NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When Elizabeth Street in New York emerged as a hipster shopping mecca a few years ago, it seemed likely to follow a certain pattern.
Small, quirky shops move in, and attract a following. Rents get pushed up, and original tenants get pushed out. Superstores arrive to peddle goods by the truckload.
So nobody thought twice when word got out that Nike was planning a store in downtown Manhattan. The end was near for funky Elizabeth Street.
But a curious thing happened. The sneaker giant didn't build a NikeTown, those 50,000 square foot temples of glitz. Instead, it launched the Nike iD Lab, which has about as much in common with NikeTown as I do with Tiger Woods.
Rather than using its new storefront to push sneakers to the masses, Nike is trying to lure a tiny band of elite customers.
At the iD Lab, you shop by appointment only, and must be invited to make that appointment. No more than three shoppers at a time are allowed inside, and a bouncer is there to shoo away the inquisitive.
If you're not a celebrity, the only way to get behind those well guarded doors is to win a lottery.
If you do manage to get in, though, you'll find a cobbler's workshop like no other.
It's part store and part studio, where customers go to design their own sneakers. They choose between materials, colors and patterns to create unique footwear matching their own stylish sensibilities.
Once the creation is complete, specs get sent electronically to a manufacturing facility. Three weeks later, sneakers arrive by mail at the customer's house.
Method to the madness
It may seem crazy to open a store that bars almost everyone from shopping in it. But there's a method to Nike's madness.
The iD Lab is a cutting edge marketing ploy to draw attention to the Nike iD Web site, where the masses can buy self-customized sneakers of their own. The store may be impossible to get into, but the site is open to everybody.
There, you can build footwear starting from a blank shell, adding colors and patterns and logos according to your specifications. You can even print a personalized iD on your shoes. In my case, that turns Air Jordans into Air Gordons.
The Nike iD project is the latest in an accelerating drive by corporate America to make good on the promise of mass customization, which is transforming industrial production into a made-to-order tailoring process.
The ambitiousness of the iD initiative suggests that mass customization may be reaching a tipping point. But as a concept, it's not so new.
In some industries, it's been a standard order of business since the 1990s. For example, every major computer maker has for years let customers specify with extreme precision the hardware and software they want installed.
In other fields, however, mass customization has yet to gain traction.
Levi's, for example, tried with great fanfare to market custom-sized denims a few years ago. Women were supposed to walk into a Levi's store, get measured, then order jeans tailored to fit their body types. It was a flop.
More recently, Procter & Gamble announced that Reflect.com, its experiment in selling personalized beauty products, had failed after six years and $60 million invested.
But a few missteps won't slow the steady march of mass customization. For every high-profile project that gets killed, many more are born.
Want a new handbag? The BagDaddy site offers this pitch to build your own: "No longer will you be faced with the knowledge that your handbag is but one of many duplicates. No longer will you need to accept conformity."
If BagDaddy doesn't do it for you, try 1154 Lill, a Chicago-based boutique that lets clients mix and match fabrics and different styles of satchels, from handbags to totes.
How about a T-shirt? Hundreds of Web sites help you make your own -- or buy designs created by other users -- including Zazzle.com, Customglamgirl.com and Funkylala.com.
My favorite came out last summer, when Mars unveiled customizable M&Ms. A Web site lets you pick your colors and imprint words or letters on one side of every piece of candy (the "m" appears on the other).
The private company won't release precise figures from the effort, but it has intimated that sales have exceeded initial expectations. Even better for Mars: each customized bag costs about five times the price of a same-size bag of ordinary M&Ms.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.