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The process of clothing-size standardisation is at odds with the diversity of human bodies

Plus-size fashion: the shape of fit to come

Today's plus-size women's fashion suffers from a serious problem with fit.  This struggle is evinced by an unsustainably high level of e-commerce garment returns (between a half and three quarters of all online sales in this sector are ultimately cancelled), the lion's share of which is reported by consumers as being caused by 'poor fit'.  The subject of fit has become inextricably linked with the lack of sustainability that fashion (one of the world's major industries) presently wrestles with.

Fit has repercussions that go way beyond mere aesthetics and customer dissatisfaction: with major disruption to the inventory, wasteful delivery costs and newly manufactured product even ending up in landfill (just to scratch the surface: the list of ramifications is substantial).



Failure to obtain accurate apparel fit reliably presents ongoing ecological and product lifecycle damage that cannot be ignored.  So, if the industry could just develop dependable ways to ascertain the size of a customer at the point of sale, this would surely cure the problem?  No, it would not.  For one thing, size is not fit.

Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26

Anyone who is active in the plus-size (or regular) fashion social media platforms will be familiar with the drum-beat of pressure from consumers, influencers, activists and even the press who are desperate for there to be more 'standardisation' of the sizing system of apparel.  What they want appears to be reasonable: it is for all items that are sold as the same size to be of the same measurements, believing that this will result in an improvement in the ease of obtaining well-fitting apparel.  But it will not.  With the present system of sizing, it would almost certainly have the opposite effect, because the very process of standardisation within such a limited range of options is at odds with the diversity of human bodies.

It's easy to see why consumers are dissatisfied and confused.  My research with this cohort shows that any plus-size woman may well have a wide array of differently sized apparel in her wardrobe. Indeed, when ordering online (where she can't try something on before she buys), she has to make judgements about sizes on a brand-by-brand or style-by-style basis, often using sources such as customer reviews or her own experience of a brand, rather than the retailer's sizing information.  Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of, say, a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26.  Attempting to judge by size label alone, it's practically impossible for a consumer to know for certain which garment to order online, so it is little wonder that the fashion industry is suffering from a major fit-related returns problem.

The lack of consistency of apparel sizing is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, which is that not all women are the same shape.  Plus-size women's figures diverge far more than 'mainstream' sized women, who themselves vary considerably.

The fashion industry doesn't really know enough about the body shapes of the female plus-size population, because the subject has never been studied with a large (or a representative) enough sample.  There have been far too few studies of 'curve' women, and there is no evidence that those that have been undertaken have actually looked at the entirety of the shapes of the consumer cohort.  In general, women who are willing to reveal their fit data to the fashion world are likely to be those who have an 'acceptable' body type: that is to say, their bodies are either 'well-proportioned', 'straight' or 'hourglass' shapes.  These are the figures that look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, yet which, in all probability, encompass only half at most of all women.  Other shapes, which look less conventionally attractive, such as 'apple', 'pear' 'supersize' and 'busty' demand to be better studied in order for the industry to find out all it needs to know about the female plus-size consumer.

The present sizing method works on a very small and crude set of sizing, theoretically with no variation in body shape whatsoever; indeed (apart from being able to source garments with personal stylistic fit synergies) the only reason why most women find anything to fit them at all is the lack of precision and random variations that have grown up between brands over time.  Through a process of evolution, it is the very mutations in the grading DNA of various brands that have allowed them to exploit whatever niches in the commercial ecosystem to which they are best suited, with consumers learning which brands 'understand' them.  This is why so many plus-size women have to rely on brand knowledge, customer reviews and guesswork in order to buy apparel.

Even were it actually possible, standardising sizing would mean that all items of apparel (from every brand) would be manufactured with precisely the same measurements, doing away with this variety and creating a homogenised situation that would be less fair than ever.  It would be comparable to a cosmetics company producing a foundation for all women's skin tones by offering just one 'average' colour.  The resulting single-shade option would only suit a tiny number of women, disenfranchising most of the customer base.  If it sounds ridiculous to do this with skin tone, it is equally so with body shape: yet this very 'one grading fits all' system that is (albeit somewhat theoretically) what the fashion industry is deploying to fit customers. It is a situation that urgently calls for change.

Our society is highly censorious of women whose bodies differ from the 'beauty standards' of the day, so negativity is disproportionately directed at those with particularly divergent body shapes.  These women therefore experience an avalanche of opprobrium, with the mainstream media, strangers, social media (even friends or family members) directing health-vigilantism, ridicule or critical judgements towards their bodies.  Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements.  This means that, in order to find out about their fit requirements, the fashion industry needs women who may be dissatisfied, secretive, embarrassed and perhaps even ashamed of their bodies to cooperate with having their fit data harvested.  Obtaining the participation of enough of this cohort is an extremely difficult ask.

Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements

It is, in all likelihood, a better idea to approach consumers whilst they are participating in an activity when they look on body monitoring and analysis in a more positive light.  For example, my studies have shown that those who are engaged in what may be termed 'body transformation' are often far more accepting of physical examination.  Looking at scans taken from the health and fitness industry, it's clear that these have offered a far wider, more representative range of body shapes than those gathered by fashion studies.  It might be time to take a more imaginative approach about where to seek volunteers for the examination of the sizes and shapes of the female population.

The effort will be well worth it: with modern scanning techniques, the technology is available to make much more penetrative studies of the body shapes of this astonishingly diverse cohort.  What the apparel industry needs to accomplish it is the acceptance that body shape diversity is at the core of the fit problem, and the will to do something about it. 

The stakes are high enough to warrant making radical changes to e-commerce fashion: the returns issue is a significant problem assailing not only the plus-size sector, but all womenswear.  Anything that provides a fit for plus-size customers will also do so for all fashion consumers, of every size and sex.

Once the data has been obtained, in order to create a sizing system that is better suited for online retail, as can be anticipated, it will be necessary to develop one that is far more complicated than the model presently in use.  Given the wide number of differing body contours (which is virtually infinite), in the beginning it will be necessary to group women into a workable range of body shapes (say, six or seven), and then, possibly three heights (petite, average and tall), taking average measurements of each group to create a grading. Even with this (fairly gross) simplification, already there are 18 types of grading.  This is not size: this is body shape (which can probably be simplified down to about 12 for separates, when taking similarities between various 'half body zones' into account).  So, if the plus-size womenswear size range started at size 16 and went up to size 30 (just 8 sizes in the present system), the result would be a variety of around 100 differing sizes and gradings.  If this were expanded out to include 'mainstream' apparel sizes (which would be preferable), there may ultimately be something like 150 differing fits, as opposed to the 12 (official) sizes that exist now.  This is only one imagining of how a new methodology might be developed: there are many others, but they will be nearly all of equal or greater complexity.  Clearly, this is problematic, and goes a long way to explaining why, as yet, this has been a nettle that the fashion industry has not been overly keen to grasp.

Suggestions as to how exactly to take such a grip will probably be as varied as is the industry itself.  Larger companies may choose to stock an inventory with a full range of fits (I suggest calling them 'fits' rather than sizes) and medium-sized concerns may select a number of whichever lines of body shape customisation they believe suit their consumers best.  Luxury brands might develop individual customisation or even bespoke manufacture.  Tiny brands will possibly choose one (or perhaps two) body shapes to specialise in (much like the mutations in fit that happen today;  indeed, it will probably be possible to simply impose the new fit denomination on much existing inventory by simply analysing what is already there).  The difference will be that all consumers will know the exact measurements of apparel before they buy.

Complicated as it sounds, the cure need not be worse than the illness.  Technology is rapidly being developed to obtain fit details from customers at the point of sale, and new digital manufacturing processes are capable of producing the smaller runs of diverse fits that the inventory would require in order to supply a far more complex system. 

New procedures will also be able to analyse how styling alters the measurements of garments which in turn feeds into the individual consumer fit profile.  For the first time, apparel could be constructed to extremely precise measurements in a clear and sane manner, standardised across all brands.  The consumer would buy online with a high degree of confidence in fit.

There is no need for the fashion industry to be hidebound by outdated systems, struggling eternally with an unsustainable level of garment returns and a heavy carbon footprint.  The slow creeping towards a better, more efficient system has begun, but is likely to become a jostling, highly competitive stampede as the third decade of the millennium gets into full swing.


Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers

Fashion's broken mirror

In her last exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issues in our current sizing landscape. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 10 December 2019.



It's very nearly the end of the second decade into the millennium, and this is what today's average UK womenswear consumer looks like: she's 5'6" tall, with a bust measuring 36", waist 29", and hip 38.5".  She's twenty-two years old, white, with size-5 feet, perfect hair, skin and teeth.  She wears her clothing in exactly the way that the designers intended (in other words, she has predictable preferences) and she aspires to wear new clothing in a selection of the latest mainstream styles.  She works full-time in a job with above average pay, and she is free from insecurities about her body.  She has no physical blemishes, no disability, no religious or cultural sensitivities or other special requirements that might affect her choice of apparel, nor does she have any interest in where her clothing comes from or how its ecological footprint affects her environment.  Oh, and she rides a unicorn to and from work.

Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers.  Over the course of the last century, if this reflection were to be believed, the 'typical' woman has gone through repeated re-modelling.

Take one of the most instant and drastic changes, which happened in 1947, as an example.  That was the year that Christian Dior's 'New Look' appeared out of nowhere and thundered into the fashion scene, crashing and burning the somewhat masculine, natural and militaristic physique of the 'typical' 1940s woman.  In this new post-war epoch, if you didn't have the tiny 'wasp' waist or the wherewithal to have a skirt made out of 25 yards of fabric (not the easiest thing to do when it was still on wartime ration), as far as the fashion world was concerned you didn't exist.  Back then the physical, financial and lifestyle standards a woman had to live up to if she stood any chance of being taken seriously as a fashionable person were extremely onerous.  But then again, the fashion industry as it existed then had a tiny customer base and didn't need to cater to anyone else.

It certainly didn't need to know what all the fashion 'rejects' were doing at that time.  As it didn't sell apparel to just anybody, there was no need even to acknowledge the existence of, for example, women on lower incomes, or taller, larger or older women.  Nor need it concern itself, generally, with women of diverse ethnicities, or those who had jobs that did not allow them to wear these fashionably restrictive outfits.  These groups, alongside women with disabilities or 'non-standard' bodies, were airbrushed out of fashion history.  In apparel design terms, we know little about them.

But, surely, all this has no relevance to what is happening today?

A new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity, but are these images not an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

It's easy to say that things now are very different.  The present generation of women do not have to sign up to any particular style: indeed, differing stylistic looks are indulged and celebrated by a fashion industry that (in theory at least) is open to all.  A woman can opt for a sport-influenced or a goth-inspired persona, cover herself in bling, or decide to join any of a hundred other fashion 'tribes'.

And it would appear that women are 'allowed' to have different body shapes now, too.  They are to be seen advertisements and editorials for plus-size clothes, modelled by larger women, and there are increasing (yet still tiny) numbers of brands and designers who show their apparel on models with disabilities.  At long last, it's also slowly becoming unacceptable for a brand to restrict its images only to one race: a new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity.

But are these images not evidence of an enlightened era of diversity, but actually an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

My area of expertise, for example, size inclusive apparel, is still exceptionally poorly represented in advertising and fashion journalism.  Although it would no longer be true to say that larger women are invisible, their appearance is substantially shrouded.  The sheer number of plus-size women in the population is woefully underrepresented by fashion's visual output.

Worse still: the very character of the larger female cohort is distorted by the images we see.  'Curvy' women have far more diverse body shapes than their smaller-sized counterparts.  Due to the nature of women's bodies, any extra weight is not usually spread evenly over the entire physique but concentrated on those areas where the woman is inclined to store it.  This means that differing body shapes become more exaggerated as women grow larger.  There are at least six or seven main body types in the population – not that we would ever guess this by looking at plus size women in the media.

Does it matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women? After all, isn't fashion about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty?

The two basic body shapes that are 'acceptable' to the fashion industry are Perfectly Proportioned and Hourglass, and images of these are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are rather rare types.  I would challenge anyone, for instance, to find an image of larger size fashion that is being advertised on a model who has an Apple-shape body.  It would be unheard of to use a model of this body shape in a national campaign, despite her figure being far more numerous than an Hourglass shape, for example.  In the plus-size world, incredibly, there has been a return of the 'wasp' waist.

Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to find images being provided by the fashion industry that include four out of six of the most common body shapes of real 'curvy' women.  As we are living in an era where a much higher proportion of the population are larger sized with diverse body types, this means that our fashion industry still 'disappears' a huge proportion of the population.

But does it really matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women?  After all, fashion is about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty, which by definition, are not the perquisite of the average person, and there can be no surprise that fashion images are more about the ideal than the actual.  These are promotional images, directed towards the public, and not the industry, yet I would argue that whereas they are not an accurate representation of the female population, they are an all too accurate representation of how the fashion industry sees its customers.

Just as it always has, the apparel world peers into its broken mirror and the fanciful image of the consumer that it sees is extremely telling. The evidence is there to see.

It's extremely difficult to obtain accurate figures for the exact proportion of UK women that are size 16 and over (due to the way that everything to do with size is complex), but it is likely to be about half the female population.  Yet, from a financial standpoint, the 'Curve' sector is about half the size of its 'mainstream' counterpart, and is thus extremely poorly served, with restricted design, price-point and quality, and a severe fit problem (evinced by a horrendous garment return rate).  Larger women are almost never seen as the muse for top designers; the entire sector is underdeveloped and ripe with untapped opportunity.

Any objective observer would, judging solely by what our fashion industry is sending out (both in terms of product and image), conclude that the average size woman in the UK is a size 12.  They would certainly not guess that women in the UK have such a high proportion of larger sizes with diverse shapes, any more than they would guess the range of ethnicities, ages, fit preferences and physical, political and social differences that exist in our population.  In many ways, it is still working on principles and methods developed in the last century, and the apparel business is (quite literally) the poorer for that.

In the third decade of the second millennium, for the first time, technology is being developed to gather accurate information about today's consumer cohort on a range of issues. The fashion industry is on the cusp of huge change, and there's not a unicorn in sight.


In this post (first written for WhichPLM) At Last founder, Emma Hayes, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector

Fashion fit and the returns covenant

Following on from her last exclusive for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 20 September 2019.



It's no secret that online fashion is today grappling with a huge product returns problem: a conservatively estimated 25% of all clothing being sent back to the retailer. This rate of failed sales is causing a host of problems – from disruption to the inventory, through customer dissatisfaction to damage to the environment.  And it is also a heavy financial burden to the industry: last year, customers in the US alone returned about $351 billion worth of items, according to estimates by National Retail Federation.  The vast majority of these refunds are reported by disappointed customers as being caused by poor fit, and, as with every business inefficiency, it is ultimately customers who foot the bill.

For e-commerce, selling stretchy, baggy and loose-fitting items is fairly easy, but obtaining the more specific fit required by the variety of fashion styles being retailed today is a complex undertaking.  Even a cursory glance at a random group of people offers an illustration of the magnitude of the fit problem faced by fashion e-tailers.  Human beings are extremely diverse when it comes to size and body shape.  How can the correct items reliably be selected by consumers when they buy online?

Clearly, it is necessary to find out everything possible about a consumer's fit requirements before stock is sent out to them, but the solution to the e-commerce fashion returns problem doesn't begin and end with an individual customer at the point of sale.  It starts with recognising the wide range of appropriately sized and shaped apparel that needs to be manufactured to suit the cohort of consumers in each distinct market worldwide.  Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer.  It's clear that, such is the pressing need, e-commerce fashion should be gathering and deploying customer information wherever and whenever possible, but as yet this seems to be occurring only sporadically.

Take plus-size womenswear, for example, which represents about half the womenswear market (the half, in fact, that suffers from the most profound fit problems).  My research found something of an 'all or nothing' gulf opening up between websites in this sector.  On one hand, there are many fashion websites that still employ the 'tried and failed' sizing grid which abandons users to their own judgement, doing nothing more than outlining the size constraints of the brand in question and not harvesting any useful customer data.  At the other extreme, e-commerce retailers dash headlong into an interrogation: presenting the customer with questions about height, weight, age, bra size, body measurements and the customer's 'usual' apparel size.  These enquiries can show a breathtaking naivete, not only with regard to the sensitivity of the issues in question, but seemingly also with the accuracy of the responses.

Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer

Most plus-size women do not wear just one dress size: rather, they wear a bewildering range of sizes according to different clothing brands (or even the same brand), and many – if not most – plus-size women are presently wearing the wrong size bra.  A considerable proportion of larger people spend years avoiding a weighing scale, and report finding it traumatic when required to face one, even in the enforced privacy of a doctor's surgery.  Nor is it at all unusual for plus-size women to experience harsh criticism and social prejudice about their size and measurements, which can result in a strong dislike of being monitored.  And this intimate questioning is taking place against a background of recent online data misuse, such as the recent Facebook scandal, which hardly reassures them about the confidentiality of their inputs.

Even when a consumer is willing to co-operate with all of this, some of the information gathering needs skill and basic equipment she may not have to hand (many larger people do not possess a tape measure or set of scales, for example).  The quality of the metrics can also be in question, as a customer may find there is an emotional toll for facing up to the reality of her ever-changing body, ending up with her inputting 'tweaked' or 'aspirational' metrics.  This then is a list of inputs which can cause discomfort, distrust, embarrassment, inaccuracy, practical difficulty, inconvenience and confusion – all at the delicate point of making a sale!

This is a big ask, when all that is being offered in return is the ability to buy an item of clothing that fits properly, in a market where any number of garments can be sent (and, if necessary, returned) for free. It's hard to see what, exactly, is being offered to make it worthwhile.

So far, fit data that the fashion industry keeps on individuals has been a covert business: what happens from now on is going to matter more as we start to gather body metrics in the quantity and quality necessary for the purpose of making a serious dent on the returns problem.  As a society, we are used to dealing with personal data, and most countries have laws that necessarily require confidentiality when storing information such as birth dates, addresses, bank details etc., but body metrics have to be different.  In order to prevent the damage done by a mountain of stock returns, there has to be an entirely different way to deal with consumers' physical measurements which will, by necessity, always have to accompany them when shopping online, well before they have even clicked onto a website.  The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size.

The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size

As yet, the population is not being kept informed about (or allowed to benefit from) the advantages of preventing unnecessary returns.  It's clear that this situation is unsustainable, so at a time when the fashion industry needs to be restructured, it is necessary to have a more advanced, open and mature relationship with people about their physical data and provide genuine incentives to give the fashion industry what it needs.  There should be no problem in sharing with consumers the financial riches gained from returns prevention – nor should there be any secrecy in what is occurring in order to facilitate this: rather, it is necessary to do both in order to incentivise the consumers' co-operation.  In the near future, we may see a covenant between the fashion industry and its customers that puts the latter at the centre of the fit process.

The customer's contribution:
  • Provide body metrics
  • Allow purchase/return history to be monitored
  • Participate with return reduction strategies
  • Undertake conscious measuring systems
  • Allow ongoing passive measuring
  • Respect genuine data
  • Tolerate social media access
  • Contribute photographs
  • Allow in-store data gathering
  • Allow body metrics to be shared

The industry:
  • Be clear and upfront about everything at all times
  • Inform the consumer as to the real price of returns (including the ecological damage)
  • Share rewards with participating consumers according to their contributions
  • Never take information without permission
  • Educate/provide consumers with different input methods
  • Give consumers a choice of which body metrics they are happy to reveal
  • Provide all body data held on file easily and promptly when requested
  • Do not feed-back data to the consumer unless asked
  • Allow the customer complete control over who has access to the information
  • Keep information completely secure
  • Keep body data quarantined from all other data
  • Do not allow use of metrics for any purpose other than that intended by the consumer
  • Remove data/allow customer accounts to be closed when requested

Bodyshape and sizing information is a valuable commodity.  It is needed to transform the fashion industry, and, in doing so, it will help solve one of its most intractable and damaging problems: that of product returns.

It should be controlled, understood and traded by its rightful owner: the consumer.


Why not incentivise consumers to provide the fit information that the fashion industry needs?  Imagine a credit account whose currency is information; a consumer will ‘pay into’ this account by adding her data.

E-commerce fashion fit and the data credit card

In the era of e-commerce fashion we are suffering from an epidemic of poor fit.  Consumers do not know which, out of the sizes being offered, are the correct ones to choose, and sometimes this results in their decision not to buy anything at all; the issue of so-called ‘abandoned baskets’. 

When they do decide to take the plunge, too often confused consumers fail to select the size that would fit them best, and the process ends up as an apparel return.  Worse, this return often leads to a disgruntled customer deciding never to try this brand again.



In addition, many apparel companies create product that simply does not fit the figures of their clients.  The problem, all too often, is about body shape (otherwise known as ‘grading’). 

Fit is as much about shape as it is about size, but the fashion industry largely exists in a state of ignorance as to the body shapes in the population. 

Ultimately, this can lead to an inventory that offers no ‘right size’ for a consumer: nothing fits, because the shape is wrong.  Shockingly, this unsuitable new stock can end up in landfill.

To solve this problem information is needed.  Firstly, the body shapes of the customer base need to be gathered and studied so as to create an improved inventory, comprised of the correctly sized and shaped garments.  Then individual clients’ body shapes need to be ascertained, at point of sale, so that the appropriate sizes are picked from that selection and sent out to them when they buy. 

