When I first came to America on a student visa a few years ago, I spent three months waiting tables at a country club in Long Island. It was my first experience of a) country clubs and b) the U.S. hospitality industry, so safe to say it was a recipe for a weird time. But the most shocking thing I remember most wasn’t that five-year-old kids had better phones than me — it was how no one seemed capable of ordering anything off a menu without customing the shit out of it. I’m convinced most people saw the menu not as a menu but as a challenge to start with a listed food and morph it into an entirely different meal.
When it comes to food, I am not a fan of this customizing phenomenon. Unless you have a medically confirmed allergy or a deli guy who thinks it’s okay to put the tomato next to the bread, ordering something from an establishment requires you to have a certain amount of faith that some people know, to a greater degree than you do, what is up. But lately fashion has been going as custom-crazy as Starbucks patrons. Sure I love the idea of being able to choose whether or not to have my love for rock ‘n’ roll stamped across my tank tops. But how much should really just be left up to designers?
On Monday Fendi launched an app allowing you to pretend-create your own Fendi Baguette complete with photo manipulation and rainbow colors. Adidas has a sneaker you can custom with your Instagram photos. Burberry’s bespoke trench service lets you do this IRL, switching up the fabric, sleeves, lining, collar, hardware, belts, and monogram. Nike has been killing it in the customization game since ’99. But it isn’t just established brands either. Fashionista reports that a slew of start-ups are filling the customization gap that used to lie between couture and CafePress. New York’s Tinker Tailor, launched by Moda Operandi co-founder Aslaug Magnusdottir, offers two services – one-of-a-kind creation, and customizable pieces from partnerships with designers. Just the other week I was given the opportunity to design a pair of shoes from Indonesian startup Project Shoe.
Historically, there is a good reason for fashion celebrating the sort of creativity that might get you a spit glob in your burger. In the good old days, getting anything relatively expensive made meant meeting with the maker and a getting a personalized product. Shirts were made-to-measure, and therefore also easily customized to your personal taste. This all changed when mass production became the norm. Don’t we all wish to return to the glory days of when Fashion Grandpas was just your average street scene?
There’s eco-friendly potential, too, for heralding a return to personalized clothes. Companies like Project Shoe don’t actually produce the product until you’ve already ordered and paid for it, meaning less materials wasted and less products lying around in stock rooms. And when 3D printing becomes the norm, you’ll obviously be able to fiddle around with embellishments as well as your foot, dress, or cup size.
The problem I have, though, with all this doing it yourself, is similar to the problem I have with fancy pizza places that offer 38 optional toppings: Some people are simply better than others at putting things with other things. If I’m going to drop thousands of dollars on a Burberry trench coat, I’d rather Christopher Bailey do the jazzing up than me. On the other hand, some people are creative geniuses who somehow ended up working in finance but have a keen eye for statement sneakers. I guess the question is when are you tweaking and when are you altering the foundations? When are you ordering dressing on the side and when are you Beyoncé bringing her own food to Robertas?
You know what they say – with great powers of customization comes great responsibility. If you make the mistake of thinking a selfie would make a sweet Instagram snap to print on your new Adidas runners, you have no one except yourself (and maybe James Franco) to blame. With startups like Project Shoe, you’re effectively paying to be your own designer, which is affordable and fun. And if Jessica Simpson can do it, why can’t you? And with luxury brands, when I’m paying in entire paychecks, I can get behind choosing a custom coat lining. But in the latter case, no, I don’t really want to be in the designer’s chair.
Do you have more faith in your own creative direction? How hard do you play the custom game?