Nick Williams’ custom apparel label Small Talk Studio was growing at a steady, if slow, pace for some time. The designer launched the line of hand-painted and embroidered one-of-a-kind designs in Oakland in 2017, later moving to New York to further cultivate his business while working part-time as an art teacher and case manager for a non-profit in Brooklyn.
However, unlike many other nascent labels, the pandemic was actually good for Williams. In the summer of 2020, sales were up more than 200 percent from the year before. Custom suit orders from Virgil Abloh and photographer Mordechai Rubinstein, along with a collaboration with newsletter Blackbird Spyplane on a limited run T-shirt, increased traffic to his website, helping to boost revenue.
“I couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Williams said. “It’s still kind of a mystery to me.”
One-off, handmade fashion has always had a place in the ecosystem, from Savile Row to Imitation of Christ and beyond. In recent years, however, it has become an important revenue stream for many emerging labels looking for additional ways to make cash as it doesn’t require a hefty upfront investment.
“I think there is an awakened consciousness and people want to be able to shop a little bit more special, a little bit more niche,” said luxury retail consultant Gurki Basra, pointing to a growing concern from consumers to support smaller, more sustainable businesses. “With everything going on I don’t think it feels good to buy a $3,000 Gucci bag anymore.”
Widespread layoffs within the fashion industry during the pandemic also pushed many out-of-work designers to launch makeshift collections of one-off pieces, many of which are customised specifically for the buyer. Some of these have grown from side projects to profitable businesses over the course of the year.
Designers customising garments for consumers — putting their favourite car on a T-shirt, a portrait of the family dog stitched into work pants — has offered a sense of intimacy during the isolation of pandemic-related quarantines and lockdowns. Williams sources clothing from eBay, thrift stores and workwear suppliers, but customers can also send him their own clothing to be customised.
“It’s kind of the new Savile Row,” said Jian DeLeon, men’s fashion and editorial director at Nordstrom. “It represents what a new kind of aspiration is ... it’s not just like a $200 T-shirt for the sake of being $200, there’s a rhyme and reason to it.”
Scaling and Expansion
Finding a balance between custom orders and more easily producible garments, however, still poses a challenge.
Los Angeles-based Juliet Johnstone started her namesake label in February 2020 with hand-painted work pants. After Bella Hadid wore and tagged the brand on Instagram, Johnstone struggled to manage order requests.
“It took off during the pandemic in ways that I was truly not expecting,” Johnstone said.
Meeting demand for hand-painted trousers wasn’t sustainable, so Johnstone quickly expanded to digitally-printed T-shirts and tank tops through a local Los Angeles factory. Each top is still one-of-a-kind and numbered on her website, but requires less time and offers a cheaper price point for consumers. A pair of her pants can cost up to $450, while a T-shirt starts at $108.
Williams currently works in four-month cycles for custom garments, announcing openings on Instagram and taking roughly 45 to 50 orders for pieces ranging from $125 to $500. While most of his business still comes from custom orders, he’s started to make small editions of garments that follow a similar pattern or set of symbols for easier production.
He also plans to launch ready-to-wear, relying on the same design processes but produced in slightly larger quantities for those unable to buy or wait for custom pieces.
The designer’s latest T-shirt release with Blackbird Spyplane, for instance, scaled up from previous releases of 30 or 40 shirts to 80. They sold out within a few hours.
The Path to Growth and Wholesale
However, many designers making custom pieces remain wary of the typical routes for scaling their businesses, from increasing production to entering wholesale.
“I have felt the pressure to maybe produce things faster,” said New York-based designer Cherry Kim of Rhee Studio. After getting her hours cut back working as a design assistant at Lorod, a Chinatown-based label, Kim began painting custom pieces on old Carhartt pants and jackets.
“It’s dangerous because it’s not where I want to be long-term,” she said.
Part of the reason that custom designers are wary of scaling production is that the cost increases exponentially. Custom, limited-run items made from thrifted pieces rather than new fabric require very little upfront investment. Kim, Johnstone and Williams all became profitable a few months into their businesses, while it takes most traditional ready-to-wear labels years to break even. (Some never do.)
I don’t think scaling is the point for a lot of these brands.
“Eventually it would be cool to do wholesale but there’s not really any point to doing it right now,” Johnstone said. “I’ve talked to a couple wholesalers and they just don’t really know what to do with me because everything is different.”
Most of these designers sell their wares directly to the consumer, and mostly through Instagram. Johnstone and Williams have also worked with Akyn, an e-commerce site that also functions as a gallery for artists.
“There is a gap in the market at the moment for basically a luxury version of Etsy,” said Stefan Siegel from Not Just a Label, an e-commerce marketplace for independent labels, the majority of which produce one-of-a-kind garments. He said that, because the products are made for the buyer, the return rate for goods is far lower than a typical e-commerce site: around two percent.
“I don’t think scaling is the point for a lot of these brands, Deleon said. “As much as having a sustainable business.”