Information is the name of the game – and it is incredibly valuable, yet it isn’t easy to get.  Going out into the population to find meaningful data is a huge task, fraught with problems.  Firstly, there has to be a big enough sample (which needs to be substantial and widespread: there is no inhabited continent where we can afford to make assumptions as to body shape and size).  This study has to be on-going (body shapes change over time: for example, right now the waistlines of our population are growing and, simultaneously, certain demographics are changing – such as average age, which is rising).   

Then, the sample has to be accurate and representative.  When testing the cohort, those groups who are happy to donate their time to undertake testing for, for example, financial rewards, may have distinct features (they may be a younger sub-group for instance).  And other considerations also come into play.  In the plus-size sector, many women who have ‘non-standard’ body shapes (ironically, body shapes such as ‘Pear’ and ‘Apple’ shape are far more common than the figure that is assumed to be the ‘norm’, but which is actually rather rare, the ‘Perfectly proportioned’ shape) are super-sensitive about having their bodies analysed.  Many people contaminate their data by miss-reporting it, so the manner of gathering has to be bullet-proof.

Then there is the small matter of obtaining metrics from individual customers at point of sale.  It all sounds perfectly easy: how much of a problem can it be to ask women about their weight and body measurements?  (I’m being sarcastic, in case that’s not obvious: to many women, there can hardly be anything more fraught with complication and sensitivity than asking for these details.)

All this data is valuable; so who deserves to benefit from that value?  Money flows back and forward in the fashion industry.  It enters via the consumer when a sale is made, then some of that flows down the plug-hole of customer returns, wasted stock and lost trade.  Would it be possible to divert some of that money away from these expensive (and ecologically damaging) causes, and send it back towards the provider of the data?

Imagine, if you will, a credit account whose currency is information.  A consumer will ‘pay into’ this account by adding her data. 

She might input her weight, height, bra size – or any of a significant number of metrics.  This gives her a credit.  With just these inputs, it may be enough to qualify her for free delivery with participating retailers.  At the point of sale, she is reminded that if she would like to also earn free returns, she might wish to ‘top-up’ her information with extra inputs.  She could, for example, opt to visit a body scanner in her nearby sports or shopping centre in order to make a major deposit of information.  If she is able to visit and be re-scanned regularly, she would be able to enjoy all free postage – and she would also be eligible for entry into prize draws, get early notice of sales events and discounts: a whole cornucopia of rewards could be opened up to her if she were to provide enough data.

And the method of payment could be endlessly flexible.  Each time she returns items, if she were to run through a thorough survey as to why the garment does not fit – then this will also earn her credits.  If she would like to link her social media account photographs to the system, this will pay into her account as well.  Each picture uploaded into the process represents a credit.  If she chooses to allow her anonymised information to be sold on to product developers who are analysing cohort data, this would raise some more credit for her.

She can also build up a good ‘fit credit rating’ by having a minimal returns footprint.  A woman found to use a returns service sparingly in comparison to how much she has purchased, may indeed end up being offered free returns as a reward.  Information has a sell-by date, so any data that she inputs will become stale and will need to be renewed, and she will be informed about this as it happens.  Regular upkeep will earn her rewards.
So who would want to give this data?  Wouldn’t it be risky to be giving away all this personal information?  Not at all.

The data information credit service would work very much like a credit card.  Every piece of consumer data would be confidential and held ‘in quarantine’.  Just like payment with a credit card, the information would be applied as and when it was needed only through very carefully controlled channels.  All the retailer would get to retain about the consumer is what is agreed with that individual.

The argument in favour of this system is a strong one.  For a start it's system that pays for itself: there would be no rewards offered that are not covered by the savings obtained, and it enables brands to make a significant dent in the ecological damage that is being done by the fashion industry.  It puts the consumer in control of the data – and, if anyone is to make money out of her information, it is only fair it is the owner – and provider – of that material.  It incentivises the customer to give the kind of data that is so desperately needed (and which is not as yet forthcoming in sufficient quantity and quality).  And it also encourages individuals in the population to take responsibility for their own carbon footprint, by making them aware of their history of returns.

Information is valuable and it belongs to the consumer.  Accurate, up-to-date data is desperately needed by the fashion industry.  A system where the customer is paid fairly for their participation is equitable and beneficial to all.


Free postage – the big, bad idea dogging fashion e-commerce?

Free postage – fashion’s big, bad idea

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

In today's guest post Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and founder of At Last, shines a light into the hole we seem to have created for ourselves with free postage. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



On the face of it, the offer of free postage (and particularly of free returns) on e-commerce fashion has got to be a win-win service.  Consumers are given the freedom to purchase their choice of apparel without too much worry about what they are getting themselves into, meaning that the retailer benefits from a quick and easy sale. This is particularly helpful for online retail, as it relies on the customer buying items based on trust.

Yet arguably, for customers, ‘free’ postage has led to increased costs, disappointing fit, frustration, time wastage, and harm to the environment.  And for the retailer damaged margins, havoc caused to the inventory, and stunted innovation.  Free postage has become a trap from which many brands cannot break free without risking market share.  It is right up there with the ‘free plastic carrier bag’ as one of retail’s big, bad ideas.

Free postage is allowing consumers to buy product that is likely to be returned, with no apparent financial penalty, contributing to a situation where retailers are battling a huge and ever-growing returns problem.  Statista, for instance, estimates that in the US alone, returns costs will amount to $550 billion by 2020 – that’s 75.2% more than in 2018.  If we allow this to happen that would be a lot of money draining out of any industry – and, of course, it all has to come from somewhere.  Once a brand has cut its margins down to the bone, the slack is taken up by the consumer.  So much for it being free!

One well-acknowledged downside of free postage – and a favourite journalistic obsession – is returns caused by customers abusing the system, either by buying items always doomed to be returned (caused by chronic dithering or ‘buyers’ remorse’), or worse, wearing and returning apparel: so-called ‘wardrobing’.  Some people may indeed be overly click-happy, and it’s also clear that there is a problem with individuals who use their retailer’s website as if it were their personal wardrobe, wearing and then returning stock – all for free.  Retailers are beginning to grasp the nettle to deter this expensive behaviour; ASOS, for example, has recently caused a ripple in the news cycle by sending out an email to its customers warning: "If we notice an unusual pattern of returns activity: e.g. we suspect someone is actually wearing their purchases and then returning them or ordering and returning loads... then we might have to deactivate the account."

And ASOS is not alone: research from Barclaycard has revealed that 20% of retailers said they had made their returns policies more stringent in the past 12 months, with a further 19% of retailers saying they plan to do so in the next year.

That free deliveries encourage this kind of detrimental customer behaviour (which, by the way, pre-dates the internet, when bricks and mortar stores were not immune from what is – and always has been – an irritating minority activity) is undeniable, but whether punishing it actually makes a statistically significant impact on the overall level of returns is a moot point.  One would have to be convinced that it is rife.  Most likely, the real cause of most failed sales is not widespread and overwhelming consumer culpability, negligence or ineptitude; it’s more likely to be an endemic industry problem: about 70% of all returns are actually reported as an issue with fit, and such a high statistic speaks for itself.

Free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively

If (just for the sake of argument) free delivery were banned, and instead all consumers were openly billed for the real cost of any return (postage [both ways] as well as all other costs, like issues caused by the disruption of the inventory, credit costs, administration, picking and re-stocking, stock shrinkage and packaging – not to mention a ‘green tax’ for damage to the environment), the hefty charge would mean a great disincentive for customers to buy product unless they were really sure that it was suitable.

