DNA Style Lab goes Beta: A new model for the custom t-shirt economy that also looks beyond the internet

If the number of new ventures started around one idea is an indicator for the strength of this trend, then custom t-shirts and related fashion items are the hottest area of mass customization in the moment. I lost track of all the recent announcements of new sites where users can co-design their t-shirts. Next to „established“ forerunners like Spreadshirt, Cafepress, or Threadless numerous start-ups entered the customization world recently. Have a look on Adam Fletscher’s t-shirt blog to get an overview in form of his great interviews with the founders of the players in this custom t-shirt economy.

DNA Style LabSo just let me introduce you to one of these upcoming sites: DNA Style Lab, the brainchild of Samantha McDermott, who got first experience with customized handbags in the late 1990s. Her idea is to combine elements of some of the existing systems of the custom t-shirt economy with new ideas.

The core idea is that the company commissions a number of artists from around the world. These artists are in varying stages of their careers, some are already more established, others are just getting known. Artists will contribute design elements which consumers than can place freely on different apparel products and accessories. Pricing of the products is modular: the more graphic elements an user selects, the more expensive the final product gets.

If artists allow, consumers can also change certain aspects of the supplied art. The company itself makes its profit from selling the core products (US $10-20 for American Apparel garments), artists get the full price users pay for the graphic elements they select (about $5).

Sounds very much like Stagr or Innertee … sites which do not leave the entire co-design process in the hands of the consumer but propose to split the process: Experts provide the input and variety by basic designs, individual consumers get the freedom to combine these elements, providing them the experience but not the pain of a co-design process.

But what makes Ms. McDermott’s venture really special is her plan to stay not just in the online world, but to move also to brick & mortar stores where customers can actually leave the store with an item they designed. I think this is what it requires to grow and scale the idea of aesthetically customized fashion products. In the end, the major value of a custom t-shirt or similar product is not additional ergonomic value due to better fit or function, but the hedonistic value of experiencing the co-design process itself and the rewarding feeling of the final product.

Mass customization pioneer Nike also discovered that just offering custom shoes online is not enough and thus opened its NIKEID Lab in New York’s Elizabeth Street, and Puma even started offline with its great Mongolian BBQ. And one of the largest mass customizers – and a real role model for me – Build-a-Bear, has founded its fantastic growth story entirely on offline customization, selling in the end more the process of customizing a toy than the custom product itself.

DNA Style Lab Artist Presentation Given the joy of shopping for fashion products for many consumers, a business model based on providing co-design in an offline environment could become a large success. There are some local players in this area (like Neighborhoodies in New York or George&Frank in Munich), but not really scalable and thought-though system that could replicate Build-a-Bear’s success in the toy industry for the fashion industry.

For a start, however, DMA Style Lab is still an online business only. Its present toolkit is obviously very beta and demands a few minutes to learn, but then is easy to operate. The company told me that this will be improved very soon, including the order taking process. But you get already a good idea about the basic elements of the concept: The main focus today is on the artists who provide the work. This is a great combination of the co-design trend with its countertrend: strong orientation at external peers and idols.

DNA Style Lab configuratorThey will be adding a „Soundlab“ function soon — discover independent artists (bands) so that you can listen to their music while designing you new t-shirts. As with all of these sites, functionalities to support the community of users and artists are crucial for success. Here, the usual tools like customer pages, upload of user photos, sharing of designs, forums, etc. will be implemented.

I am curious to see how these ideas will come into place and which segment of the market DNA Style Lab will be able to capture. The traditional market for custom graphic t-shirts (fashionable late teens and young tweens) has been occupied by the existing labels (many of them working in the traditional way without any customization). But Samantha McDermott and DNA Style Lab may be able to create a new market of custom customers, older and perhaps more sophisticated, also more interested in art than in music.

Context information:
Here are some links to recent news around the custom t-shirt economy:

Innertee (see my previous post) went beta last month
STAGR plans to allow the customization of top brands (Great three-part interview on HipHipUK)
– And (if you speak German) a collection of recent posts on Exciting Commerce on Custom T-Shirts and related products,

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.