Once upon a time custom cobbling was a thing of exclusivity, reserved for presidents, popes and Wall Street fat cats. These days, however, thanks to technological advances, made-to-order footwear is something far more accessible. While customization is nothing new—most people have doodled on their Chucks or swapped out standard issue shoelaces for boldly colored ones—today’s touchscreen kiosks in stores and easy-to-use tools online allow consumers to take existing styles and handpick colors, materials and silhouettes to create their personal styles. Even the likes of luxury fashion house Burberry offers a way for customers to design the trench coat of their dreams and Kate Spade’s Saturday label has customizable weekenders.
Blame it on the Millenials; it appears Generation Y likes to really have it their way. Saturated by brand pitches, marketing experts believe that these consumers have pretty much seen and heard it all, thus they are looking for something that doesn’t come across as mass produced and generic. In an increasingly small world, they are seeking ways to put their own unique stamp on the products they buy. As hip-hop mogul Kanye West once rapped, “There’s a thousand yous, there’s only one of me.”
“Thanks to social media, fashion lovers are instantly aware of any new trend or product,” declares Monsieur Jerome, founder and editor of menswear blog MonsieurJerome.com. “In an always-on world, customers express a firm desire to be different. Having your very own personal shoes defines the customer as a leader.”
Tom McClaskie, president and creative director of Walk-Over, echoes this sentiment. “From lifestyle décor to personalized restaurant menus, consumers want an opportunity to express themselves with every purchase,” he says. “It’s exciting to customers when they really have the ability to be in control of their own style and to modify goods to their liking.”
To this end, McClaskie’s Greenwich, CT-based brand, a division of H.H. Brown, teamed up with Nordstrom.com in October to launch Build To Suit. Running online throughout the holiday shopping season, the interactive shoe builder allows consumers to mix and match the uppers and soles of the brand’s signature style. Made in Pennsylvania and delivered within three to six weeks, options include six suede uppers and four sole colors for a total of 30 variations.
“Having our own factory in the U.S. offers Walk-Over the ability to maintain high quality results with a very fast turnaround,” McClaskie says, noting that the partnership might return next spring with new options.
Dominated by athletic giants for years (NikeiD, miAdidas, Puma Factory, YourReebok and Converse’s Design Your Own, to name a few), dress brands such as Allen Edmonds and Johnston & Murphy are enhancing their customized shoe offerings, not to mention websites such as Chromatic Gallerie, Milk & Honey and Shoes of Prey. “It’s all about democratizing fashion and giving the power back to the consumers,” says Dorian Howard, co-founder of Milk & Honey, which allows women to design their own stilettos and pumps online. “Traditional retailers—and department stores in general—have been a bit slow to react to the amazing things happening in e-commerce. We have agility and speed. Instead of looking at us as direct competition they should embrace the work we have done and look for collaborative partnerships.”
For the storied Johnston & Murphy, made-to-order footwear is nothing new—the Genesco-owned subsidiary has been doing it for decades—but it officially launched its Custom Select program in 2005. Offering 10 styles in extended sizes and widths and in three colors, each pair takes five to six weeks to make in the brand’s factory in Nashville, TN, and is personalized with the customer’s name on the insole and on the cedar shoetree that it’s packaged with. “The order process either starts in a Johnston & Murphy store with a sales associate that can measure and fit, or if the customer is confident in his size, he can do it himself online,” says Marketing Manager Rachel Sigler, noting that the program has become more popular in recent years thanks to a resurgence of razor-sharp suiting and a renewed interest in made-in-the-U.S.A. product. “It offers customers a level up and it also helps some of our customers who have really hard-to-fit feet, like if one foot is a whole size larger than the other.” She adds, “Right now the styles are very classically inspired and we’re currently looking into bringing in some of the newer, slimmer, fitted lasts and expanding our custom offering.”
