by Merlin Hernandez

I encounter many young people who have visions of being fashion designers and would ask me where they should begin. My standard response is “learn to sew and study business management.” Apart from understanding how to put a garment together, the advice is meant to emphasize the value of learning about fabrics, experimenting with color, motifs, textures, and basically finding that ‘sweet spot’ amidst the vast array of options. But the business of fashion is what will separate the dreamers from the driven and I salute anyone who takes a real bite out of that oft bitter fruit. Every now and then I will share some of my fashion insights on this forum…

Mass customization is the production of custom-tailored goods or services to meet the diverse and changing needs of the customer at prices that are close to a mass production model. It is about producing the right product, adapted to individual customer need, at the right price. Globalization has increased the customer base for many businesses but it has also brought greater diversity of needs. The business response has to satisfy an unlimited number of consistent choices but at smaller volumes and lower inventory levels than a mass production matrix.

Traditional make-to-stock approaches will not be applicable for the small designer as holding inventory is costly and collection cycles are getting shorter – Spanish label, Zara, puts out a new collection every 14 days. To facilitate the need for Just-In-Time (JIT) delivery and mitigate the risk of supply chain glitches in a make-to-order model, mass customization allows the cost efficiencies of a line flow for limited make-to-stock batch production of partially finished products. Specific customer differentiation needs are then postponed until the last possible point in the supply network to meet JIT requirements for a high level of customer satisfaction.

In the apparel trade, businesses are increasingly structured to be able to manipulate designs quickly and cost-effectively to meet consumer desire for personalized style in a design-for-market model. Standard designs are embellished with different pockets, cuffs, fabrics, notions, and trim. Most manufacturers who engage in mass customization brand their businesses within a narrow niche in order to better anticipate market needs in the basic body, and limit the demand for style variation beyond the add-ons. There is usually an established range of pre-defined differentiating options for planning and production efficiencies.

Small start-ups entering mature markets are better poised and easily adaptable to a mass customization strategy. They might begin by establishing close relationships with a few distributors/retailers in a co-design process with regard to product features. This essentially allows the customer to guide the evolution of the basic design for a product that suits their market.

Larger manufacturers, especially family-based businesses, are often challenged by a lack of managerial knowledge and an understanding of the customer input to mass customization activities that will integrate the customer into the value chain. Mass customization is a feature of style, fit, and functionality, all of which are subjective. It would require a stable process for cost efficiencies but with built-in flexibility for value creation. To some manufacturers, this may be seen almost as a contradiction in terms and they are resistant. Productive processes may need to be re-engineered some but there are no large costs attached.

Related Articles on this Blog

• Getting into the Fashion Business

• Market Hunger

Merlin Hernandez is a management and entrepreneurial development consultant with extensive experience in fashion, hospitality, construction, and retail, among other areas of business. For more information on this and other topics, please send enquiries to