PARIS — In the age of selfie expression, customization and personalization trends continue to gather steam with a growing number of brands and retailers inviting customers to put their personal stamp on products.
Take Gucci, which has gradually been introducing a customization program in its key stores. François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of parent company Kering, described it at the group’s recent annual general meeting as “a way of allowing clients to explore their creativity while reinforcing their affinity with the brand.”
Louis Vuitton, which has personalized trunks in its archives dating back to the 19th century, has had its Mon Monogram service since 2008 and on May 26 will launch the My LV World Tour collection. Customers will be able to choose from five families of 12 patches inspired by vintage graphics and hotel and transport labels to customize the house’s monogram canvas bags.
The service will be extended to the Damier graphite canvas line from mid-September, with the house’s “My LV Belt” men’s service to launch in late August. There, clients will be able to create their own belt on site, choosing from up to 168 combinations of buckles and belts, with the option of having their initials hot-stamped on the inside of the strap.
Among other initiatives, Fred in January launched its L’Atelier Fred customization concept based around its iconic Force 10 bracelet. Among the options, customers can order a bespoke shade of lacquer using a handheld “Capture” scanner. For example, if they direct the scanner at their bag, or a detail on a photo, the color can be replicated.
“This means that you can have your bracelet in the exact same color of the sky on the day that you met the love of your life, for example,” said Rachel Marouani, the brand’s ceo.
Some see the customization phenomenon, which has been bubbling up over the past decade or so, as a logical evolution of industrialization: A sign of consumer fatigue with standardized products. Others see it as a way of heightening the brand and retail experience, not forgetting the potential reach across social media platforms through shoppers sharing customized product.
“Certainly the social aspect of it, to be able to demonstrate to your circle of friends your own identity and creativity through a product, is very powerful,” said Michelle Grant, head of retailing at Euromonitor International. “Younger generations have grown up with that mentality of ‘be who you are, be an individual,’ which definitely translates now with technology and companies embracing that kind of openness, allowing [customers] to customize things in the way they see fit in order to stand out.”
With footwear companies like Nike having led the charge, a number of digitally native brands have built their businesses on the customization trend, she added, citing Shoes of Prey and Mon Purse among examples.
“It’s part of the overall relationship between the brand and the client. Brands more and more are allowing clients to play with their codes and logos and this is what the client expects,” said Vincent Cuni, marketing manager of watches at Louis Vuitton, whose latest complicated watch, the Tambour Moon Flying Tourbillon, allows clients to switch the house logo with their own initials in the very movement of the timepiece.
For Cuni, the house’s influential creative directors helped fuel the trend through themselves playing with the house’s logo and materials. “Think about Marc Jacobs and the monogram canvas with tags on it in flashy colors. He was playing with the codes of the brand, and clients have this in mind when they buy a Louis Vuitton watch,” said Cuni.
Selfridges in November will open an accessories hall where “multibrand personalization will be a key component,” including a dedicated area, according to Eleanor Robinson, director of accessories, who noted the “appetite is still strong, but the expectation is higher.”
“Personalization has worked for us in so many ways — from personalized jars of Nutella, Mr. Men prints, the runaway success of the initial iPhone cases by Chaos or the continued success of monogramming and hand-painting on luxury accessories,” she said.
“There are two strands to respond to: the first is thoughtful gifting, and the second, a desire from our customers for a creative point of difference with their purchases. Pick-’n’-mix accessories for your accessories are important now, too — straps, stickers, charms are all performing very well,” Robinson said.
For Noémie Balmat, founder of Claudette, a Paris-based magazine geared around developments in fashion in the tech, science and artistic fields, “to have [product] tailored to you kind of represents the ultimate luxury.” Several start-ups in France, such as Boutonnière, are offering brands the opportunity to do co-conception with customers, she said.
Taking the customization trend to new heights, Le Bon Marché has opened its L’Atelier du Soulier (Shoe Atelier in English) space in its shoe department, run by Notify. Customers can take along shoes and have pretty much anything done to them.
The concept is part of a broader customization push under way at the store, whose denim workshop, L’Atelier Notify, has been inundated with requests for what the store’s fashion buyer Elodie Abrial, in a recent interview with WWD, described as “crush items.”
