Bespoke, long the province of Savile Row, has come to the lingerie department at Nordstrom Inc.
Last month, shoppers at the upscale department store chain's White Plains, New York, location were invited to add a message in sparkly text to their Hanky Panky panties. Samples: "Wow!" and "You & Me."
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Personalized merchandise is proliferating as the likes of Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Burberry Group Plc try to differentiate themselves -- and persuade discount-addicted shoppers to pay full price. By allowing customers to monogram merchandise and "build" garments from a range of styles and colors, stores are catering to shoppers' yen to put an individual stamp on what they wear and put in their homes.
"There is a new kind of importance placed on self- expression and on items that are made just to be identified with an owner," Robert Burke, who runs a namesake luxury consulting firm in New York, said in a phone interview. "It is very popular currently, and will probably have long staying power."
Retailers are pulling out the stops to win market share amid disappointing sales as American consumers wrestle with stubborn joblessness and higher taxes. Holiday sales grew 3 percent in November and December from a year earlier, far short of the 4.1 percent forecast by the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based trade group.
In centuries past, royalty monogrammed their gear to herald higher status. More recently housewives looking for a touch of class monogrammed silver flatware, linens and towels. Preppies began applying their initials to canvas totes in the 70s, and, in the following decade, Wall Streeters monogrammed the cuffs of their white-collar, striped shirts.
Maison Goyard, the Paris-based trunk maker, helped kick off the latest obsession with personalization when it began letting customers choose colored stripes and letter combinations on its $1,000-plus totes and other bags.
"We went through a period in the '90s when it was all about designers' initials," Burke said. "Then it became about the individuals' initials."
Customization has also been spurred by the explosion in small consumer electronics, which has created demand for such personalized accessories as cases for Apple Inc.'s iPad tablet, said Steven Dennis, founder of SageBerry Consulting LLC, a Dallas-based luxury consulting firm.
Williams-Sonoma's bet on personalization is Mark & Graham, a monogramming service on steroids for a range of gifts, including jewelry and leather goods.
Tapping into shoppers' surging interest in typography and design, the San Francisco-based home goods chain is offering a wide range of type faces -- modern and ancient -- and letting customers splash their initials and slogans on everything from throw pillows to glassware. In a modern twist on an old theme, Mark & Graham will monogram items with email addresses and twitter handles.
The website features a $199 Peruvian alpaca wrap with initials in, say, an "undisputed classic" Gothic font designed in 1948 by the late American typeface designer Jackson Burke.
"There's a lot of pressure on branded goods that are everywhere," said Marta Benson, Williams-Sonoma's senior vice president for strategy and business development. "At some point, it becomes a race to the bottom."
Burberry, meanwhile, is dabbling in mass-customization, which allows shoppers to choose from a range of options. The British company's online bespoke service lets customers build their own trenchcoat. They can choose silhouettes of varying length, types of fabric or leather and such colors as honey and navy. The list of options extends to sleeves, lining, collar, buttons and belt. Naturally, a monogram is part of the package. One randomly selected trench cost $2,490, and its delivery was promised in six to seven weeks.
Burberry, the U.K.'s largest luxury-goods maker, reported third-quarter revenue yesterday that beat analysts' estimates. Sales rose 7 percent to 613 million pounds ($985 million), exceeding the 601.4 million-pound average of nine analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
The service at Stubbs & Wootton, which started out as a Palm Beach boutique in 1993 and has helped turn $900 slippers into stylish street wear, works similarly, though requires fewer steps. Gothic crown monogram? Maybe a cheeky motif instead, say, a skull? Shoppers can view multiple combinations.
Seattle-based Nordstrom hasn't confined itself to Hanky Panky. The chain holds events at which artisans paint $50 Toms canvas slip-on shoes. It also offers a Joseph Abboud line of made-to-measure men's clothing; the customer uses an iPad app to choose the style and silhouette that best fits his body type as well as select lapels, pockets and jacket vents.
Burke, the luxury consultant, is sold on personalization. He owns a yellow-and-red striped and monogrammed duffel made by Louis Vuitton, which offers a service similar to Burberry's.
"When it comes around on the conveyor belt, you can certainly identify your luggage," said the frequent traveler. "And it stands out above the rest."