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Design-Your-Own Fashion: Deal or No Deal?

photo: Ron Sombilon Gallery

TV programs like Project Runway and Launch My Line feature aspiring fashion designers experimenting with fabric and color.

Now co-creation sites such as Blank Label, Shoes of Prey, and Laudi Vidni let consumers design their own clothing without even threading a needle (or working under the icy glare of Tim Gunn). From shirts to shoes and even chocolate bars, the fast food slogan, “Have it Your Way,” now applies to fashion, too.

According to Danny Wong, the co-founder and Lead Evangelist for Blank Label, where you can custom-create men’s dress shirts, one of the values of co-creation is uniqueness: “consumers know that their product is individually made, and so no one else is likely to have the same thing.” Since co-created products are made exactly to the persons’ specifications (size, color, fabric, even pocket or collar style), it increases the value of the product without necessarily increasing the prize.

But do these sites offer a better deal than simply buying off the rack? Maybe, maybe not. Here are some factors to consider.

Value vs. Bargain

Some people assume that the cheapest shirt or bag offers the best deal, but that’s not always the case. “If you buy a $20 shirt but you never wear it, that’s $20 you’ve wasted,” says Kathryn Finney, founder of TheBudgetFashionista.com.  Finney encourages consumers to consider their cost per wear instead of just the price.  

So, if you designed your own dress or purse and got more wear out of it than an item you bought off the rack, it could mean higher value.

Try Blank Label’s dress shirt-designing tool, and you’ll find that while the basic shirt only costs $45, the extras (monogramming, contrast colors, french cuffs and so forth) add up quickly, easily doubling the original price.

Then again, co-creation could be worth it if you truly want to wear something distinctive — and as a result wear it more. “If you’ve been looking for a certain piece of clothing or shoes and can’t seem to find it anywhere, these sites can work well for you,” says Catey Hill, author of Shoo, Jimmy Choo! The Modern Girl’s Guide to Spending Less & Saving More.

Size Matters

Wong touts the custom fit of co-created products. With “mass-produced items, standard sizing is set up to fit ‘well enough’ but co-created products almost always fit better because of flexible sizing,” he says. For someone with hard-to-fit proportions (if you’re a woman with a small frame, for example, you may have to shop the girl’s section and have a harder time finding career-appropriate styles), this could be a major selling point.

However, if you’re not a measuring tape maven, co-creation could backfire. “Most of us don’t know how to measure ourselves correctly,” says Finney. “Most of us can’t find our natural waist or measure our arms properly.” If your heart is set on co-creation, she suggests asking your local tailor or dry cleaner to take your measurements so they’re accurate. Another option is asking a friend or spouse and following the site’s instructions as closely as possible to ensure a proper fit.

No Accounting for Taste

Anyone who’s seen an episode of Project Runway knows that not everyone is destined to be the next Michael Kors. Not all good-on-paper ideas translate to real life. (Of course, some fashion disasters still make it to retailers, but that’s another story.)

This is why Hill says “it is a good idea to run the item by a stylish friend – what seems like a good idea in a late-night creative burst or a bored-at-work afternoon may in fact turn out to be a mess.” It’s also smart to check the return policy and look for a customer service number in case you run into problems. 

“I think for the most part it’s hard to determine whether or not [an item] looks good on you,” says Finney. “Unless you’re somebody who really knows themselves, make sure you’re getting what actually looks good on you, because you can’t try it on before you do it.” She points to eShakti as an example of a site that offers semi-customization so there’s  more structure but still some individuality.

Of course, as the technology improves, it could become easier to visualize your creation on your body. Right now, many of these sites offer digital representations and, Wong says, “perhaps the next steps are tinkering with augmented technology to let you see yourself wearing a digitalized, co-created product, or having more features allowing you to mix and match your co-created products with outfits you might wear it with (like how that shirt might look with some blue jeans).”

Both Finney and Hill predict that we’ll see more of these co-creation sites in the future. “Tons of people crave a unique style and sites like this can help them get it,” says Hill. “And as we see more of these sites, we’ll probably see lower prices.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.