Similarly, Allen Edmonds has been offering made-to-order shoes since the ’80s, but three years ago it launched an online shoe configurator, accessible through all 45 of its company stores as well as through its retail partners. Customers can choose from nine styles and customize everything from the laces to the insole, even adding the logo of their favorite baseball team to their wingtip if they so wish. “Our custom business has only enhanced our main line business,” says CEO and President Paul Grangaard. “We’ve learned a lot from our customers based on the custom orders they’re placing.” A key aspect to the company’s future success with custom sales will be the reduction in time it takes to send out orders from six to eight weeks to two to four. “This quicker turnaround is the result of the added efficiency we’ll gain from a new production line in our Port Washington, WI, factory that will be dedicated to producing custom shoes,” Grangaard notes. The new production facility will also handle special orders like exotic skins, welted golf cleats and small order fulfillment. “As technology and processes allow, customers, including both wholesale and direct-to-consumer, appreciate more timely delivery,” continues Colin Hall, chief marketing officer.
Along those lines, New Balance currently owns the fastest turnaround time, taking a mere six to eight days for its shoppers to receive their made-in-the-U.S.A. custom 574 and 993 models. The program launched online about two years ago and, this fall, the company introduced custom kiosks at its New Balance Experience Store and the Foot Locker flagship in New York. Using a touch screen display, customers can choose between colors and materials, right down to the stitching on the shoe’s heel. Store associates are on hand to guide through the choices, and swatches and shoe samples give shoppers the opportunity to touch and see the real-life product while they design their own. Not forgetting the importance of social media, the kiosks enable shoppers to share their designs on Facebook or Twitter directly from the screen. “We brought a point of difference to the table,” offers Steve Gardner, general manager of New Balance Lifestyle. “It’s certainly given us another avenue to highlight our U.S.A.-made product and we’ve learned a lot about making it faster.” He adds that the custom business has thus far surpassed expectations, and plans are being discussed to carefully roll out more kiosks around the country in the future.
While Walk-Over and New Balance chose to team up with select retail partners, the majority of brands’ custom offerings are direct-to-consumer (D2C), leaving most retailers out in the cold. “As an independent retailer we always look for that unique product. This applies another layer of competition,” offers Isack Fadlon, co-founder of Sportie LA. Tarek Hassan, co-owner of The Tannery in Boston, disagrees. “It’s not like every time a customer wants a shoe he’s going to order a custom pair. They might do it once or twice, but it’s not to the extent that it’s damaging or affecting our business in any way,” he says.
Doug Palladini, vice president and general manager of the Americas for Vans, insists its D2C custom program is about engaging consumers and not competition with its retail partners. “We don’t really view it as a top and bottom line thing. It’s an experience that’s a rich part of our history,” he says, noting that the company has been letting its customers design their own shoes since Founder Paul Van Doren opened the doors to his first factory and retail store in 1966 in Anaheim, CA. “People were asking for shoes in different colors and prints. He would say, ‘Great! Bring me a shirt or another piece of clothing like that and I’ll do it,’” Palladini says. “People would bring in their stuff in the morning and when they came back that evening their custom shoes were ready.” Moreover, Palladini argues that first-time Vans buyers aren’t necessarily going to jump into designing their own versions. “This appeals to someone who already has some history with the brand,” he says. “It builds their relationship with us and it’s a ‘thank you’ to people who already expressed a loyalty with our brand.”
Earlier this year outdoor brand Keen unveiled a program online whereby customers can put their own spin on its Newport H2 sandal. “It really came out of our fan base and how passionate they are. We always got letters from people looking for different color combinations,” says Christa DePoe, vice president of global online and retail, noting that it’s been a popular addition to Keen’s business. “We’ve been getting requests for other shoes and we will offer a couple more sandal styles next year.” Each piece of the sandal can be personalized, and with more than 80 colors to choose from (That amounts to more than 65 million possible color combinations!) customers are free to make a pig’s ear of it should they wish. Once designed, the sandals ship directly from Keen’s factory in China in about two to three weeks.
Most industry members believe the expanding D2C custom category is far from replacing the traditional retail shopping experience. And for any retailers seeing it as unwanted competition, it’s not like private label programs haven’t been used for years either. One may argue D2C custom programs is a case of touché. Also, there’s the ever-present growing need for wholesalers and retailers to reach consumers beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experience. The personalized ability to shop 24-7 online lends itself to taking that personal flexibility a step further to customizing the products purchased. “Shopping nowadays is a seamless process,” says Jerome of MonsieurJerome.com. “Whether you shop online or in stores you can basically get anything you want.” At least, that appears to be the growing expectation among an increasing number of consumers who want to have it their own unique way.