Bespoke clothing shows a refinement and modern elegance that is proving to be extremely appealing among Chinese luxury shoppers. This trend isn’t about showing off, but moving away from in-your-face logos and style.
“Customers are more sophisticated now,” said Ben Cavender, a senior analyst at China Market Research. “They are not just trying to be flashy anymore. They are more likely to buy products that fit their own personal sense of style. They are looking much more closely at the quality of construction craftsmanship the unique story of the brand.”
Milliner Elizabeth Koch has seen the speed with which the bespoke movement has taken China. After making a gallery appearance in Beijing donning one of her custom-made hats, her business has been booming.
A mere months after setting up shop, her hats have been seen in Harper’s Bazaar, Chinese film, and Dutch parliament. One of her designs was even modeled by film star Shu Qi, photographed by Mario Testino, and featured on the cover of Chinese Vogue.
While bespoke—custom, one-of-a-kind goods— is traditionally thought of in terms of clothing, its scope is much wider. Bespoke can include sports cars, jets, and anything custom-made, reports CNBC.
Though the demand for bespoke goods is high, creating mass amounts of handcrafted merchandise is proving to be a challenge.
Smaller businesses seem more well-equipped to handle the budding trend, while bigger companies are struggling. “The reality for the larger brands is it is tough to do too much customization,” said Cavender. “It’s never going to be a good business. For entrepreneurs it’s a way to distinguish yourself so people will buy you instead of a big brand.”
Automakers like Bufori and Morgan Car Company, which made their move to China in 2012 and 2013, have followed the trend quite successfully. Due to their small-scale operations (they produce roughly 60 cars a year, but sell each for $350,000), they’re able to maneuver their business model around the bespoke movement.
One way some bigger clothing businesses are trying to branch into bespoke is by offering in-store tailoring services. International retailer Hugo Boss, is doing just this.
While larger companies are unable to compete with the craftsmanship of smaller businesses, they may not be out of the game just yet. Their talent may lie not with artisans, but software-controlled machines that are able to customize products to client specifications.
This, of course, creates a whole new topic of debate as to whether or not these products are truly bespoke.
Andrew Stockwell, an analyst with Forrester Research, argues that bigger companies may have to realize they’re not meant to follow this particular trend. “Customization is not conducive to operational scale via eCommerce sales. That said, I think we are in a world — think Dell or Nike — where customers are more empowered and want more personalized solutions. The hard part is to draw the line, ask where customization starts and to quantify it.”
For now, smaller businesses, like Koch’s, seem to have the upper hand.