Of course, this situation could only happen if all brands adopted the same methods.  Many retailers simply would not be able to stand up to their competition if they had to go it alone.  It’s why the industry has become ‘addicted’ to free postage.  The pressure against retailers being the ‘first to blink’ is immense, and many brands would not be able to afford to hand their rivals such a competitive advantage on a plate.  But, hypothetically, if this method were employed throughout the sector, there would be a huge downward pressure on returns: every brand, retailer, manufacturer, investor, politician, consumer, journalist, and anyone interested in protecting the environment, would put the subject under the microscope in a national debate.  And, inevitably, that microscope would focus in on the number one reason for apparel returns... fit.

Overnight, those brands that still don’t use any technology to establish the fit of their consumer at point of sale or, worse, aren’t even developing a fit strategy, would be placed under scrutiny.  Consumers will realise that they have the right to expect a much better system of fitting them effectively, as it is they who pay for any failures.

So far, so hypothetical.  Back in the real world, the high costs of deliveries and returns are spread equally around all consumers: those who do and those don’t frequently return items, and the cost is concealed under the banner ‘free’.  Few consumers really understand the downside of this expensive habit.  But, at last, things are changing.  The fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined [source] and the damage to fashion’s carbon footprint by all this extra transport and other wastage is weighing heavily.  It’s likely that in the future, pressure from a population that is becoming more informed about these issues will come to bear on the industry.

In order to tackle e-commerce’s fit problems, it’s vital to engage the consumers’ co-operation.  It is their participation that is necessary to make any ‘fit tech’ work at point of sale, and it is their accurate data that is needed to develop the new sizing and grading strategies necessary to better suit their needs.  Yet with free postage there is very little leverage that can be brought to bear on consumers to use a fit tool at all.

My research with plus-size female subjects (the cohort that suffers worst with fit problems) shows that few of them engage sufficiently with the available fit technology.  We don’t know how much more effective today’s fit tools would be if they had the benefit of higher participation levels (it’s likely to be ‘very’); we don’t know what, if anything, those who do use fit tools have in common (they are a self-selected group, and are likely to share certain characteristics); we simply ‘do not know what we do not know’.  Without the penalty of paying for deliveries, consumers do not presently have enough incentive to bother interfacing properly with that tech, meaning that the efficacy of the tools is diminished, and some brands are not taking them seriously enough, or are kicking them into the future.

Radical as it sounds, there is a highly convincing argument that free postage, where it is offered at all, should be done so only on the condition that the consumer genuinely engages with fit tech provided by the retailer.

If this were to happen then it is likely that the technology would immediately take a giant leap forward.  Today’s fit tools are effective, and some such solution should always be deployed, but the ‘nudging’ of all clients to use the fit technology offered to them as a matter of course (using genuine ‘input’ data) would be of tremendous benefit to a range of developers, giving them access to the information needed to exponentially advance tomorrow’s fit solutions – starting at the point of sale – with benefits all the way through to a much improved sizing and grading offer.

So, contradictory as it seems, free postage doesn’t have to be a damaging proposition; it could, in fact, be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively.  Indeed, it seems incredible that the fashion industry actually has at its fingertips such an effective way to persuade customers to use the fit tech each time they buy – and yet they are not using it for this purpose.  Far from the fashion industry coming together to use postage charges as a precious tool to effect change, it is being squandered in the cause of internal struggles over market share.

Free plastic carrier bags were dispensed with as a result of changing social attitudes, which ultimately resulted in legislation.  As things stand, it’s only a matter of time before informed citizens turn their attention to free postage and see not a win-win service to the customer, but another one of fashion’s big, bad ideas.


Many plus-size women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size

Plus-sizing tech: a fatal glitch

'Be careful what you wish for' is a cliché, but (ironically, as is often said), all good clichés exist for a reason, and this one is particularly relevant to those developing new retail tech.

The advances in technology for e-commerce (particularly for plus-size) womenswear are a good example. It seems that the prevailing intention is to provide the 'in-shop experience' for consumers (of all sizes), synthesised in their own homes – or wherever they do their shopping.  That is to say, the industry is now in the process of developing systems which ultimately will be capable of 'scanning' a consumer using her device (her phone or tablet say), thus creating a realistic three-dimensional avatar of her body, complete with all her measurements. This avatar will then be able to virtually 'try on' garments in a naturalistic way (showing the fit, the drape of the fabric – even believably reproducing movement), allowing her to make an informed choice as to her fashion purchase, without ever having to set foot inside a changing room.



So far so excellent: there can be no doubt it is preferable to enjoy what is best about the in-store shopping experience, while offering the benefits of a massive (and almost magically always-available) inventory to all: that's seemingly a huge improvement to anything bricks-and-mortar can offer.

So, where's the rub?  I was struck very heavily with a problem when I was discussing the concept with an entrepreneur, busily engaged in developing this very concept.  He told me, enthusiastically, that when his new tech is developed, the consumer would be able to 'treat her own bedroom as changing room, with her own device as a mirror'.  In the context of the plus-size female consumer, I felt instinctive horror at this thought.  In my long experience of styling larger women, I discovered that the very last thing they require is to be left alone and isolated.

Plus-size women, famously (or rather, infamously), suffer from horrendous fit problems.  Their diverse body shapes do not slip easily into any range of standard sizes, and many women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size at all.  Many plus brands have differing grading, created to offer more diversity of fit.  This, although a necessary step, has only added to the general confusion around plus-sizing.

On the face of it, all of this would appear to add weight to the need for the kind of sizing tech now being created: the consumer will click on her chosen piece of apparel, and the avatar will graphically show her whether it will fit or not – helping her to choose a good match for her body if one were available; warning her off if nothing suitable can be found.  This should at least prevent the customer adding to the mountain of returned stock that is afflicting the industry – the very expensive problem that is driving the development of e-commerce fit technology in the first place.

However, this system is likely to create a train of unintended consequences, which can all be traced back to those pesky fit issues.

Let's say a plus-size woman is shopping on a website that sells a brand that is not graded to fit her body shape: whilst browsing, she is likely to experience an irritating Groundhog Day.  She clicks on a blouse: "Computer says no" is the result.  She clicks her next choice, a pair of trousers "It says no".  Finally, she looks at a dress: "No".

And this problem is not just going to afflict the 'one brand' website.  It will also affect the multi-brand retailer.  The customer (even when she has the opportunity of picking from a spread of brands) will as likely as not will still be reliving a repetitive experience.   Why?  Because the reason why she chose the first item is the same one that's behind her subsequent choices: her taste.  She is unlikely to use a scattergun approach, choosing one item from each brand.   Rather, she will be attracted to the aesthetics of one design story, and the lion's share of her choices will come from that.  If she is lucky enough that this is a brand that suits her body shape (and, with the diversity of these shapes, statistically speaking, this is unlikely), then she'll be fine.  Otherwise, it's going to be a miserable experience.

This is a system that relies, firstly, on the retailer stocking a range of differing grading – carefully selected to suit the six main body shapes.  And secondly, it needs the customer to happen to want to shop the brands that suit her.  You might say that what we are expecting to happen is what occurs every day with the very best plus-size retailers (who succeed in providing the correct spread of stock), but with one fatal exception: at home, the customer has no guide.  There is no helpful stylist by her side: she is expected to do this all alone.

Let's say that the pieces of clothing she clicked on will physically go on her (which is often impossible), but simply will not suit her body shape: they will cling in all the wrong places, and flap loose in other areas: all in all, it would all look horrible.  The avatar is there to show her the truth: the 'realistic' look of the apparel.  Will the avatar sugar-coat the pill, and make the clothing look acceptable?  It should not, because that would risk encouraging her to buy something that is not going to be suitable.  Will it give her a 'warts and all' image?  If it does, it's likely that the repeated experience of ugly clothing (again and again and again) is going to make her feel depressed.   When clothing does not fit plus-size women, it shows up their bodies in a poor light: she is likely to feel depressed, not just about the clothes, but about herself.

It is extreme cruelty to leave a plus-size woman all alone while she is trying to find something that fits her: I would hope that this fact alone is enough to give developers pause.  If it does not, then it may be worth mentioning that this glitch may well lead to the overall failure of their fit tool.

Sizing tech and curated content go hand-in-hand with the plus-size womenswear customer.  Each time a woman is told that something she has selected is not going to fit her, she needs to be shown something that will.  It's not a problem that should be underestimated – depending on her size, it's likely that most clothing will not fit her adequately.

A consumer will need to be triaged at the earliest point of the interaction, and a story that will fit her should be collated.   A lot of effort should be given over to being able to gather a selection of apparel that suits her body shape, and every clue that she gives off should be used to discover stock that makes sense to her aesthetically, and is practical, relevant and useful to her.  Many larger retailers will be in a position to provide what is required to fit all these needs, but for smaller retailers, it would be better for them to buddy-up and pass on their consumers to partner companies with whom they share a platform.

The real issue is not whether it's feasible to recreate a realistic facsimile of an authentic in-store experience using cutting-edge tech.  Unfortunately, it's all too possible to accurately synthesise the miserable encounters that legions of plus-size women have had in mediocre, failing stores over many decades.

The true issue at hand is how to provide a system based on excellence.  This should be what we focus on, and what we wish for.

The size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions

Plus fashion sizing – help or hinderance?

In 1960, the average US woman weighed 140 lbs, so in the mid-twentieth century, most US women took a dress size between a 6 and a 14: anything larger than that was often dubbed ‘Outsize’.  A size-16 woman at that time was considered rather a large person, and with the particular pressure to conform that existed in that era (which was even more severe than it is today, hard as this is to imagine), she may have felt freakish, embarrassed or even ashamed to admit to not fitting into a ‘regular’ size.  If she was guilty about her own body, she had low expectations as to what clothing she would be able to purchase, which was just as well, because the choice was dire.

By 2010, the average US woman's weight had grown to 166.2 lbs, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since.  Roll forwards to 2019: if a woman were a size-16, she would probably not feel embarrassment, and almost certainly not shame.  But then again, today's size-16 woman may not believe this is her size: actually, she might not have any idea what size she really is.  As the population has grown heavier, the standard sizes being retailed have stretched their seams and become more generous, and some brands have gone even further and adopted so-called ‘vanity sizing’, whereby they have been sneakily moving their sizes upward, in tune with the waistlines of their customers.  They have capitalised on the fact that virtually all people would prefer to think they are a smaller size rather than a larger one, and that a size label can be used as a subtle tool of flattery.  Indeed, some women will not even think of trying on a garment if it is labelled as larger than the size they relate to.  So, for some brands, what would have been a size-14 in 1960 has unceasingly crept upwards and would fit (an already stretched) size-16 today.



This explains why a 2019 standard size-16 woman (who is already larger than a size-16 lady of the 1960s), often wears a 14.  Such a person, when she takes a selfie in a crowded place, notices that she looks like everyone else in the background: she certainly doesn’t appear to be ‘plus size’, if that's supposed to be larger than everyone else.  She looks ‘average’, she feels ‘normal’, and she relates to being a size-14 – why shouldn’t she be wearing a ‘mainstream’ size?  Her expectations for fashion are not as low as her grandmother's, and she’s wondering why she – an average person (an ‘everywoman ') – is having such difficultly finding something to fit her properly.

But then again, is she really a size-16?  If we examined this particular woman, she is revealed to be a size-14/16 bust, a size-14 waist and a size-18 hip (a ‘pear’ shape).  Her sizing mismatch is entirely normal: very few women have what is called the ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape (one size all over), and that matters a lot more for larger women than it does for smaller ones. This is because as female bodies put on weight, the extra mass is not usually evenly distributed.  Each woman possesses a particular body shape, meaning that, for example, if a woman is destined to wear her extra flesh on her bottom (a typical pear shape), by the time she has grown to a larger size, her derriere will have increased far more than anywhere else on her body.  This is in contrast to her friend who stores her weight on her bust, giving her an extra cup-size or two as she gets bigger, although her bottom stays relatively svelte.  By the time these different body shapes reach the top-end of the sizing scale, their bodies have radically diverged, meaning that they need to wear differently sized apparel on different parts of the body, and – crucially – although they are the same height and weight, they cannot wear the same size clothing as each other.  The busty woman, for example, may end up wearing size-24 tops, whilst still slipping into size-18 or 20 trousers, the exact inverse of her pear-shaped friend. 

It is often mentioned that our population has changed size: the critical fact that it has largely changed shape is rarely referenced; yet this has had the greatest affect on the fit and size requirements of this generation of shoppers.

Some plus-size brands have reacted to this diversity of shape by developing grading to fit a particular version of woman, their ‘muse’.  When consumers find a brand that tailors to their own body shape, this will usually become a firm favourite, while those for whom the fit doesn’t work will often learn the hard way never to order from this range again.

This is not to say that the plus-size sector has made concerted attempts to find out the body shapes of their consumers and match them with a proportionally correct array of diverse gradings.  In fact, it is extremely difficult to gather body data from this cohort (who dislike being analysed and sized) – and it has not yet been achieved anywhere near satisfactorily.  In any case, until the correct fit technology has been developed, targeting a very diverse inventory to the correct sections of the customer base at the point of sale would be impractical.  Many of the brands that have adopted a grading based on a ‘non average’ body shape have just opted for the ‘hourglass’ figure: probably one of the rarest of all the variants, and hardly a breakthrough for fitting ‘everywoman’: it simply replaces one impossible ideal (ultra-slimness) with another (perfect hourglass).  Doubtless this body shape has been singled out because the fashion has embraced the myth of the 'curvy' woman: a sexy uberwoman, who exudes an exaggerated femininity and makes 'body positivity' more palatable for an industry that finds the sight of extra female flesh very difficult to stomach – if it is in the wrong place, such as, for instance, the stomach.

But the variations in cut in larger apparel are not always deliberate.  Occasionally, the plus-size sector suffers with the same trouble that afflicts each sector of fashion: instances of random variability.  Sometimes there are technical problems in the production of garments, meaning that items are cut too small, too large, or a strange shape.  This is exacerbated by the sheer difficulty in correctly grading larger garments. 

When the pattern cutters struggle with those plus-size issues (which is surprisingly common), this also muddies the water with some consumers' understanding of their size.  The person trying on a garment may believe that the size is too small when a pair of trousers is not long enough in the rise, for example, or, if there is no bust darts in a particular blouse, she may conclude that all that loose fabric is evidence that the garment is too large.  She may choose a different size the next time in the mistaken belief that she has learned something about her size.

