Made to Measure

Imagine a world where everything you buy is bespoke: not just clothes but medicine, furniture, even body parts. This is no pipe dream - it's happening right now
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At Chanel you can buy customised cosmetics; at Burton a suit with monogrammed pockets. Lucy Wassel and Urban Outfitters will tailor-make carpets and CDs to your exact specifications.

Welcome to the new world of personalised goods and bespoke products. It is world where the New Tastocracy reigns supreme, where terms such as "globalisation", "global marketing" and "consumer choice" have been replaced by "relationship marketing" (selling a product on its emotional associations rather than its functional qualities - a shoe is "powerful", not made of leather), "artisan-production techniques" and "prosumer requirements" (a canny taste-brokering customer or customiser who works with manufacturers and retailers to create items with unique, purchaser specific characteristics). "The Power of One" is how trends analyst and publisher of Viewpoint magazine David Shah describes this latest re-evaluation of how we now covet and buy things.

"It's not just about retail, but medicine, design, architecture, fashion, interiors, even bio-technology and the internet," says Shaw. "All are moving towards a point where the purchaser or prosumer is key to determining the final look, feel and thumbprint characteristics of the product and service being sold."

A romp through the forthcoming issue of Viewpoint, a twice-yearly journal for trendsetters in the creative and marketing fields, demonstrates as much. In it we live in a world of mobile phones that conform to the user's palm print; sit on chairs that mimic our body shapes; inhabit houses and workstations that anticipate our moods, mimic our personalities, or, if we fancy a bit of DIY, reconfigure to an entirely new look - chairs, tables, and keyboards included. And if our bodies don't quite live up to our mind's- eye image, muscle vaccines can be injected, stem cells retuned, or retinal image projectors reprogrammed to tailor-make body and soul in new and hitherto unimagined ways.

What is truly remarkable is that this is not a world that exists only in someone's imagination - these things are already with us. Those palmprint mobiles are by a company called Avo, the house by Frog design, the Memo chair by Ron Arad, while the Aura workstation can be viewed on www.poetictech.com with a host of other personally tailored techno tools. At the University of California and Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, body parts and limbs are already being cultivated in the laboratory. If you want a new heart, no problem; a new head, then neurosurgeon Professor J White of Case Western Reserve University is your man. The muscle vaccines mentioned are currently being tested on elderly mice who show a resulting 27 per cent increase in muscle mass without any exercise. Once control mechanisms are in place, says Peter Schjerling, a research geneticist at the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre, the tailor-made body will be a reality.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey, associate director of Informer, a future trends agency based in Britain and the US, says that this need to customise and control the personal has come about because we are no longer in control of the greater world about us. "The welfare state is finished - so are jobs for life. The nuclear family has been replaced by the chosen, cellular family. In retail, products are sold on the basis of uniqueness and authenticity but this is a fantasy - in fact they're mass produced. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, of dishonesty, prosumers are fighting back, telling banks, car companies and food retailers that they have had enough."

He cites the recent riots in the City calling on financial institutions to cancel third world debt as an example of this, but also the way that car manufacturers have been forced to drop prices, retailers

pushed to ban genetically modified foods from their stores and sell organic produce, or in the case of companies like Levi's and Microsoft, to re- evalue their products and ethos in the face of a dismissive end user.

"It is direct action in the broadest sense," says de Chenecey. "On the internet you even have like-minded prosumer groups banding together and approaching manufacturers and financial institutions direct to demand the products they desire. Banks, for instance, service our needs - for a house, a car, a holiday - but what of our desires? What happens if we want to buy art, finance an own-build house, or take a three-year deferred loan to take the kids and live in the foothills of the Himalayas?" In the future, he says, prosumers will force a turnaround in the way financial services are offered - tailor-made to minority tastes and needs.

The future, then, is bespoke, with everything from finance to fashion being "brokered" (one-to-one negotiation is involved at every stage of the production process) or created in ateliers or production clusters. These will operate independently of the mother company and have the power to make decisions on short-run fashion orders and one-off furniture pieces, or to design items to the customer's exact specifications.

Companies such as Levi's, Nike, Marks & Spencer and Microsoft are already experiencing the wrath of prosumers whom they wrongly judged to be interested only in blandness and the everyday. Prosumers, of course, are not interested in anything but quality, design (look at how the new i-Mac boosted Apple's flagging profits), product relevance and the "belief the company they are buying from is doing its best to be ethical about all transactions", says de Chenecey. These are key to understanding this new shopping phenomenon.

Levi's attempted to address the issue by offering its customers personalised jeans, but it couldn't reverse its image as a middle-class, middle-brow, mundane, no-fashion kind of label.

"It's not just about being seen to be doing it," says Mary McGuinness of Sputnik, a US-based trends agency that publishes the highly influential Mindtrends magazine. "It's about believing it. What companies like Levi's are doing isn't really personalisation as the prosumer understands it, but about extending one's options, a kind of fake personalisation, if you will. Companies such as Tom & Andy, however, which allow you to download and configure CDs to your very own precise requirements, are more in keeping with the prosumer ethos."

Ditto Japan's National Bike Company, which can produce bespoke bicycles in a matter of days, or Lutron, the US lighting manufacturer whose engineers work directly with customers to produce a hundred models or more in the same series, or Bally, an American refrigerator maker that has designed a product that can be configured in any way you like so you can customise your fridge to fit your kitchen. In Britain, Picasso's Place will let you design and create your own homeware. Homebase has taken the idea a step further and worked with nine artists, including Alison Wilding and Antony Gormley, to create a tailor-made range of household art, produced in consulation with customers, from clothes pegs to garden tools.

In fashion, shops such as Vexed Generation, with its message board walls, multi-purpose designs and floors where the customer's feet leave histories of their movements throughout the shop, sell clothes by designers such as Shelly Fox, Jessica Ogden, Hussein Chayalan and Junta Watanabe, all hand-crafted or limited-edition issues and displayed and sold as portable sculpture, mobile body art. In Ogden's case, clothes made from antique fabrics remain unfinished so the customer can add to them. "A lot of my fabrics are antique and therefore have a history before I bought them, and it's this history I want the customer to build on when the garments become theirs."

Mainstream stores such Burton, Top Man, Marks & Spencer and Alexandre's of Savile Row already use biometric scanners and computer-aided drafting and cutting techniques to allow them to create bespoke and made-to-measure suits for off-the-peg prices.

"We are looking at work that is being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cognitive office and environmental systems that will even allow us to tailor-make the mental as well as the physical world we move and live in," says Mary McGuinness of Sputnik. "The Walkman gives you an idea of how we can carry our own music choices into the greater world, but imagine systems that could tailor-make this world to our own needs and requirements."

Steve Mann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, has already done this. He has developed a system of wearable computers that use wireless computing, retinal image projection and body sensors embedded in his clothes to allow him to project images of the world as he wants to view it into his head.

His invention, the MannComp, came, he says, from the desire to combat "the theft of personal space" whether it be from shopping mall music, advertising hoardings, radio, television, or even the noises of the city about him. His device "offers him the ultimate in cerebral and environmental customisation". He can eradicate unwanted sounds, while his wraparound glasses, which laser-project video images onto his retina, can be personalised to remove unwanted visual or textural information - advertising boards, product logos - while the parts of the world that he does want to see can be colour-adjusted to make it seem a more buoyant and pleasing place.

"This really is what the move towards personalisation is all about," says Matthew Jeatt of prediction agency Promostyls. "A world where the individual matters over the many, where there are no notions of brand loyalties, only companies who can do what we want or we take our business elsewhere." A brave new world indeed.

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