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Tailoring Web technology to a bespoke dress shirt business

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Have you ever purchased an article of clothing online? A graphic T-shirt, pair of pants or shoes, perhaps? How about a made-to-order dress shirt of yo...

Have you ever purchased an article of clothing online? A graphic T-shirt, pair of pants or shoes, perhaps?

How about a made-to-order dress shirt of your choosing?

Fashion startup ShirtsMyWay will allow you to customize your own dress shirt from nearly-limitless options -- from the color of the stitching around buttonholes to the shape of the breast pocket -- and ship it to you for the price of an off-the-rack shirt from Brooks Brothers.

Always liked the look of the white-collar, blue-body banker dress shirt, but preferred the reverse? It can be done in two clicks. Like to keep things on the outside crisp and white, but prefer to have a little private bling on the inside? A few more clicks and you'll have brown and white "French Rails" lining your collar and cuffs (see image below).

Or better yet, 20 copies of your new favorite shirt.

I spoke with Shanghai, China-based founder Michael Yang on how his startup is addressing the increased demand for custom clothing on the Web.

What gave you the idea for ShirtsMyWay?

Michael Yang: [Co-founder] Peter [Crawfurd] and I both wanted to start a company, and we had both been to Asia and had shirts made there for ourselves. The idea evolved over a very long process: we did some research online and saw that the customization wave was going up and online clothing sales were going up and put two and two together. We looked online and realized that people were only doing online tailoring, and no one was really doing design.

There are so many components to a shirt, and we thought you should be able to customize them all. You have the collar, the cuffs, the contrast fabric inside the cuffs, the sleeve, the placket, the yoke, the pocket, and you can go on. So we made every component customizable, down to the buttonhole thread.

That level of customization sounds daunting. How do you help the average customer choose?

MY: A lot of people simply love the level of customization -- and some people are overwhelmed by the amount of options. We have a shirt model on the site that helps a lot with the visualization, so they can see what, say, a placket actually is.

Right now we're working on a "shirtpedia," where we try to educate people who don't know so much about shirts. What kind of customers are we looking for? People who are interested in tailored or custom-fit shirts. We're aiming for mass customization so that the average person can go in and do this. It's a trend that's going to spread to habit --  rather than go to JCPenney or another offline store.

Your focus is only on men's dress shirts. Is there interest in expansion to women's shirts or pants?

MY: The natural progression that not only would come to mind would be to expand into customizing a whole wardrobe – shoes, pants, shirts, blazers, suits and so on. But it's difficult to say right now. Originally that was our vision, but right now we see that there are things happening in our market -- we've shaken it up a bit -- and we probably have to take it as it comes.

We only launched in February, so we don't have any pre-global economic downtown basis to compare to. Surprisingly, we are doing very well. The amount of sales we're able to generate actually corresponds to our original goals. How is the economic downturn affecting the online industry? I've been looking at reports and some numbers indicate that online commerce hasn't gone down.

So we're already looking to expand. Right now we're still tossing ideas around. We are currently shipping internationally -- [North] America, Europe, Australia, Asia -- but we pick certain countries because of the shipping costs. We have a policy of free shipping for most countries, so we're already doing that.

You mentioned a "trend" in online custom clothing and a push away from brick-and-mortar stores. Is that really true?

MY: There are a lot of men who go online to buy clothing, and our initial idea was that men can't be bothered to go into stores and shop around. There are a lot of men who want to just do it and get the package shipped to their door.

The current discussion right know concerning expansion is if the next step is to target women or to diversify into another product. Women buy practically 90 percent of the items in the household. We have gotten quite a few requests from women to make dress shirts for women. It's quite a complicated process to diversify into women's clothing. Peter and I have only have experience in men's, rather than women's, clothing. So we'll possibly stick to what we're good at. But you never know – my sister's a clothing designer; maybe I'll take lessons from her.

You and Peter are based in Shanghai, but you're both from Denmark. How do you navigate the right channels to keep your business afloat?

I'm of Chinese origin; my parents are Chinese. They moved to Denmark and I was born and raised in Denmark. Peter and I went to high school together in Denmark and then the same university. I studied computer science and business administration and Peter studied international business. He worked in India for some time and I was in Denmark. As we started to itch, that entrepreneurship, we put our heads together in Denmark and moved to Shanghai to do the groundwork.

I speak Shanghainese, the native dialect, and I also have quite a big family here, around 20 family members, and they're all entrepreneurs themselves. Beyond that, we have a consulting company here that is helping us with legal and accounting issues.

Peter supervises the operations and does the marketing, and I do the IT and supervise the accounting. We work quite differently, Peter and I -- he does day-to-day work, while I do project work.

How does ShirtsMyWay function in the background? What happens behind the scenes?

MY: We use open source, which was a relatively natural choice for us. We run on PHP. When we started doing this there was a choice between Flash and AJAX, I picked AJAX. AJAX makes more sense if you want to do SEO -- Flash is hard to control. AJAX is sort of like a lego box that you can piece anything together however you like it.

How does it work? People go online, customize their shirt, put in in the shopping cart and click order. We save the details so they can be retrieved later -- users will be able to retrieve their own data soon. We have a back-end system that pulls up the order and sends it to the factory. We have an alliance with one factory that we've been working very closely with, which has only been getting better and better. They produce the shirt, quality control it and give it to us. We actually go in and quality control it ourselves. If it's OK, we ship it out. If it's not, we send it back to the factory.

We source our own fabrics because we don't want to just put whatever the factory has up on our site. A lot of those fabrics are not so good, so we go out and handpick high-quality and stylish fabrics.

We've had around 0.2 percent or even lower return rate. For every 500 shirts we sell, maybe only one is returned. People are pretty happy.

The U.S. is our biggest market, for good reason. I think that in the States, people are quite far ahead on the innovation curve in order to be able to embrace the kinds of things that we're doing. In terms of customizing your own clothes online, certainly I think that more people in the States do and would love do do these kinds of things than, say, Europe or Australia or other parts of the world. We do have a pretty good market in those other areas, but combined. The factor of embrace in the States is equal to the rest of the world put together. That's the feeling that we get.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure