The next revolution in lingerie won’t be a sexy streetwear trend or a space-age new fabric or even a 51st shade of kink apparel.
The future of fashion is unfolding on factory floors, as brands find new ways to adapt technology to produce garments more quickly, more efficiently and at less cost.
But the hyper-acceleration of the fast-fashion movement has sparked renewed interest in another, opposite, approach to manufacturing apparel: mass customization, the futuristic idea that everything you wear can be unique and original, created to your specifications with the click of a screen button.
Impish Lee, a tiny startup that launched yesterday with a crowdfunding campaign, is at the forefront of this new frontier, offering an online sales platform and manufacturing model that makes mass customization a reality for lingerie shoppers.
While most new lingerie brands might struggle to offer 27 variations in their debut collection, Impish Lee offers 27 trillion — that’s trillion with a ‘TR’.
Sisters Noelle and Kali Ventresca arrived at that number by multiplying the number of garments available by the number of colorways, patterns, fabric choices, trims and limited-edition prints offered in their debut line.
Using Impish Lee‘s ordering technology, customers can literally assemble their own garments from component pieces, which are then hand-sewn by the brand’s New York manufacturer — in effect, allowing consumers to design their own wardrobe.
It’s a bold business idea that flies in the face of 200 years of industrialization in apparel fabrication, which is based on producing mass quantities of identical garments on giant, pre-configured machines.
“We are giddy about the idea of mass customization,” Noelle told Lingerie Talk. “It’s the opposite of mass production. It’s personalization combined with technology.”
Mass customization has been around, in theory at least, for a long time, but until recently results have been spotty. It’s a business concept with geeky sci-fi appeal that also tugs at people’s hunger for individuation — Levi’s promised to let shoppers make jeans “as original as you are” — but in practice it’s often burdened by complex and unresolvable logistical problems.
But that’s changing fast, thanks to the emergence of digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, inventory management software and powerful e-commerce applications, as well as the viral marketing power of social media. Today it’s possible to buy shoes, handbags, dress shirts, jackets and other products with at least some degree of personalization — and then boastfully share the results like trophies with your envious Instagram followers.
But Impish Lee looks to another business model that demonstrates how mass customization can work efficiently — Starbucks, with its limitless (and oft-mocked) ways of making a cup of coffee.
“People in our generation are really interested in this idea of a product that’s tailored to them,” Noelle said. “People love the idea of their own uniqueness.”
Noelle and Kali run Impish Lee from their home in Long Island, but they’re not new to making lingerie. In fact, it was the unmanageable success of their brand, which started by offering handmade garments, that sparked the idea for Impish Lee‘s new strategy.
Noelle, 29, attended the Berklee College of Music and worked in film scoring after graduating. She opened Impish Lee as an Etsy shop three years ago as a hobby and a way to “get back to working with my hands.”
The small label was discovered in 2013 by retailer Urban Outfitters, which placed three successive orders with Impish Lee — a change of fortune that made it difficult for the label to keep up with the artisanal, one-off designs it had become known for.
“I was sewing everything by hand in my studio,” Noelle recalls. “Urban Outfitters started with a minuscule order of 350 units and I foolishly decided to make the entire order myself.
“(The business) kept getting bigger and bigger, and I didn’t have time to be an entrepreneur and be the hands that made everything,” she said. “I realized that (customization) is what people wanted, and it kept coming back to this issue. We needed to break the existing system.”
Bringing lingerie into the emerging world of mass customization is probably inevitable, but it’s going to be very tricky. With the vast range in women’s body sizes, this most fit-sensitive of fashion categories at first seems resistant to the concept of ‘industrialized personalization’ (which may be a more accurate term to describe the process). That’s why most lingerie brands still only offer a couple of dozen sizes … and why women commiserate with each other about their lifelong quest for garments that both fit and flatter them.
Impish Lee knows it is a guinea pig in this brave new world, and learned the hard way when it tried to find a garment manufacturer up to the challenge.
“When we said we want them to make one-of-a-kind pieces … they look at you and think you’re absolutely out of your mind,” Noelle said.
The sisters — Kali, 26, has a background in photography and graphic design — found a small manufacturer in Brooklyn that was up for the challenge, however, and set about creating a business model to bring their ambitious plan to market.
Their system requires seamless integration of a front-end online platform (called a “configurator management system”) that allows users to pick and choose their product components, a factory that can guarantee quick turnaround on prepaid custom orders, and a fulfillment process that ensures orders get to customers in 2-3 weeks.
The model sounds unsustainable, but like many tech-based consumer startups, it’s driven by the knowledge that a large number of orders will be similar.
“There will be commonalities (in customer orders) that make it all manageable,” Noelle said. “There will be a lot of repeat looks. And as we grow we will be able to scale the manufacturing process and deal with workflow issues.”
The company’s web platform, which is being created by customization pioneer Combeenation, actually gives Impish Lee the kind of direct, one-to-one contact with consumers that it had when it was a one-woman design shop on Etsy.
“The platform automates that process,” Noelle said. “We think it will work really well. We’ll be able to outfit everyone.”
Unlike many new lingerie labels, Impish Lee will debut with a surprisingly large collection of template styles and an almost endless range of sizes.
The collection includes bras, briefs, skirts, robes, rompers, bodysuits, slips, garters and loungewear pieces, in about 50 different fabric options that lean heavily toward stretch lace, mesh and a creamy velvet.
Because Impish Lee has been operating for several years, the customizable platform will be ready this summer regardless of how the company’s Kickstarter campaign fares. It’s seeking $10,000 to help underwrite development costs over the next 30 days.
The company is midway through building its web store and has created the base samples that its manufacturer will use when production kicks into gear. The webshop is expected to open on August 1.
“We’re hoping that people really love the idea and see the benefits and that it explodes past that (Kickstarter goal),” Noelle said. “We’re not just a startup, so we’re going to make this happen.”
The potential impact of mass customization on the lingerie market is, like Impish Lee‘s line, almost limitless and the company knows it may have to prepare for sudden, explosive growth driven by social media and word-of-mouth.
“It’s just a matter of how big the Kickstarter campaign gets and how quickly we can turn it around,” she said. “We may have to grow quickly.”
Here are a few more of the many looks that can be created via Impish Lee‘s platform. Visit their Kickstarter campaign to learn more and qualify for donor rewards.