The assembly line at Feetz has 100 humming 3-D printers. Their sole purpose is to make shoes.
Each printer is named after a cartoon character: Wonder Woman, Scooby-Doo. Though whimsical, the printers, which cost $5,000 each, are out to upend mass retailing by making every shoe to order, cheaply.
“We’re the technologists coming in to help,” said Lucy Beard, chief executive of the 2-year-old Feetz, in San Diego. “I saw 3-D printers in a magazine, and I thought ‘mass customization.’ ”
Each printer can be reset to make different sizes and takes up to 12 hours to make a pair. The company, which recently started selling its shoes, has only 15 employees.
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I saw 3-D printers in a magazine, and I thought ‘mass customization.’
Lucy Beard, chief executive of Feetz
But Beard, 38, a former actuary, envisions a day when shoes will be printed in less than an hour. With limited labor and shipping costs to pay — and no back inventory — Feetz has a 50 percent profit margin on each pair, she added.
Ordering is done online, where customers can download an app, take smartphone snapshots of their feet and create a 3-D model. Shoes, which cost $199 pre pair, are made of recycled materials and are thickly padded for comfort.
With the rise of technologies including smartphones and 3-D printers, fashion startups like Feetz are changing the ways goods are ordered, made and sold.
Like Beard, several founders of these companies don’t have fashion backgrounds. Instead, they consider technology the answer to off-the rack, mass-produced goods, which are increasingly shunned by millennials. Consumers with hard-to-find sizes — including petite, or big and tall — will find shopping simpler.
Traditionally, manufacturing is the most expensive part of the retail supply chain. Creating goods in small batches is difficult and costly. Most are manufactured overseas, and shipping goods to the United States adds time and cost to the process. So even “fast fashion” can take about six weeks to hit store shelves.
The beauty of instant, customized fashion, experts say, is that goods can be made at a lower cost and more quickly — yet in a personalized style.
12 Hours to make a pair of 3-D shoes
$199 Cost of the Feetz shoes
Although disruption is a hot idea in the tech world, not everyone is convinced that this type of innovation will revolutionize fashion. James Dion, a retail consultant in Chicago, said he viewed customizable fashion as a “passing fad” with limited appeal.
And the industry has already had one of its first failures: Tinker Tailor, which made custom luxury women’s apparel, closed last year after funding dried up.
These are still early days for 3-D printing, said Uli Becker, the former chief executive of Reebok and an investor in Feetz. The offerings are not very diversified, and they are limited to basic goods. And fabric cannot yet be printed.
But he sees great potential for 3-D printing.
“You can start producing in America, for America,” he said. “Production facilities can be in the same place where you sell products, which creates jobs.”
Also, the technology improves every month, Becker added.
“This is the equivalent of the 1980s cellphone in a briefcase that puts a brick on your ear,” he said. “In the future, we’ll go into showrooms, select what we want and then order online or print out the product ourselves,” he said.
Custom shoemakers like Feetz will also make in-store shoe fittings obsolete, experts say.
“In 10 years, you won’t physically try on a pair of shoes,” Beard said.
The promise is making Silicon Valley take notice.
The future of fashion is in smaller brands that have relationships with customers.
Walker Williams, chief executive of Teespring
“We’ve been looking for companies that can use advanced technology,” said Vijit Sabnis, a venture partner at Khosla Ventures and an investor in Feetz. “And geeks and nerds are developing it. Feetz, for example, can change our experience in buying products.”
Retail goods will eventually be made by robots and 3-D printers, he said. And they will be made in hubs rather than big plants.
“We’ll get rid of shipping costs and rethink the supply chain,” he said. “It’s really cool.”
Khosla Ventures has also invested in fashion startups that use technology other than 3-D printing. One is Shoes of Prey, a website that allows shoppers to choose colors and styles of women’s shoes, in most cases, for less than $200. Another investment, MTailor, makes custom men’s shirts and suits by taking measurements on a smartphone. Shirts start at $69.
Even the humble T-shirt is being reinvented. Teespring, founded in 2011, shipped more than 20 million custom shirts last year. It allows anyone to design custom shirts with messages related to topics such as coffee, yoga and football, then sell them to customers.
“We’re a technology company that creates T-shirts,” said Walker Williams, 27, chief executive of Teespring, who started the company with Evan Stites-Clayton, a friend from Brown University. “The future of fashion is in smaller brands that have relationships with customers.”
Eventually, they plan to offer other custom clothing. Venture capitalists including Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator have backed them to the tune of $56 million.
Teespring built its own manufacturing systems in a northern Kentucky factory that once made helicopters. Of its 400 employees, 40 are on the engineering team, building patented technology for rapidly printing small batches of T-shirts. Profit margins are slim, Walker acknowledges, but they are rising.
“Anyone can bring a creative idea to life without having to be a retail expert,” said Lars Dalgaard, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. So consumers can now express themselves in a way “that was never possible before,” he added.