Clothing start-ups are using everything from smartphones to 3-D scanners to free consumers from the confines of small, medium and large. That does not mean traditional tailors are willing to give up without a fight.
Indochino, Black Lapel and Combatant Gentlemen are just a few of the labels offering made-to-measure suits over the Internet for less than $500. MTailor makes custom dress shirts by analyzing video taken from an iPhone.
"In the future, all of your clothing is going to be custom," said Miles Penn, co-founder of MTailor.
At Alton Lane, located in six U.S. cities, customers can enjoy a Scotch while picking out fabrics in a private appointment before stripping down and stepping into a 3-D scanner.
The machine "literally creates a blueprint of the individual," said Patrick Nicholas, who handles media relations for the company. That helps it create more detailed measurements that include factors — like the slope of the shoulders — that a tape measure would miss, he said. Afterwards, a salesroom attendant makes traditional measurements to determine what kind of fit the customer wants.
It all sounds so very ... futuristic. But, of course, custom-made clothing has been around for a long time.
Scott Evan Wasserberger has been in the tailoring business since before smartphones existed. His grandfather, Harry, began making clothes in Berlin in the 1930s before emigrating to Brooklyn and opening his own shop in the 1940s. Scott’s father was also a tailor. Wasserberger followed in their footsteps and has been making suits for more than 30 years.
“I’m not saying that these companies are a rip-off,” he told NBC News from his small storefront in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood, named SEW after his initials.
“The question is whether these suits will fit, whether they will be properly constructed and whether you will feel like they have really been custom-made for you,” he said. “The word custom-made is bandied around a lot these days and a lot of the population doesn’t even know what it means any longer.”
There are a few problems with suits ordered online, he said. First, many of them rely on customers measuring themselves, something that even experienced tailors would have trouble doing.
Measuring your own arms or shoulders correctly is “pretty much impossible,” he said. He added that scanning technology "has a lot of holes in it, or else the entire tailoring industry would be using it."
Then there is the quality of the suit. Cheaper “fused suits” usually consist of an exterior wool shell glued to the lining underneath, while “canvassed suits” involve sewing the shell to the interior with a layer of wool and most often horsehair in-between.
Clothing companies like Indochino are “great if you want to buy something workable and inexpensive,” British suitmaker Duncan Quinn said, commending them for “bringing individuality” to the “morass of conformity” that is the ready-to-wear clothing business.
Duncan Quinn's suits start at $2,500. At SEW, they range anywhere from $1,150 to $5,000. Still, traditionally tailored suits are worth the money, Quinn said.
“McDonalds can make you a meal that satisfies,” he said. “But a great chef can craft you a memory that lasts a lifetime.”
Miles Penn did not come from a family of tailors. He was studying mathematics as an undergrad at Stanford when he came up with the idea for MTailor, an app that he claims is not only better than websites that make you measure yourself, but traditional tailors as well.
"Our technology actually works," he told NBC News. When originally testing it, he said, he brought in four tailors, who measured 35 people, and compared their results against those of his software. "We are scientifically 20 percent better than a professional tailor."
The start-up launched in June with more than 50 fabrics for men's shirts that start at $69, and plans to expand to suits, jeans and more in the future.
While he stands by his claim that his method is more accurate than a professional tailor, he isn't gunning for their jobs.
"I don’t think we are replacing him," he said. "He is giving a personal touch that a computer program can’t give."
Instead, he is going after big retailers like the Gap and J. Crew. Most of MTailor's customers have never purchased a custom-made item of clothing before, he said, and most would be turned off by having to visit a tailor and spend $150 on a shirt.
"I really think we have made it easier and cheaper to get custom clothing than ever before," he said. "The real question is how do you make it easy and cheap enough to compete with off-the-rack clothing."