By  on July 3, 2007

PARIS — Tom Ford may have pondered where a 21st-century Cary Grant would shop to create the blueprint for his new boutique concept. But what about a modern-day Audrey Hepburn?

Seizing on customers' desire to be different in an age of global brands, a crop of women's wear designers is cultivating a personalized fashion experience, offering tailor-made services and old-school trunk shows, as well as on-site ateliers and private dressing salons.

Charvet, the storied Parisian shirtmaker that counts George Sand and Coco Chanel among its past customers, has noted younger female clients are seeking their own take on bespoke tailoring. "Many are requesting for mannish garments — shirts and pajamas in particular — to be adapted to the female form," said the store's director, Anne-Marie Colban, adding that certain clients even insist on keeping buttons running down the right hand side of shirts.

The house's production of women's bespoke shirts, she estimated, had risen 20 percent annually over the last three years. Each garment takes around four weeks to make, complete with fittings in a muslin mock-up, and costs roughly $600.

"These ladies could shop anywhere; it's not a question of physical constraints," continued Colban. "It's the idea that a garment that carries a personal stamp exceeds any other form of luxury."

"Our ideal would be one dress, one customer," said Paris designer Jonathan Riss, who opened his boutique, Jay Ahr, fitted with an on-site atelier and salon, a year and a half ago. Riss plans to open a private salon on New York's Madison Avenue this fall. "Contact with the client is what it's about, and I love the idea of doing regular private trunk shows to propose one-off pieces," he said, adding he will decorate his New York suite to resemble a French apartment, replete with an old bed to drape dresses across.

Custom-made creations come with a price. Pieces from Riss' main collection cost between $700 and $7,000, but one-of-a-kind creations can run up to $30,000 and sometimes take up to 500 hours to craft. One recent commission, for example, involved the application of 700 crystals, by hand, he said.Rather than buying couture outfits created from the ground up, clients often request that garments be made to measure, or for functional tweaks to be made on existing items, designers say. A customer from Japan or the Middle East, for example, may prefer a piece to be more covered up. Elsewhere, decorative whimsies, such as a fringe added to a dress, are popular among young clients who want to put their personal stamp on a style, designers said.

However, custom-made orders are generally limited to the privileged few.

"I tend to only make one-off pieces for that extra special client who needs a ballgown made, say, or a jacket," said Paris designer Andrew Gn, who compares the process with couture in terms of the extra manual labor, handiwork and fabric sourcing that's involved. "It's extremely costly, so the price point kind of limits itself," he said, characterizing custom-made designs as a new way for the "super, super elite" to differentiate themselves from the fashion pack.

Many designers herald such extracurricular endeavors as a return to fashion's roots, and perhaps a reaction to the glut of fast-fashion and overexposed international brands.

"There's a new group of women who are getting back to couture codes, and I adore [the exchange] I have with them," said Giambattista Valli. "They push me to make special pieces, not banal commercial clothes."

Citing a demand for exclusive products, Valli is ready to launch in stores this month his nascent Tailoring collection of Neapolitan tailored basics. The collection, which opened the designer's ready-to-wear show in March, has luxury details. Each piece is embroidered with Valli's monogram and comes with handmade linings.

Even emerging designers are banking on personalized designs to polish their image. London designer firm Poltock & Walsh, which will show during New York Fashion Week in September, are crafting five made-to-measure "star pieces" for house muse Anouck Lepère to model.

"It's definitely a direction we're going in as it's about bringing design to another level," said Katie Walsh, explaining that she and her design partner, Fiamma Poltock, recently moved their facilities from Hong Kong to London to improve production control.For spring, the brand will launch a made-to-measure shoe line in collaboration with shoemaker Simon Bolzoni and Britain's oldest bespoke shoemaking firm, Henry Maxwell & Co., which makes footwear for Queen Elizabeth II. Under the new venture, customers will be able to order made-to-measure versions of the brand's shoe collection for around $4,000. A new style will be introduced each season. Bolzoni will make appointments with clients internationally to take measurements.

Like individual clients, retailers are also demanding more specialized products and customized options, designers said.

"In the last two years, retailers have been expecting the mini, mid-thigh and below-the-knee options on dresses, as well as sleeve variations," said Gn.

They're also after one-off exclusives for their stores. Valli has designed a little black dress for Isetan in Tokyo for fall, for example, and online fashion boutique Net-a-porter has commissioned an embroidered white dress from Jay Ahr for the holiday season.

And following a sell-through of an exclusive mink-cuffed wool crepe coat by Andrew Gn last year, Bergdorf Goodman has requested a black-and-white feathered gown by the designer for fall.

"[One-off creations] can come out 20 to 100 percent more expensive, depending on quantity, but price is not an issue for this customer," said Gn.

Not that women shy away from accessible ways to get a unique garment. A new initiative by furrier J. Mendel, dubbed "Metamorphose," allows clients to have their old furs customized for a snip of what the reworked designs would cost off the rack. The service is available in the house's boutiques in the U.S., and the firm is in talks to develop the service for a major department store in New York. Compared with investing in a new fur, the cost of having an old one customized is relatively low. Reworking a used mink coat, say, costs around $5,000, compared with $20,000 for a new style.

"Modifications can range from replacing a collar to entirely resculpting coats," said 84-year-old Jacques Mendel, master furrier of the firm's Paris atelier. The service, Mendel believes, will attract new customers to the store. "I'm a bit of a romantic and I hope we'll get so much demand that I'll have to train legions of youngsters to become furriers ­— a dying art," he said.Made-to-measure orders on new coats account for around 25 percent of the house's business, 70 percent of it for export. But more and more women, said Mendel, are choosing to customize fur coats, both new and old.

"Our franchise in Moscow has had ladies come in carrying chains of diamonds that they want attached to their furs," said Mendel, adding that these precious belts cost five times the price of the coat.

Clients, in particular from emerging fur markets such as Russia and the United Arab Emirates, are hungry for tailor-made luxury, said Mendel, recalling a recent visit from a Russian customer who rolled up in her limo wielding a giant sable blanket. "It was one of the most beautiful furs I had ever seen," said Mendel. "And her dream was to have it transformed into a coat made especially for her."

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