The result: Women are mixing and matching to create their own individual style, an approach that doesn’t lend itself to volume production. "I’m interested in becoming my own trendsetter," Ms. Brunings says.

The effect on fashion is similar to what’s happening wherever technology has zapped the authority of cultural arbiters. Consumers’ newfound freedom to customize their lives-from burning their own music CDs to publishing political commentary online-is throwing basic business models of many businesses into disarray.

"For the first time, we’ve reached the middle of a decade and it’s impossible to define the look, to pinpoint the hemline, color story or mood-the entire fashion system has broken down," says David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group, a consulting company that advises more than 800 U.S. retailers.


The fashion industry is being forced to rethink the way it has operated for decades. Retailers are trying to overhaul cookie-cutter stores in order to give customers the impression of uniqueness while at the same time tweak their inventory systems to run at a faster pace. Manufacturers have to move at unheard-of-speeds to offer seemingly endless product varieties. And market research, once a crucial way to predict what will sell, has become less reliable as styles zig and zag unpredictably. That’s created openings for upstart designers to crash into view.

Hemlines, for example, used to rise and fall in unison. Right now, consumers can buy knee-length pencil skirts, micro minis, pleated full skirts or skirts that are drop-waisted and above the knee. To create an image of distinctiveness, Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic is willing to disappoint some customers by selling out of items in certain stores-even if it means leaving money on the table. Meanwhile, Ellen Tracy, a designer known for its fashionable office wear for women, is allowing models to create their own outfits from the company’s collection for a runway show during New York’s fashion week, which starts today.

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