Commissions, she said, have ranged from painstakingly replicating a pair of ripped jeans worn by Rihanna in a photo brought in by a customer to customizing a Givenchy bag and mink fur coat with embroidery. At the store’s street-art customization atelier by Mad Lords, meanwhile, a customer recently came in with a Louis Vuitton monogram trunk and had the Rolling Stones “lips” logo engraved all over it. The store is also mulling extending the atelier service to handbags.
While Nike Lab can be credited with making customization the new normal in the sneaker domain, at L’Atelier du Soulier, clients can customize any style of shoe, from boots to stilettos. They can bring in photos or mood boards or spontaneously select from an assortment of accessories presented in boxes on a counter in front of the atelier, with embellishments spanning embroideries, studs, patches and engraved plaques, and techniques including photo prints, engraving, laser cutting and hand-painting.
Prices go from around $20 for the application of a stud to around $270 for a fully hand-painted shoe, with three stylists on hand to guide customizers, and seven machines.
The customer’s creative freedom is only limited by the physical restraints of the machines and materials, although there are trademark boundaries. “If someone asks for a double C on their shoes, or red soles, say, we wouldn’t oblige,” said Fabienne Ruset, the store’s women’s accessories director.
Brands for the most part are taking a controlled approach to the game. But in a situation where the client is invited to co-conceive a product, or for concepts like L’Atelier du Soulier where a shoe can be entirely camouflaged in the owner’s choice of embellishments, is the brand’s DNA — and the role of the designer — at risk of being diluted?
For brands that balk at the idea of consumers customizing the look of their products outside of their control, Euromonitor’s Grant said there’s no point in resisting. On the contrary, brands “that do not take the voice of the customer into consideration, and let customers that are extremely loyal to them have a say in product development, into their planning, will definitely lose out,” she said.
“Lego is a good example, where they had a closed system and built the products, and they suffered for that. When they decided to move to a more open platform and solicit customer feedback and highlight the products that their customers invented on their behalf, they’ve done much better as a company,” said Grant.
With social media acting as a tool for empowering consumers, leading to brands losing control of the conversation, “those who tried to fight it, or resist it, really fell behind those that embraced it,” she added.
“It does take time, as an organization, to let go of control, but you already lost it a long time ago,” Grant said. “If you do resist instead of embracing it, others will and you’ll be left behind.”
According to industry experts, consumers are not poised to replace designers, though involving them in the process earns brands brownie points. “I don’t think [the customization trend] has made people more creative, but it has likely made them believe they are more creative,” noted Claudette’s Balmat.
“We are more speaking about customization. Each brand has to keep its DNA and all the pillars attached to a brand, as a core component of the brand equity versus having a domain from which the consumer can compose their own designs,” said Jérôme Bergeret, director of FashionLab at Dassault Systèmes, which is working on a number of customization initiatives. “Studies show that the majority of consumers still want to have the trends set by the creatives.”
Launched in 2010, FashionLab, which was originally geared to an audience of artistic directors, stylists and designers, has increasingly been looking at ways to connect creatives with consumers, he said.
The 3-D software company is working on approaches to retail geared around customization, according to Bergeret, including pop-ups and corners “where you have few physical elements — iconic products that customers can try on or test the quality — because there are still some barriers, from a 3-D perspective, to remove such types of inhibitors.” The firm has already worked with brands including New Balance, and Tod’s is exploring the concept for its signature Gommino moccasin, he said.
The idea, added Bergeret, is to leverage 3-D “to unleash all the assortment” so that a customized product — if brands are properly set up — can be delivered 24 hours later. The company is increasingly working on the consumer experience as well as the concept of “since you’re in 3-D, being able to sell before you produce,” he said.
“[Customers] don’t want to only purchase the codes, they want also to be able to play with them, but it doesn’t mean total freedom,” echoed Vuitton’s Cuni. “It’s a different relationship with brands. It used to be very distant and respectful, it used to be one way: I produce, you purchase. Now people want to have fun, to have something different. They want to create, and play the designer, but they still want to be buying Vuitton.”