Retailers have also had to grapple with a greater – internalised – level of plus-sized customers’ own ‘size acceptance’ issues.  The problem of garments being rejected because they are labeled with sizes that consumers find unacceptable or depressing has driven some in the sector to alter their whole system to make it less obvious.  Some have sized their garments S (16–18), M (20–22), L (24–26), and so on; others, L (18), XL (20), XXL (22), XXXL (24), etc. – actually, the permutations of these are mind-boggling and the antithesis of standardization: the actual object being to make the sizing more opaque and anonymous.

A traditional industry response to this 'size resistance' conundrum has nothing to do with sizing or grading, but nevertheless brings a little more confusion into the scene.  For generations, many specialist plus-size designers have resorted to force majeure, and used fabric tech or design to bear on the problem.  Fabrics with extreme stretchy qualities are used to create ‘easy fit’ (‘fits size 16–22’) apparel, or drapy, baggy, or wrap-around styles (‘one size fits all’) creations to offer amorphous sizing.  Women who wear these garments can live in a twilight zone of perpetual ‘size denial’, sometimes losing all track of what size they really are, which can be a problem when they need to buy something else (say, formal workwear for an interview), where their latest sizing requirements come as a source of dissonance. 

So our size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions or missteps.  There may have been logical reasons as to why these diverse systems evolved, but there is none in trying to understand and navigate them: those that are not deliberately opaque are simply too complicated, random or impractical to be helpful – the long forgotten reason why a sizing system was developed in the first place.

Look as hard as he can, my little dog is never going to find the ball if he is seeking it in the wrong place

The key to solving the fit problem that ‘dogs’ e-commerce fashion

Dogs do all sorts of things that humans are far too intelligent to do.  For example, I have a little dog that loves to chase after a ball that I throw, running to fetch it back to me, most of the time.  However, if the ball accidentally lands in a prickly bush, he just stares at it soulfully for a couple of seconds, then sets off cheerfully to search for it elsewhere.  He clearly sees where the ball has ended up, but because it’s somewhere that he doesn’t want to go, his decision about where to look is governed, not by common sense, but by wishful thinking.  That’s not something a human would ever do, surely? 

How does this shaggy dog story help to illustrate one of fashion’s biggest problems?  E-commerce fashion companies want to send out garments that are correctly sized so as to avoid the main reason for customers to sent them back: poor fit.  The problem is a huge one; returns rates range from some twenty per cent in ‘mainstream’ sized fashion, up to an eye-watering seventy per cent in the more problematic plus-size sector.  Clearly, this rate is unsustainable.  There are millions – possibly billions – of dollars ultimately to be saved (and made) in dealing with the issue of finding a reliable way to make sure apparel fits e-commerce customers.



One way of preventing all these returns is with fit tools.  Some e-tailers rely on the time-honoured system of offering customers a ‘size chart’ of clothing measurements with which, should he or she have access to a measuring tape, a customer can compare his or her body metrics.  Clearly, this method, which actually employs nineteenth Century technology (and which bristles with all sorts of problems), does not do the job very effectively.  Elsewhere, e-commerce has adopted more up-to-date tech of varying degrees of sophistication (but none with perfect success), and all eyes are now on the IT industry to see if they can come up with a solution that will carry all before it.

There is a varied field of fit innovations jostling for dominance.  Some rely on scanning or clever mobile phone camera developments, whilst others are still based on consumers being asked to input various body measurements or sizes.  The tech business appears to be doing its best to find the remedy for badly fitting apparel – by looking in the places that it wants to look.  As befits the activity of very clever technically minded people, the emphasis is being laid firmly on developing a lot of very clever technology.  Thus IT will – if it continues to develop at the rate it is going – be extremely effective in establishing a good fit between the spec for a piece of apparel on the one hand, and body data from the customer on the other.

Hereby lies the nub of the problem: data.  At present, some, but not yet all, manufacturers supply the comprehensive level of garment information necessary for these fit tools to feed on.  Some businesses feel that they don’t really need to go to the bother of providing the spec, and worse, some act as if their garments' measurements, grading, construction and fabric details should be some kind of industrial secret.  However, these out-dated attitudes will soon be swept away.  In a very short time brands that expect their apparel to be sold online will automatically produce data packs that will enable their product to do just that.   The tech developers will then swoop down on this kind of information, as it tends to be clean, accurate and clear.

But how do we provide the other half of the equation: the information from consumers?
  Will this be clean, accurate and clear?  Every fit tech system relies on accurate customer metrics, be they measurements, scans, and/or stated or unconscious preferences (and repeatedly re-obtaining them, as measurements change on a regular basis during a customer’s lifetime, whilst preferences can change over the course of a trend).   Surely, it is therefore to be expected that, first and foremost, all the tools being developed are focused on obtaining customer cooperation, motivating their actions and gaining their trust, as well as the biggest issue of all: reflecting their will. 

Customers (also known as human beings) can be difficult, apparently illogical, contrary, seemingly unpredictable, variable, and wilful.  They have every right to be any or all of these things, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are going to change just because they wish to buy a shirt, regardless of how well fitting it is (or how lovely the print). 

Obtaining their data in a predictable form promises to be a rather prickly undertaking. Many of those who are presently tasked with developing the tech to serve these people (because the ultimate client will not be the retailer, but the consumer), are relying on some somewhat shaky assumptions.

Take, for example, those who in the UK and US make up about half of all womenswear consumers: plus size women.  It is often taken for granted that this cohort, due to their severe fit problem, will be only too happy to provide all sorts of information.  The majority of fit tools ask for height, weight, bust (or bra size), waist and hip measurements, among other metrics.  But there is no evidence that this cohort finds it anywhere near as easy to provide these figures as those who design fit tools assume.

Many larger people, living, as they do, in a judgemental society that sees ‘overweight’ almost as the worst sin, are extremely sensitive about their bodies. They are often unwilling to go through the process of measuring themselves, do not possess the equipment to do so (many bigger people do not own a weighing machine, for example), dislike knowing their metrics (and avoid doing so at all costs), hate reporting them, get disheartened when they change 'detrimentally', and are very worried about having their measurements accidentally revealed in some way. 

So it is likely that the majority of larger people will avoid situations where their measurements can be taken, and, when they have do have access to their data, will immediately contaminate it.  The idea that every plus-size woman will happily go through a thorough physical revelatory experience (even in the privacy of her own home) in order to obtain better fitting apparel is an exercise in wishful thinking – and one not based on any study I have seen.

With the billions of people on the planet, it is all too easy to undertake an online survey of plus-size women and find many who are happy to supply their measurements.  Some of these will be perfectly accurate – and will be supplied by an assiduously self-selected group of un-selfconscious women.  Other measurements gained the same way will be inaccurate due to the contamination process outlined above: however, in the midst of the Internet, it is very difficult to understand which data is correct, and which is corrupted.

Nor can it be automatically assumed that the scanning tech as it exists today will fare any better: such devices can trigger all the sensitivity to self-revelation that exists with a measuring tape – occasionally more.  Another assumption – that the consumer's emotions will change to adapt to this new system – has got a lot more going for it.  Based on past evidence, consumer behaviour alters all the time, and each generation has its own attitudes.  However, predicting that the next generation will grow-up devoid of sensitivity about their bodies (and, even less likely, predicting that those who are already in the customer cohort will suddenly change) is quite a stretch, and based on no available evidence.

