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Last Updated: Friday, 28 March 2008, 08:52 GMT

London tailors face low-cost rival

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

Offering bespoke dress-making in London at anything other than luxury prices sounds like an impossible task.

Iris Ben-David
Unfortunately there are not many manufacturers here. It's a dying industry
Iris Ben-David, founder, Styleshake

Rents are high, equipment is expensive and the highly-skilled staff you would need have to be well-paid.

Yet, since October, a website called Styleshake has been offering just such a service.

Customers go to the website, choose all the features they want from a range of available sleeve styles, necklines, dress lengths, materials, colours and so on and then enter their measurements.

The dress turns up on their doorstep 10 days later.

Young company

It is the brainchild of Iris Ben-David, an Israeli living in London, who dreamed it up while looking for a new business after having her second child.

"I was always into fashion," she says.

"Going to study fashion would have taken a bit too long for me and I thought 'why don't I combine my online knowledge with my passion'."

The idea came in December 2006, the first conversation with investors happened the following month and the site launched in October 2007.

But how did the founder manage to make the leap from having the idea to getting funding?

"Being Israeli makes life easier for me, coming from a country where we have loads of venture capital."

"It's part of the culture - we are a nation of pioneers and every other person has his own start-up."

'Close to home'

The funding came from an investor called Internet Lab, which was set up by two venture capital firms, Gemini and Lightspeed, to invest in online businesses at a very early stage.

Lightspeed's boss, Yoni Cheifetz, was not worried that the initial plans called for the manufacturing to be in high-cost London.

See the process at the London factory from start to finish.

"We wanted to get into the market really quickly so it was smart to do it close to home," he says.

"When this thing scales, manufacturing will not always be in London.

"We do not want to make England the kingdom of textile manufacturing again - that's not Styleshake's mission."

Moving to Turkey

The company has a fast-developing feel about it.

Already, there are plans afoot to reduce the amount of the work the team does by hand at the factory on an industrial estate in Tottenham in North London.

Later this year, Styleshake plans to start making some of its garments in Turkey.

"We are now reaching the manufacturing capacity here," Mrs Ben-David says.

"However, this factory suggested a few partners offshore that they can control and they can teach them how we work.

"Unfortunately there are not many manufacturers here. It's a dying industry."

The company will have to go for another round of funding in August, which means it is not profitable yet, but it is comfortable with the margins they get from the current pricing of between 99 and 149 depending on the materials.

"They are quite healthy," says Mrs Ben-David. "Enough to keep our investors happy.

"It just proves the point about the bricks and mortar shops, which have bulk orders of millions from China, how big margins they have."

'Billion dollar companies'

The investors do not seem concerned that profitability has not yet been achieved.

"If Styleshake's mission was to be a boutique, profitability would be pretty easy to reach," says Mr Cheifetz.

"If you look at businesses in other industries that have done this digitisation and automation of personalised goods, some of them are billion dollar companies, so doing that usually means they are not profitable within a few months."

Not comparable

The price is a fraction of what you would pay for a bespoke tailor or designer label in the UK, but there are some catches.

Styleshake label
Styleshake may have to modify its labels

"You wouldn't even buy the fabric for one of my dresses for that sort of money," says Hilary Jane, who makes bespoke bridal and occasion wear at Hilary Jane Designs in Manchester.

"The difference will be about two months, a great deal of money and a lot of quality," she says.

Indeed, Styleshake's process is not entirely comparable with a tailor-made dress.

You have to take your own measurements and you do not get the second and third fittings when the dress is altered to fit you exactly. Hilary Jane would usually have six fittings including the initial measurements.

You are not designing your dress from scratch - you are choosing between different options for all parts of the dress.

It is also not directly comparable to a designer label, because you do not benefit from the design genius of the likes of Armani or Versace.

Not viable

But the service is not supposed to be the same as the experience of going to a tailor, Mrs Ben-David insists.

"If you go to a tailor usually you don't have a clear idea, you feel a bit intimidated because he is a professional and the whole session might be a bit unpleasant," she explains.

"But here you sit in front of the computer; you can change the sleeves, you can change the colour and you can e-mail it to your friends and ask what they think, so it's much more engaging."

The business is not yet at the scale that will make it viable.

But Mrs Ben-David says it more than doubles its sales every month and the team running Styleshake is full of ideas for developing the technology to automate the system, so they can cut out some of the expensive, highly-skilled tailors.

The ideas for making it viable also include moving production offshore though, so this is certainly not a business that should be seen as the saviour of British manufacturing.

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