If there is anything about the sheer amount of clothes piled on the shelves during the end of the season sales, it’s that the fashion industry is producing too many clothes. But we already know that.
Overproduction and excess inventory – a euphemism for ‘things that weren’t selling’ or simply, waste – have seen the industry try to switch to a more sustainable, consumer-centric approach many times before (think view now, buy now craze of 2017/2018). But the one that seems to have stuck is probably the easiest: you order something, and then it’s created.
Bespoke acts as an alternative to the traditional fashion model, where brands try to predict what will sell and order at that forecast to fill their stores. It works for many, but for some young designers, being made to order is cheaper (many also use recycling, dead products, and zero waste production) and provides entry into the industry (avoiding the need to overinvest in fabrics and clothing production that may not sell).
It’s small-scale, independent and nimble: often the designer acts as the creative brain, creator, distribution department, website administrator, marketing / social media manager and model.
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Frances Lowe launched her Loclaire brand in 2019; it now offers a mix of tailor-made and ready-to-buy. She believes younger brands like hers have embraced bespoke for two reasons: money and a sign of the times.
“Small brands have small budgets, and you really have to get your money’s worth, and then partly from whatever you choose to spend,” she said pragmatically. “A big downside to the traditional make-then-sell system is that you pay all of your costs up front, even if your product doesn’t sell for two, three, six months. “
Sustainability is another key reason for this change, says Ellis Hong of the Ellis label.
“I think consumers’ standards for brands are higher than ever; the new generation of buyers want to know the origin of materials, the environmental impacts and respect for ethical standards. A slower pace of production means bespoke brands can focus on these concerns, rather than offering seasonal offerings to respect the status quo.
“It’s a new way of working that allows brands to change over time, offering less risk and less impact in certain circumstances. We can have more flexibility to create within our own deadlines, while actively thinking more about the world to which we contribute.
“The younger generation is born and inherited from the climate crisis – to which the fashion industry is clearly contributing,” says Lowe. “I see young bespoke brands as a sort of collective uprising – the antithesis of the big names in the industry – mass production, fast fashion, cheap labor. It is the return to a respect for craftsmanship, quality and longevity.
It also means more flexibility with size and fit, and the recognition that not all bodies are the same, even within the constraints of traditional clothing sizes – although the level of made-to-order fits really depends on the individual. designer (some will allow minor changes such as the length of a sleeve or pants; others offer tailor-made and made-to-measure).
For a shopper, that brings fashion back to what it should be: individualistic personal style and buying things that you love and keep for years. It might seem like a big commitment – a piece of clothing is made just for you, so it’s not as easy as returning it after you’ve changed your mind, and these independent designers often haven’t (or even want to) physical stores where you can try things on.
Lowe’s advice to those who might be hesitant about making-to-order is to ask the designer plenty of questions. She also recommends getting to know the fabrics, which can tell you a lot about how they will drape, feel and wear – “start by looking at the care labels in your own closet” – and invest in a tape measure, and learn how your measurements translate into clothing size (although yes, the size is often a mixed bag, so be open and kind to yourself here).
It also takes patience. Make-to-order is the antithesis of the Amazon / chain-store / same-day delivery model that many have become accustomed to, which is, of course, quite the basics. Some brands can take anywhere from two weeks to just under a month, or even longer, to create and deliver a purchase.
There are many exciting independent and local bespoke brands out there right now, but here are a few that caught my eye / made me stop scrolling.
Designers Lavinia Ilolahia and Talia Soloa are known for their dramatic figures, fun use of colors and prints, and more inclusive sizes than many.
Most styles range from S to XXL, some in “free size” and completely made to your measurements.
Classics with a yummy twist might seem a bit dull, but these are far from it – think merino wool tees with flower cutouts, crinkle-pleated fabrics, and ’90s wrap dresses.
Designer Emma Nielson has a small range of made-to-order pieces as well as ready-to-buy pieces, all of which reflect a cool and effortless girl.
Handcrafted swimwear and loungewear made to order by Wairarapa based Natasha Overend who offers sizes 6 to 20 as well as custom sizes.
The Mount Maunganui-based label specializes in silky 2000s-inspired dresses and ‘outlet tops’, with its popular quilted mini skirts hand-sewn by designer Lulu Jackson.
Geek chic cardigans with graphic patterns, designed in Auckland and hand-knitted in Papamoa, Petone and Porirua (Alice also offers made-to-measure rugs).
Effortless daywear in a cozy palette: think loose blouses and easy dresses, available from size 6 to size 20.
Interesting perspectives on couture are the hallmark of this young brand, launched in 2020 by Tess McCone. In addition to the small capsule collections, there are limited items available to order.
This clever cookie designer is a champion of local manufacturing who has created her own pattern / clothing design studio, The Pattern Table.
It’s here that she and her designers also create minimalist pieces for her namesake line, which offers both pre-orders on order and weekly.