Reviving a traditional business with IT platforms

Photo via Fashionista.com

Photo via Fashionista.com

Alex Lew shares his journey to combine traditional tailoring with a high-tech platform   

I was born in the mid-1980s where Singapore was still an emerging economy. Low skilled jobs such as technicians and seamstress formed the bulk of employment opportunities in the region. Singapore was struggling to maintain its relevance to the ASEAN economy 20 years after inheriting the trading hub status from the British post-independence in 1960s.

My parents were in the business of tailoring trousers and business shirts. The supply chain management process was surprisingly complex. On the supply side, they requested bought fabric right before manufacture and on the demand side, they attempted to distribute their products through a network of relationships among the working class Chinese. Margins on each piece were reasonable, about $10 per piece.

By early 1990s, the tailoring market shrunk with the beginning of mass import of factory fabricated business wear. Factories enjoyed economies of scale, driving prices down to $8 from $40 per piece. Tailors lost their jobs overnight. Most were re-employed in general manufacturing and in administrative positions. From  highly skilled, self-employed businessmen, most were re-classified as low wage, low skilled workers. My family was not shielded from this change. The impact was only mitigated when my father entered the Singapore Armed Forces as a regular soldier.

Combining old-school tailoring with new technology 

Almost 30 years later, my family and I rediscovered its passion for tailoring. We were keen to create a positive change by integrating technology with the traditional art of tailoring. We contacted the surviving skilled craftsmen and started the journey to codify their knowledge. Based on these interviews, we constructed a web-based application that would make smart estimations of a client’s body fit with 20 measurements. In short, we had created an application that would allow mass customization of measurements.

Because each order would have a unique set of measurements, it would not be feasible to push the orders to a factory. A typical factory requires a mold and minimum order of 500 pieces. We had these orders submitted to retired tailors and were able to pay them a respectable wage of $25 per piece. An additional difficulty was in managing fabric inventory. We had to reduce the holdings of our inventory in order to save on storage costs. Our web system allowed us to gather purchase patterns and facilitate our fabric forecasting activities on a monthly basis.

In short, customers were able to create their own designs, select their desired fabric and enjoy bespoke tailoring service. Without rental and significant overheads, I was able to provide quality shirts at competitive prices and to provide re-employment opportunities. We are currently working with more than 30 tailors and will continue to work towards expansion of the business.

A social business

It was never my intention to create a social business. In fact, my only goal was to put together my interest in web based technology and my family’s passion for quality tailoring. A business education led me to realize that factories were competing in a low mix high volume business while tailoring was usually a high mix low volume business. By competing in the correct segment, the platform I created could leverage on technology to create mass customization potential that would allow me to price tailored garments at 50% of traditional physical tailoring setups. This price point provided a strong business case to compete on value in the fashion industry. Today, Good Shirts Everyday continues to grow and with additional partnering unemployed and underemployed tailors subscribing to our model, we will one day compete in a unique in the high mix high volume space.

This blog was written by Alex Lew. To read more visit http://www.goodshirtseveryday.com

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