Words by Lauren Cochrane
The rise of made-to-order fashion labels is good news for the industry’s sustainability credentials, reducing waste, minimizing stock surplus, and encouraging clothes to treasure. But the scale of impact remains uncertain.
Marie Willey of Old Town, a made-to-order Norfolk-based fashion label and workshop, is talking about the way that her brand works. “There are two things that we do in person—sleeve and trouser length,” she says. “People [from all over the U.K.] say, ‘Oh, well, I live wherever.’ We’ll make a weekend of it… Loads of people do.’”
It may be that even more will be making weekends of it soon. Made-to-order and bespoke clothes—those that either tweak designs based on their wearer, or design clothes specifically for that wearer—are increasingly popular and increasingly seen as a way to make fashion more sustainable, because they only use the resources needed to make the requested garments.
Other brands include Atelier Bomba in Rome, founded in 1980 by Cristina Bomba and now run by her son Michele, a former bespoke tailor; One/Of, a New York-based brand founded by ex-fashion exec Patricia Voto in 2020, making bespoke items from deadstock, such as the dress that actor Madison Beer wore to the Met Gala in 2021; And Chava, based in Mexico City, who will tailor their elegant shirting to specific measurements when customers buy online.
Of course, none of these are household names, and none of them are cheap—Chava and Old Town are around $300 per item, while One/Of regularly reaches four figures. If made-to-order and bespoke are going to seriously contribute to a more sustainable future for fashion, they would need to be a viable alternative to popular fast fashion brands, especially as the world sinks into a cost of living crisis. And how feasible is that?
Philippa Grogan, a sustainability consultant for Eco-Age, is optimistic and open-minded about the idea. “It would obviously be quite difficult for big, well-established multinational brands to immediately pivot to that,” she says. “But that’s not to say that they shouldn’t try and adopt this approach, because it really hits a lot of sustainability nails on the head.” She adds that it is definitely a model that brands starting out should look at. “If you’ve got an agile supply chain, and an agile business model, you will probably adopt it far [more] easily.”
If you spend time making something just for you, you’re much less likely to see it as disposable.
Large mainstream fashion brands currently work with an overproduction model because it is easier and cheaper to make more of something rather than just enough (arguably, made-to-order is the extreme end of just enough). While this has got pushback from consumers in the past few years, with brands like Coach and Burberry criticized for burning excess stock in order to make sure it retains its value, it remains widely used.
Made-to-order or bespoke have existed for centuries and harked back to fashion before the 1960s, when the youthquake’s accelerated demand for cheap clothes meant buying off the rack became the norm. Arguably, these methods stand for the original slow fashion. Not only is one item produced for each person, meaning no waste in production or stock surplus, but there is a psychological factor too. If you spend time making something just for you—and, indeed, travel to Norfolk—you’re much less likely to see it as disposable. This model encourages the concept of clothes to treasure.
While an entire industry changing its production systems is a problem of “turning the ship around” magnitude, Willey—who began Old Town in 1992 with her partner Will Brown—believes one of the biggest hurdles is a shift in attitude. Asked if she thinks her way of working is scalable, Willey responds “Absolutely, I do. But you’ve got to look at it differently from high street schmatta [disposability] which basically is ‘make it, sell it, make it, sell it.’ It’s a very different mindset.”
Aja Barber, the author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change, Colonialism, Climate Change and Consumerism, says this needs to start from the terms we use. “I think we have to stop looking at a cleaner future as ‘scaleable’,” she says. “That’s the crux of the problem. Endless growth on a finite planet. Made-to-order is about slowing down, not speeding up.”
“We have to stop looking at a cleaner future as scaleable. That’s the crux of the problem. Endless growth on a finite planet.”
This way of thinking is one that upends the way most consumers think about clothing and fashion. “[A made-to-order item] would be an expensive first purchase, compared to the fast fashion alternative,” says Grogan. “[But it’s] the long game with things like that, it counteracts the quick [fix of fast fashion.]”
Indeed, the investment means we keep clothes for longer, and repair them when they need it. “I put a few films on Instagram because it was our 30th anniversary this year,” says Willey. “There was this one customer who bought these clothes [so long ago] and I thought I was going to start to cry, they were so beautifully patched.”
Grogan puts this down to the fact that we are involved in the making of these garments. “There’s an element of participatory design, which is a really important part of garment longevity,” she says. Barber agrees. “A slower life is a better life,” she says. “I buy a lot of clothing made-to-order and the wait time of the purchase is part of the process.” In the long run—measured by the cost-per-wear metric—made-to-order could actually be a cheaper way of buying fashion.
It also has the potential to radically improve the lives of makers because, as Barber says, “everyone in the supply chain gets adequate time to create the best possible garment.” Grogan adds this way of working has a psychological impact. “One person makes an entire jacket, let’s say, rather than the conventional sweatshop notion, where sometimes people do one seam and it takes seconds and then they pass it on, and that’s not enjoyable work.”
In the cold hard real world, rather than in hypotheticals, slower models like this would probably be rejected by profit-first larger companies. Even if made-to-order or bespoke garments are more expensive to buy, reflecting their different production model, the profit would unlikely reach the scale of selling, say, tops for £4.99 each. But, as Barber puts it, perhaps another type of recompense might outweigh the earnings: “No one is going to be a billionaire from these models but the trade off is sleeping at night, and liking who you are when you look in the mirror. I think that’s priceless.”