When the Louis Vuitton Maison opens its impres- sive doors in Toronto this fall, those with an itch for something exceptional can head straight to the store’s second floor—after making the requisite appoint- ment. There, a plush private salon has been allocated to the Haute Maroquinerie, a special-order handbag service offered in only six locations around the world. Five handbags— three of the brand’s beloved styles plus two new silhouettes—can be fully customized in eight leathers and skins and 27 colours. Vuit- ton has done the math so we don’t have to: this equals 40,000 unique possibilities. It’s an altogether different proposition than buying a classic monogram style straight off the shelf—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as luxury brands become increasingly accessible with more stores, more product and more demand, mass customization has gradually become a means of enhancing exclusivity.

Christian Dior officially began a made-to-order service for its Lady Dior, Miss Dior and Diorissimo handbags in 2010. Given the choices of style, size, finish, fabric and colour, more than 1,000 permutations are possible. This fall, Gucci is expanding its made-to-order program, now available in Canada with an expanded range of models. Three of Gucci’s greatest hits (the New Bamboo, New Jackie and Stirrup) can be tricked out to ultra-luxe levels. Crocodile can be ordered with a shiny, matte or metallic finish. Don’t like shiny gold hardware? Swap it for silver, or better yet, antiqued gold or silver. Initials embossed in gold, silver or dry-stone can be added to the bag’s interior. The final product is delivered in special packaging with made-to-order script.

Last month marked the debut of Ferragamo Travel, a made-to-order luggage collection from Salvatore Ferragamo available in various colours and materials, ranging from dura- ble canvas to exotic skins. If committing to customization is too overwhelming (or expen- sive), you can at least play around on Burberry’s website, where a user-friendly interface allows you to create a customized trench coat. With Burberry Bespoke, one person’s classic is another’s street-style savvy, especially given such options as fuchsia Haymarket check lining, brass finish buttons, studded collars and leather epaulets.

Bear in mind that for every set of hands that touches a Vuitton Noé draw- string bag in the Asnières workshop in France or a Gucci New Jackie tote in Italy, there’s still a basic template that allows for efficient, modernized production. This evolution in accessories melds savoir-faire with specialty manufacturing and enrobes the result in a supple layer of cachet. In turn, this generates desire. “Fashion is the ultimate snobbism—if people see too much of [something], they lose interest,” says Robert Burke, a fashion retail vet- eran who now helms luxury consultancy Robert Burke Associates. “Customization or, ultimately, bespoke is a way to main- tain attention.”

You don’t need to be a fashion consultant, a venture capitalist, a global trend spotter or Douglas Coupland to observe that we are living in an age of mass cus- tomization. Consider how much we already customize: our coffee, our salads, our playlists, our Twitter streams. A handbag designed to our specifications simply represents a rarefied level of have-it- our-way consumerism. But personalization and customization (or made-to-order) mean differ- ent things. Although they are used interchange- ably, the former refers to a less labour-intensive way of adding a unique flourish. Vuitton’s Mon Monogram service, first introduced in 2008, allows people to add their initials or colourful stripes to the Speedy, Neverfull and Keepall bags—similar to the personalized lettering that’s long been offered by Goyard. Prada fol- lowed suit last January with a blocky Saffiano leather alphabet that could be applied to totes, backpacks and luggage.

By comparison, customization veers closer to bespoke. Think of Hermès, where spe- cial-order bags are part of the brand’s dna. Sophie Doran, a Paris-based editor at the Luxury Society, which bills itself as the most influential online community of top luxury executives, says customization appeals to high-net-worth individuals seeking to “truly differentiate themselves from the crowd,” as well as aspirational consumers who crave the next hot thing. “I imagine that it would give the aspirational consumer a feeling of satisfaction, and potentially pride, in knowing they took that extra step in their luxury purchase.”

Not surprisingly, customization comes at a premium. Ferragamo’s sleek trolleys begin at $1,500 and top out around $20,000 for alligator cladding. Entry prices for Haute Maroquinerie orders are in the high four-figures. As much a consideration as price is time. Customization generally requires an average wait of six months.

For many luxury brands, personalization isn’t new; in fact, it’s part of their heri- tage. In the mid-1800s, Louis Vuitton built his business on custom-order trunks, anticipating an explosion of leisure travel. The luggage specifications were modi- fied according to each customer’s trousseau. Jennifer Carter, president and ceo of Hermès Canada, half-jokingly notes that the first Hermès client in 1837 was a horse, and that every order at the time was singular in its specifications. She goes on to explain that the first silk scarf was born from a custom order. Ditto the ties. The Birkin bag did not exist before it was designed for actress ⁄singer Jane Birkin. Each time, however, the one-off turned into a mainstay. “Customization is firstly for us about taking care of clients and about service, and it has been since day one,” she says. “But it has also contributed to the Maison’s creativity because it gives us ideas.” Doran agrees that customization is “a nod to the golden days”—with a caveat. “I’m not sure the current services take the idea far enough to be returning the status quo to true luxury,” she says. “If anything, they are opening up another facet of some- thing once reserved for the affluent to the masses, and potentially threatening its meaning.” Burke isn’t concerned about customization being taken too far, mainly because many brands lack the infrastructure to execute specialized orders. “It’s not natural in quick-turning fashion to offer customization, and I’m not sure it would even make sense,” he says. Even so, retailers like J. Crew and C. Wonder—the latest fashion venture from Chris Burch (Tory Burch’s ex-husband)—offer monogram ser- vices for everything from pyjamas to pillows. When brands invite customers to be involved in the design process, the experience forges a connection that is not possible in conventional transactions. But Doran wonders if this trend toward personaliza- tion will threaten the exclusivity factor within the luxury goods world: “Yes, it gives consumers a story to tell, but what happens when everyone has the same story?”