Sunday, January 28, 2001

Make Your Own Feet

When you're a kid, you want to try and blend in with your homies as much as possible, whether they're from the projects or the country clubs. Whatever the uniform for the crowd you hang with, be it baggy jeans, crisply pressed chinos, loose sweatshirts, hiking boots or hair pins, you mix and match within narrow confines, all in an effort to fit in with whoever you perceive to be the in-crowd.

But as you grow up, things change, and you begin to put a high priority on individualism. As your personality defines itself, so do the clothes that you select. It might be a trademark hat or a type of shirt or the cut of your slacks. You find styles and materials that you believe make you look good, that you feel comfortable in, that make a statement to all who look at you as to who and what you are. And that's the stuff with which you fill your closet.

That's why there's nothing worse than showing up at work or a party and finding out that you and a buddy are wearing exactly the same thing. Doesn't matter if it's a Donna Karen shirt, a Kenneth Cole belt or an Armani scarf. While you know that anybody can walk into a store or flip through a catalog and find the same merchandise you can, we all like to preserve the fiction that our tastes and style are unique. And few things burst that bubble as much as realizing that you and your associate standing together look like stewardesses on parade.

For this reason, one-of-a-kind items and hand-made sweaters hold endless fascination. They cost a premium, to be sure, and their sizing may not be accurate. But you can rest assured that if you can afford it and it fits you, no one else has a raw wool, Nordic-designed satin-lined knit vest, with handmade stag-horn buttons and leather trim... thank God.

But how often could you really wear something like that? Finding unique articles of clothing isn't the challenge. Finding ones that you don't need a special occasion to wear is. After all, anybody can rustle up a tux or a gown for the big night. The trick is to find something for everyday that's custom, that fits, and is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.

After all, if there was anything that separated the simply well-to-do from the filthy-rich throughout time, it was having your everyday duds made especially for you. If you were of a certain social and economic level, you could turn to the salons of Paris or Saville Row in London for the other side of couture. If you traveled a lot, you could count on getting something made during a stopover in Hong Kong. But for the majority of us, the best we could hope for was off rack in Macy's or Bloomingdales. Not there was any real problem with this approach; it just didn't do a lot in the name of individualism.

Seeing an opening and looking to leverage computer technology, Levis started a custom manufacturing operation for their jeans a few years ago. However, the goal was less style and more fit. You could spec the inseam, the waist and the rise, but the results were still in denim with rivets and contrasting stitching. True, they fit you better than a pair from The Gap, but they still looked like that's where they came from.

But the era of mass customization is upon us. From diets to portfolios, you have a chance to design your own... whatever it is. Any number of firms will take your likes, dislikes and price range, and roll out a custom built whatever that corresponds to your wishes. And there's no better example of how to do that than Customatix.

Started by a couple of sneaker addicts who cut their laces at Nike and Adidas, the Santa Cruz based company offers custom designed sport shoes and boots for less than the price of a pair of Air Jordans. And we're not talking about just selecting the color of the laces. All told, at last check, their web site offered you 3 billion trillion possible combinations... that's a 3 followed by 21 zeros. With those kind of odds, the chances of you having the same color combination as your jogging buddies is about the same as a national election coming out a, more than that.

The process is simplicity itself. You first select the basic style you want to work with, choosing from among 4 styles of skateboard shoes, 2 styles of slip-ons, 3 styles of runners or 2 styles of boots. Then you pick and choose materials, textures and colors for each of the shoe's components. Depending on your basic model, the choices are bewildering. For instance on the "RoadRage" trainers, you're offered color and texture options on the midsole/outsole, quarters, toe cap, vamp overlay, tongue, tongue tip, quarter logo, heel patch, tongue color lining and midsole toe wedge. And that doesn't count the logo for the side, nor the name you can have stitched into the heel. Oh, and did I mention the 35 different lace choices, ranging from light denim to dark teal? If you're the kind of person who can't decide whether you want Italian or French on your salad, you're liable to have a nervous breakdown.

A few weeks after making your selections, the finished shoes are delivered to your door. Folks who have gone through the process give them high marks for comfort and wearability. As for the design, this is a case where beauty is most assuredly in the eye of the beholder. Users respond that while they like the fit, their homegrown designs tend go a bit overboard. But if neon pink joggers with turquoise stitching, a canary yellow sole and your dog's name embroidered on the heel make your run faster, who is the world to argue?


Marc Wollin of Bedford takes as his personal style whatever is on sale. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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