing. However, there are several fashion companies demonstrating this is simply not the case. 

Sustainable brands working to a made-to-order model

Unmade

'Hal and Ben, who are both from an engineering background. Could not understand how it was so ludicrously expensive to make one-off garments for these people.' - Kirsty Emery, Unmade

These designers have successfully adapted principles of industrial manufacturing to offer customisable clothing at a more affordable price point. Founders Hal Watts, Ben Alan-Jones and Kirsty Emery hail from a combination of fashion and engineering backgrounds and have approached the fashion ecosystem with an alternative gaze. They have succeeded in reimagining how traditional manufacturing works, building customisation into industrial knitting machines, which work according to the input of the individual customer. The highly creative software enables bigger brands to reduce the waste generated by made-to-stock collections and to engage customers in the design process.

Revisit our interview with Unmade’s Kirsty Emery to find out more about this exciting and disruptive new model. [Professional Members only]

Paynter

This brand is already disrupting the industry with its limited release collections – and they’re only in the lead up to Batch #2! Paynter jackets are beautifully made, utilitarian style jackets sold just three times a year. Once a new Batch of 300 jackets launches, the company waits until its orders have been taken to start manufacturing in order to keep their waste to a minimum. After ordering, this takes 6-8 weeks. Adding to the air of exclusivity, between Batch launches, customers can follow the fully transparent manufacturing and sourcing process, which Paynter publish on their website in the form of a timeline. The company has already gathered an extensive following after one drop, proving the high value of limited collections.

Head to the Paynter website now where they are in the process of gearing up to launch Batch #2.

Made and Worn

“When you’ve invested that many hours in something, it’s something that you keep forever, it becomes an heirloom piece.” - Alice Sleight

Another business who has recognised knitwear as an easily adaptable manufacturing process, is Made and Worn, albeit while incorporating even more input from the side of the customer. Ruby Lee and Alice Sleight sell customisable knitting patterns which customers can specify according to their desired textures, designs, yarn weight and fit (based on bust size and body length). The brand’s belief in home-sewn garments as the future of sustainability is really inspiring and with their innovative approach to knitting patterns, it’s not difficult to imagine the future of sustainability in businesses like theirs.

Hear the full story of Made and Worn’s journey in our interview with the founders. [Professional Members only]


Don't miss our interview with Lincolnshire-based easywear brand STALF [Professional Members only]; why they work with a made to order business model, why they don't work with wholesalers and advice for brands concerned about growing organically.

"The price point is part of the brand - higher end of the high street but still accessible. The only way to do that is cut out the middlemen." - Paris Hodson