Centuries ago, you could walk into little workshops and have your clothing or accessories hand-stitched and personalized by expert artisans at non-luxury prices. But when mass production came, companies have adopted less expensive mass-manufacturing models for efficiency. Made-to-order and one-of-a-kind items have become the hallmarks of luxury.

Enter the 21st century and customization is making a big comeback – thanks to technology and the growth of sites like Etsy, Pinterest, and Instagram. This is the age of mass customization. Customers demand it and technology allows it.

Mass customization is not new. Dell became a leader of PCs in the early days by allowing customers more or less to assemble their PCs online. Levi Strauss had their Original Spin jeans for women in 1994. Sports apparel brands like Nike have also joined the fray with their innovative NIKEiD which allows their customers to customize their shoes to their liking.

And following that trend, a Los Angeles-based startup called Story Leather is driving self-style and mass customization in the leather goods industry. Founded in 2012 by Jerry Lee, Story Leather is a leather production house in Los Angeles. Aside from its US e-commerce website, the startup now has expanded to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

I sat down with Jerry Lee to discuss how he managed to marry technology with traditional leather craftsmanship.

Q: How did you start your entrepreneurial journey?

Jerry Lee: “Story Leather actually started in the warehouse of my last employer (with permission of course!) in Santa Ana, California. It started because of my own frustration with looking for a nice leather bag, which lead me on a journey to find a production team willing to take a gamble on my wild concept of custom-building one piece of leather item at a time.”

“The year was 2012, e-commerce was already wildly popular, and Apple’s iPhone was gaining tremendous popularity worldwide. I was seeing a lot of companies printing plastic phone cases  with user-submitted logos and photos, creating that one-of-a-kind case. These case companies were very successful  and making a lot of money doing this. Then came the idea of allowing customization on leather goods surfaced and started to take shape. I wanted to create a company that offers mass personalization and customization on premium quality genuine leather.”

“With zero funding and simply a dream of what I am looking to create, I traveled back to my native country Taiwan to see if I can find a factory that would hear me out. Every factory I visited turned me away and advised that I should be looking into China. But I was adamant that I could find someone who would share a similar design philosophy, quality in craftsmanship, and more importantly, brave enough to get on the ride with me. Ultimately, I would spend about $4,000 to invest in a line of samples and prototypes and convince a local production house in Taiwan to partner up and launch Story Leather together with me.”

Q: Can you tell us exactly what goes into the production of an individual leather item for a customer?

Jerry Lee: “As much as we are a leather goods company, we feel like we are more of a technology company that brought traditional leather craft-making trade to the 21st century. However, behind the customization interface on our website, the production process is still very human and labor intensive – contacting the customer to verify their order, processing the order with our design team, putting the order into our pattern maker’s hands, cutting and sewing the leather goods – every step of the way still involves some level of human intervention. But it is this human involvement that makes each piece of leather good so special and unique.”

“From the moment the user completes the order to him/her receiving the item, the process would involve between 15-20 people.”  

Q: How much of the design customization aspect do you put into the hands of your customers?

Jerry Lee: “Our customization capability goes from what you see on our website – where styles are defined and users simply choose their favorite colors and write some additional notes for personalization. But we are also capable of handling customers who would email us some hand sketches and we would build out a wallet or a purse for them. Obviously, there are limitations to what we accept for custom made. Often we would inject our knowledge and experience and advise customers on what type of design is good and what is practical or usable – our customers respect us for that.  We don’t simply take on a custom job to make a buck, we want to make sure the customer will truly appreciate the final result and love what they have built for themselves.”

Story Leather is not the only startup riding the “mass customization” trend. In Australia, Jodie Fox, co-founder of custom women’s shoe company Shoes of Prey, believes that customization is a brand enhancer and meets a psychological need of people. Clothing and accessories have become platforms of expression, and for niche groups like millennials, self-expression is a core value. Millennials believe that their personality can be shown through what they wear.

Faith Popcorn, author of Clicking, has another name for this trend: “Egonomics is niche marketing to the to the extreme. Think of each customer as occupying her own niche. The marketer who enables each customer to feel unique will succeed.”