The concept of ready to wear is fundamental to today’s fashion industry. Clothes can be produced half a world away, months in advance of the selling season and then available for a consumer to try on and complete a purchase in as little time as one has in a lunch break. Consumers have long benefited from lower prices and convenience from this system as compared to the time constraints and cost of having clothes made to order or of making clothes themselves.

Looking at the online landscape for fashion today, however, there is emerging demand for the use of technology to get closer to where fashion was a century ago, but better: custom clothes and accessories at (or close to) ready to wear prices. Examples of this trend are popping up in multiple categories: Indochino and Alton Lane for men’s clothing, Shoes of Prey and Milk & Honey for women’s shoes, Bow & Drape for women’s clothing, and others. Additionally, companies like Bonobos (men’s apparel) and ThirdLove (bras and intimate wear) are gaining traction by trying to solve for other fit problems that are remnants of standard sizing practices. These companies are using online channels to gain a following and distribution that would be considerably more expensive, if not impossible, in the offline world. Obviously, going online avoids the extensive costs of real estate and labor, but additionally, the online world represents an opportunity to communicate a unique value proposition to targeted consumers. The ability to reach a dispersed audience online increases the probability that these messages will reach a consumer who is willing to change his or her behavior and gives these companies the chance to develop a sustained customer base.

But does it make sense to use the virtual world to solve for one of the more complex conditions of the physical world: not only varying body shapes and types, but also varying personal preferences for a product category with a wide range of textures, colors and weights? Emerging players are using all types of technology to facilitate the flow of information between the separated parties. To get information about consumers, companies are utilizing everything from simple surveys, to web cams and iPhone apps to sophisticated body scanners. An ecommerce company is more cost effectively able to ship a consumer a free physical measuring kit and have the consumer input his or her information electronically than reach that consumer in person at scale. To provide better information to consumers, companies are employing better photography and rendering techniques as well as video and virtual try-on technology, among other advances.

Rather than seeing these technologies completely replace brick-and-mortar retail, however, some of the most successful of these ecommerce companies are using their scale to do things they never set out to do: build stores. Will the technology ever be enough to have mass market appeal or has the internet simply made bringing these value propositions to scale easier?

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