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Navigate your way to a custom look

ONLINE SHOPPING | BESPOKE

April 13, 2008|Erin Weinger | Times Staff Writers

Custom FASHION once required a meeting in Karl Lagerfeld's atelier. Now all you need is a WiFi connection.

Cyber shops allow budding Balenciagas to personalize clothes and accessories from a palette of options. We're not talking about sketched-from-scratch couture. These pre-designed goods only become custom when set options are changed (i.e., you pick a shoe sole from a lineup, or a dress fabric from a set of swatches). But if you're looking to take customization beyond the monogrammed tote, or are pining for a frock that matches your seafoam-green stilettos, a mix-and-match website may be the ticket.

In my quest for bespoke bliss, I surfed six sites that let shoppers personalize their own handbags, sandals and even a swanky cocktail dress down to the tiniest detail. Some were more user-friendly -- and fashion-forward -- than others. (If the design options are dowdy in the first place, there's very little chance of creating something truly magnifique.) But for the price, the quality of the goods was on par with what you'd find in stores.

The graphic interface of Styleshake.com was simple and made me feel like Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless," when she mixed-and-matched her outfits using a computer program. Other sites suffered from technical difficulties, including Evolve.com, which kept freezing up in the middle of the design process. On some, I had fun clicking through different design options but got hung up debating minute decisions such as the number of belt loops and the color of trim. Turns out there is such a thing as too many options.

But $165 for a clutch that perfectly matches my hair is a bargain in my book. And $197 for a dress that hugs the curves in all the right places? Priceless.

Still, it's a safe bet Karl doesn't need to watch his back just yet.

Style Shake

styleshake.com

The goods: This London-based site lets you create your own shirts and dresses, offering stylish options such as a one-shoulder silhouette or a bubble hem, designed by creative director Romina Karamanea (whose work has appeared on the London catwalks). I happened to be in dire need of a dress to wear to work functions, so I was off to the races. After choosing black stretch cotton as the base fabric from a small but high-quality selection of 16 different cottons and silks, I clicked through six simple steps to choose my neckline, sleeves and hemline.

My selections instantly appeared on a virtual mannequin. Yes, it was mildly annoying that I was forced to start the entire process over after changing fabric colors mid-design, but no biggie. Finally, after adding box pleats, removing bow-ties and deciding that a frilly collar was too adorable to pass up, I was ready to check out. The tedious task of measurement-taking was skipped in favor of selecting a standard dress size -- a big plus. When the frock finally arrived, my black-and-red bubble dress fit well, garnered rave reviews from co-workers and fulfilled my latent fantasy of starting a clothing line.

Price: Cotton tops start at $117, dresses at $197. Add about $100 for silk fabric.

The waiting game: According to Style Shake's website, you can show off your design in a mere 10 days -- hard to believe since it's coming from London. My dress took more than three weeks.

The Fine Print: Sales are final. Free alterations.

Lands' End Custom

www.landsend.com

The Goods: Finding perfect-fitting pants is everyone's shopping challenge. So, these classic made-to-measure chinos from catalog merchant Lands' End were enticing. Selecting color (moss green, stone, Atlantic blue and more), fit (relaxed or natural) and waist style (low, high or average) was as easy as Lionel Richie's Sunday morning. Pleats or no pleats? Straight legs or tapered? I quickly checked off my choices, and detailed photos helped when I couldn't decide whether cuffs were the way to go. I was eager to check out but had to create a fit profile using my exact measurements before I was home free. Luckily, stats stay in the system for next time.

Price: $70 to $80.

The waiting game: Three to four weeks.

Fine print: If you're unhappy, return your pants. No questions asked. Land's End doesn't do alterations, but will remake your chinos using new measurements if the fit isn't right.

Freddy & Ma

www.freddyandma.com

The goods: This girly website lets shoppers design their very own "it" bags. You begin by choosing a shape -- a clutch or tote in several different styles -- then move on to details such as hardware finish and trim color. Talk about a bounty of options. Hundreds of attractive floral, botanical and graphic print choices taxed the mind. Luckily, the search engine let me navigate the extensive fabric library by color, season, popularity and even mood (bold, Gothic, preppy, retro). But prints aren't really my thing, and it was hard to find solid colors. I think I'll be happier when the site adds solid colors of leather as options.

Price: From $85 for a 5-by-7 inch Metro clutch, to $365 for the Antonia bowling bag.

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