Can Luxury Ever Go the Made-to-Order Route?

Has luxury inadvertently become the latest vehicle for fast fashion?

Many a time have I looked at those one-off $27,000 Valentino beaded jeans made to resemble denim – or a rather bewildering rendition of a Viktor & Rolf gown seemingly knocked sideways off the wearer’s silhouette – and wondered who is actually buying, let alone wearing, haute couture these days?

Beyoncé, of course, is an obvious exception – her Renaissance Tour ensemble would hardly be complete without the full Mugler bumblebee cosplay. 

But then Beyoncé is no mere mortal.

There was a time when the entirety of fashion, or at least luxury fashion as we know it, survived and thrived on made-to-order – haute couture, bespoke, what have you. Then came prêt-à-porter’s popularity in the 60s, and later, its nastier cousin, fast fashion onwards of the 80s.

Consequently, The New York Times confidently decreed in a piece dating back to 1965, “Every 10 years, the doctors assemble at the bedside of French haute couture and announce that death is imminent.”

Today, as luxury obsesses over its potent new playthings: first fragrances, and then accessories, the off-kilter dresses and not-jeans jeans remain as mere relics of the past, their romanticism condensed and commercialized to sell – you got it – yet more perfumes and purses! Oh, how Cristóbal Balenciaga would sob.

So, whatever happened to true luxury, you know, of the made-to-order variety?

But Haute Couture is Still Alive!

Well, first off, contrary to what the fashion doctors of the 60s had prescribed, haute couture today remains alive and well, if only as a fairly minuscule sibling to their mass-produced counterparts – RTW, beauty, fragrances, and accessories – the real drivers of the modern luxury conglomerate’s multi-billion-dollar revenues.

In fact, Vogue estimates the number of haute couture clients to be around 4,000 in the world – a far cry from couture’s glory days – notable among them the Queen Rania of Jordan and former Black Entertainment Television chairwoman Debra Lee.

Dana Thomas further opines, “That customer doesn’t look at prices. Those customers don’t even think about what it costs. The 1 percent are the target market for high fashion. The rest of us are left with perfume and lipstick.”

Khaite Augusta Crossbody Bag 1
Khaite too had initially started off as a made-to-order label.

So, if couture is still kicking, it’s owing to its ability to push plebeian purchases.

But with the prices of even the once-accessible aspirational products now striking the stratosphere (and thanks to one of fashion’s most appalling exposés, the inability of heritage houses to simply burn off unsold stock, leading to further brand dilution), pennywise shoppers have now finally come to realize the gravity of couture, or more specifically, of made-to-order, one-off pieces.

Enter – not a luxury label, but Telfar, the contemporary face of community spirit. 

Telfar: Taking Bushwick Bespoke

By the turn of the 2010s, the fashion industry was at its tipping point. Purses were only getting smaller, prices only higher, and brands much bolder. And so, when the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head – severing supply chains, canceling orders, and denting disposable incomes worldwide, the luxury industry was faced with a challenge it hadn’t prepared for – the rise of its contemporary counterparts.

Telfar Blue Bag
Telfar’s Shopper fosters a sense of community and belonging.

Chief among them was Telfar, helmed by Liberian-American fashion designer Telfar Clemens, who focused not on fashion’s obsession with exclusivity and exclusion but on diversity and inclusion instead.

Thus, in the year other labels recorded one of their worst performances, Telfar seemingly had had its best yet, its rainbow-hued shoppers making it onto the arms of everyone from your average Brooklynite all the way to Queen Bey herself!

Such was its popularity, in fact, that perhaps for the first time in decades, a fashion brand faced a true scarcity of demand. 

And in true community mindset, Telfar’s response was the Bag Security Program – a pre-order arrangement whereby buyers would receive the exact specification of the Telfar tote they wanted – albeit at a later date – complete with full disclosure from the founder himself:

“The whole point of our bag is accessibility and community. But when thousands of bags sell per second, we can’t even know how many to make. We plan production 6 months in advance. It takes time and money to make bags and we are 100% self-financed.”

As fans clamored to get their hands on all of the coveted colorways, it became clear that the made-to-order mechanism might actually be successful!

Something to Look Forward to

Ever since, several labels have tried dipping their toes into the pool of personalized fashion: Gucci’s DIY Ophidia tote, Fendi’s Build Your Baguette program, and even the late Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Launer, have allowed buyers to design handbags to be made according to their distinct specifications.

Hermès, similarly, has had a longstanding Special Order apparatus that allows buyers to get their hands on a Birkin or a Kelly catered to their individual stipulations.

Hermes SO 3
An Hermès Special Order Birkin 25

As problematic as its past might have been, Dolce & Gabbana has found immense success among its Alta Moda clients – Italian for haute couture – who have subsequently transitioned into loyal customers of ready-to-wear and accessories, too.

And really, therein lies the solution to most (if not all) of luxury’s present afflictions. 

With made-to-order, not only could they continue to raise prices to whatever buyers are willing to pay (and custom haute couture regularly ranges into the millions of dollars), but it also eschews modern mass production practices – and with that, the possibility of potentially incinerable unsold stock – in favor of a far more creative execution of (and thus, possibly do justice to) the brands themselves.

In a fashion industry that’s faster than ever, made-to-order provides a refreshing, though not strictly scalable, outlet to slow fashion. It demands patience and perseverance, both on the part of the brand and the buyer, something Ms. Philo has expressed an interest in achieving in her latest NYT profile.

After all, instead of mind-boggling, mindless consumption, wouldn’t you much rather have something special to look forward to, something that won’t be relegated to the back of the closet by next season, something that’s yours alone?


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25 days ago

Anyone who thinks that a Hermès Kelly or Birkin is “rare” is completely delusional.

28 days ago

The made-to-order handbag is increasing in Europe and I agree this is the luxury in handbags today. There are many more options out there.

We can start with the Swiss guy offering a few models in high-quality leathers and manufacture but high prices. I do not remember now the name, but everybody knows here.

However, the good news in Europe is that there are many more and at afforable prices. Those are small companies following different marketing strategies. There are a few offering a collection in the homepage and possible leather to select. You select model, leather, colours, and can ask for small modifications. This type of designers are quite often the artisan that would work on your order and shipped as soon as it is ready. There is another one, that I remember, that makes only one model, the classical Gladstone doctor bag and just a few variations on size. But you can select among a large collection of leather types and colours. Thinking on the 6 section of this bag, your bag is always unique and it is your combination. There are a few of those small designers that explore with unique models and from time to time and can offer just one unique piece. There are others that offered very small series of a model ( less than 10) and all unique in colour combinations. Those designers offer leather of excellent quality and it seems that they can make it at reasonable prices. They probable could not scale up their business and maintain the luxury made-by-order service that they have. By the way, in the ones that I have ordered, the time to get it done and delivered was from just one week to 6 weeks, so not bad, I think.

I wonder if there are also this made-by-order handbag companies in USA and Asia. The problem could be that are not easy to discover because they do not have time to work on design and manufacture plus holding a marketing strategy that also take time or salaries.

PD: The ones I am talking are not copying other models, are own-designers.

27 days ago
Reply to  scbarragan

I discovered Primo Atelier in Asia a couple of years ago. They create custom bags with leathers like Togo, tailored to your preferences.

26 days ago

Fendi has a lovely made-to-order program for the Peekaboo. You don’t have unlimited choices, but by mixing the various options for outer leather/color, inside material and trim, you can come up with something pretty darn close to unique. (lol, of course I want mine to be exactly like the one shown in the video!)