A Leg Up On Mass Customization

Software enables Lands' End customers to be particular about their pants.

Most of us have difficulty finding a pair of pants or a shirt that fits just right. Something's always too tight here or too floppy and loose there. It's this widespread consumer dissatisfaction with the way clothes often fail to fit that prompted Robert Holloway to quit his job as a vice president at Levi-Strauss North America and found Archetype Solutions Inc. in 1999. "What we've done is solve a consumer problem, which is getting a garment I want in a style that fits," says Holloway, CEO of Archetype, Emeryville, Calif. "And we've combined it with a solution for the apparel industry's mess of dealing with inventory and returns." With Archetype's help, the well-known catalog and online retailer Lands' End began offering custom-fit chinos last fall available via the Web. At a price of $54, U.S.-based customers can select their style and fit preferences, enter details about their body shape and receive a pair of custom-made pants in their mailbox two to four weeks later. For Lands' End, headquartered in Dodgeville, Wis., it means the company avoids stocking up to 2.8 billion different styles and sizes of garments. Instead, Lands' End orders each unit to be individually fashioned by a contract manufacturer that ships directly to the consumer. Lands' End gathers the orders entered into its Web site every evening and electronically sends them to Archetype. The data is run through Archetype's software, which compares body measurements against a vast database of individual measurements. Using a number of algorithms, the system replicates the customer's body size and weight distribution, factors in individual fit preferences and adjusts the base fabric patterns accordingly. Archetype then electronically transmits the unique design files to a contract manufacturer in Mexico. At the factory, the individual patterns are transferred to numerically controlled cutting equipment that cuts one layer of fabric at a time. After the various pieces of the pants have been cut, they are bagged and sent to an eight-machine modular sewing setup -- unlike the batch production lines of most apparel operations -- where the pants flow through one at a time. "The last person in the mod setup measures the pants. If they miss on any of five critical points, the pants are scrapped and remade," says Ron James, customer project manager for Lands' End. The garments are bulk shipped to a distribution center to clear U.S. customs, and then sorted, packaged and mailed directly to customers. Declining to reveal specific details on the results of the custom program, Lands' End has already extended its offering to include jeans and has plans to roll it out into other product categories soon. "I spend my life forecasting product on the Web site, and I'm pretty good at it," notes James. "These exceeded my forecasts." The ability to manufacture and deliver mass-customized clothing cost effectively was only possible, according to Holloway, because both organizations were able to knock down a mess of manufacturing and logistics obstacles. "What we're doing is very sexy on the surface and very dirty underneath," he adds.

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