Customizable, or ‘bespoke’, fashion has historically been reserved for the extremely well-heeled with bourgeoisie taste. As my personal and career journey led me to building and launching Custom Consortium, I realized this is a fallacy – society’s perception of what bespoke fashion are and what it can become are misaligned. Customization represents much more than an opportunity to stand out in relation to wealth – it has opened the door for not only an expression of individuality, but also for each individual to affect the design of their products so it better aligns with their personal needs.
I’m a former Investment Banker and the stories are true. We’d often spend 100+ hours a week at the office. When the financial crash was bearing down on us, my boss couldn’t hire the 2 analysts I was promised in my recruitment. Having not taken a real trip for over a year, we agreed that I would work remotely whenever I wanted, on my alleged ‘vacations’. I once rushed home from a night club in Cartagena, Colombia at 3am to run analytics on a deal …it’s a miracle I didn’t blow that deal up. My laptop needed to be within 30 minutes of me, no matter where in the world I was…meaning I needed to take 2 bags on every trip, whether international or a weekend beach trip. I despised being the guy that walked into a weekend home, toting a rolling bag and a laptop bag.
Over the next few years, I went down a rabbit-hole of looking for the ultimate ‘single carry’ bag that would hold my clothes, laptop, and separate my shoes into another pocket. I’d seen bags that did one or the other…but not all. I wanted product perfection. Surely Porsche Design offers something like this, no? My search began…magazines, SkyMall, stores. I never found it…no such bag existed.
In 2012, I took a 1 month vacation between jobs. My well-traveled sister convinced me to go to Southeast Asia on the trip that changed my life. Halfway through, I was in Hoi An, Vietnam…a beautiful beach town with a vibrant shopping district. Stepping into a store, I purchased a beautiful leather bag and walked out. Bursting with glee, I heard the store owner run out of her store. “You can’t take this bag”. I joked back “I just gave you money…and now I take this bag. That’s how it works in my country. How does it work in yours?” “You come into my store, pick a bag, a leather, lining …and I make you a bag like that one.” My brain exploded with delight. I asked to add a shoe pocket and she obliged. The next morning, the first product that I’d personally designed was ready for me.
When I returned to the US, people that did and didn’t know me alike constantly asked me about the bag…it was clearly unique. Over the next few months, I researched and realized that no company was offering fully customizable bags. I decided it was on me to bring this to market, and after a year of working through 9 manufacturers worldwide, and spending long nights researching leathers, fabrics, hardware and more…Saintly was born.
Little did I know Saintly would be the tip of the customization iceberg. After 1.5 years of building Saintly, I decided it was time to take it big. The only way to do that would be to sell through luxury retailers like Barney’s, Saks 5th Ave, Neiman Marcus, etc. A friend of mine had some great connections and set up meetings with some major retailers. We received consistent feedback from virtually all of them: They loved the product but couldn’t sell a customizable made-to-order product. If we could create a standard collaboration bag, they would purchase and offer our bags the same way they do everyone else. While that in itself was a coup, it wasn’t what we wanted. Saintly was purely about customization, and putting our regular bags on shelves would dilute our story and the value proposition of customization. So we declined.
I had also put together the idea of working with some other customizable brands, simply to cross-market each other. With 5 brands on board, I created some social media profiles and called it “Custom Consortium”. Spearheading this, I was in constant contact with the other brands…but our conversations soon took a turn. The brands began asking me why retailers couldn’t sell their products, even though our offering was such a better opportunity. Custom products required no wholesale purchase, no capital at risk, no stockroom, minimal floorspace, no theft, and absolutely no discounting required…all which would diminish margins. When I realized the problem was universal and not just something Saintly faced…I knew there was a larger issue at hand. It couldn’t be technology, because that can be built and deployed. So what could it be?
It dawned on me retailers face logistical problems in offering made to order brands. Normally, a retailer swipes a credit card and the transaction is done. With custom goods, that’s when the transaction begins. Now, a retailer has to trust that a boutique brand produces and ships on time, makes a perfect product, and the customer is fully satisfied. To do so, they have to create a team that tracks every single product they sell. This isn’t something they’ve ever done and doesn’t fit into their business model. More so, when the second, third, fifth, and tenth custom brands come to them …every single setup is completely different, because each brand’s production, shipping, and other policies are completely different. The entire customization market was fragmented, and it wasn’t about to change soon. Custom brands would continue to struggle on their own direct-to-consumer island…something we were witnessing.
It turned out retailers had a viable reason for not offering made to order goods. But it wasn’t a good reason why it should never happen. With Saintly, I’d spent the last year thinking about getting retailers to see all the benefits of customization, only to learn the benefits weren’t the problem. We knew how this process should work, and more importantly, how it would have to be setup to work for the retailer, the brands, and most importantly, the customers. I worked to bring our brands together and turned Custom Consortium into a retailer specialized purely for customizable brands.
We know the journey is just beginning. Over the next months and years, we aim to democratize customization fashion, and this will entice more brands and retailers to participate, furthering the ecosystem. It’s going to be a long road, but one that we’re ecstatic to take on….