In order to understand each technology’s exposure to the problem at hand, every fit tool should have self-monitoring element, carefully picking up data as to whether consumers are providing correct or incorrect information, if they are being deterred by questions as to their size, and the chances of whether they will accept the tool’s findings or not.  And every tech specialist working in this field should be diligently concentrating on improving the vital subject that has such a profound effect on the efficacy of their tool: that of customer participation.

It is important not to spend time and resources developing tech that requires consistent data from a consumer who is simply not prepared to provide it with any degree of accuracy. The perfect fit tool, not only for the plus-size woman, but also for all fashion consumers, would be non-revelatory, unconscious continuous monitoring of body data.  The tech, working with the consumer’s full knowledge and permission (but with only passive participation and minimal personal input with no revelatory feedback) needs to absorb the consumer’s needs without intruding on his or her sensibility. 

It is rewarding to use expertise to chase down complicated and clever solutions; to produce feats of technical virtuosity.  However, it is always best to be realistic from the start, and, if ultimate success can only be hoped for by looking into more prickly, difficult, unsexy and unpredictable areas – to step well out of one’s comfort zone – then this is the course of action that should be taken. The tech industry is going to have to pause, take time to look at what the consumer is prepared to do, and reverse-engineer all their technology to utilise what they will actually have to work with.  They may find they have to develop a different approach altogether.

Look as hard as he can, my little dog is never going to find the ball if he is seeking it in the wrong place: he’s going to be disappointed, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to alter that.

Larger women are spending less than half as much as expected on their clothing

Plus-size fashion: the new Gold Rush?

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

In today's guest post, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and founder of At Last, explores the many issues around today's 'plus size' market, and what we can do to better this. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



In the UK we are often told that the average woman is size-16 (a difficult fact to prove, lthough it's known that larger women make up around half the population), yet the percentage spend in the plus-size fashion sector lags at around 22%.  So it looks like larger women are spending less than half of what they might be expected to do.

There is no consensus as to what constitutes the size range for 'plus-size', but it's clear there is a dearth of choice of apparel offered from size-16 upwards.  In Britain, premium brands like Marina Rinaldi and fashion-forward Anna Scholz, stand among the few honourable exceptions to the rule that there is no top-end in plus-size fashion.  Mid-pocket fashion fares little better: European e-tailer, Navabi, is one of the few that can use the words 'quality' or 'design' about plus-size without hyperbole.   The vast majority of British apparel in this size range rests firmly in the non-designer, value sector.

The same applies in the US, where a few brave brands have created fashion-forward outposts in a largely underwhelming landscape.  Most American women are forced into the same, fairly narrow price-point as their UK counterparts, having to put up with a similar lack of design creativity.  In both markets the vast majority of plus-size apparel is made from stretchy, cheaper fabrics, modified for a non-specific fit. It's shocking to find that tracking down a classy, well-made and functional business suit that fits a size-24, for example, is a big ask for these women – regardless of the fact that there are businesswomen aplenty who are asking for just that.  Fashion's disappointing offering to one half of the female population means it would be easy to fit a list of all of the main plus-size players in this one article, yet would be difficult even to calculate the length of such a list of 'mainstream' sized brands.

The logic is clear: arguably 50% of the population is not being offered anything like a satisfactory breadth of choice on which to spend their money.  Admittedly, this market is projected to grow an extremely healthy 7.1% in the next few years, yet even at this rate it is unlikely ever to catch up.

The logic is clear: arguably 50% of the population is not being offered anything like a satisfactory breadth of choice

It doesn't take a long time browsing through 'size acceptance' social media to get the feeling that plus-size womenswear consumers are not happy.  On one hand, they've noticed that they are being offered nothing like the choice of the fashion-forward looks they aspire to, and, on the other, these women also make persistent complaints about ill-fitting clothing.   It does appear that this cohort is suffering from considerably worse grading problems than their 'mainstream' sized equivalents.

Thus resonates the persistent drumbeat of bad news about the fit-related returns that are plaguing this sector.  Brands can be very secretive about their failures, but there are dark places in plus-size e-commerce where returns rates of up to 70% (far worse than the already abysmal returns rate of 'mainstream' sizes) are whispered about, the lion's share of which is reported to be due to 'fit problems'.

All in all, something is very wrong in the state of plus-size.

Could fit be at the root of all plus-size fashion's woes?
The answer to this question is that it would appear so.  Women come in a range of bodyshapes.   To name a few: 'apple', 'pear' and 'busty' (men's physiques are less diverse).  Among slimmer women these various types are often evident, but it is in the plus-size cohort that they become really exaggerated.  Put simply, each female body stores its weight in a particular pattern (it's fairly rare to have it spread evenly all over), meaning that, as a woman puts on weight, whichever part of her physique was comparatively large to begin with, continues to grow, while other areas become proportionally smaller, exaggerating the shape.  Therefore, the larger a women becomes, the more likely she is not able to squeeze into apparel that is made for her size, but not her shape.

The fashion industry has largely soldiered on trying to ignore this inconvenient fact.  Sending out apparel in standard grading and sizing to a market that is anything but standard is like throwing mud against a wall and hoping it will stick.  The resultant slurry of returns is clogging up the industry.

The chronic fit problem particularly plagues e-commerce, because it doesn't presently offer consumers the opportunity to try garments on prior to buying them.  This has meant the industry has been forced to ignore designer, tailored, fashion-forward and expensive clothing, or anything else that relies on a very specific fit, which would probably stand no more than a one-in-six chance of hitting the mark.  Faced with the tidal wave of returns, most of this sector has had to wriggle its way right down to the bottom of the price, variety and quality scale, so much of the offer comprises 'easy-fit', cheaper, predictable garments.

The result of the fit problem spreads out like an oil spill, polluting the whole scene: the plus-size fashion industry's margins are damaged, it's even more ecologically unsustainable than the rest of the fashion industry, lacking in maturity, lacklustre and suffering from galloping customer dissatisfaction.

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think

Yet those with imagination look at a stunted industry and see only a huge, exciting opportunity, with billions just waiting to be disgorged by digital disruption.  Apparel businesses are still using sizing systems that were developed for last century's technology. With present-day advancements, so-called online 'fit tools' will soon be capable of identifying a consumer's individual bodyshape and match it with the corresponding apparel.  It's like California just before the first prospector struck gold.

A radical re-think
The requisite garments are not yet in fashion's inventory: clothing will have to be graded specifically for an individual's body shape, dictated by a feedback loop of data gleaned from a large enough sample of consumers just like her, using those same fit tools.  Apparel will be manufactured in a series of differing, niche shapes (mass, rather than individual customisation) in shorter runs using advanced digital systems at every stage.

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think; it has to be far more comprehensive to take into account the wide range of consumers' diverse metrics.  The consumer will be largely unaware of her new clothing size, which will be applied to her automatically using AI technology working intuitively, immediately, confidentially and non-intrusively.  All she will know is that she is ordering a piece of clothing that will fit her.

If this sounds seductively easy, it shouldn't: is very complicated, and as with all such situations the trick will be to simplify it as much as possible from the start.  The industry will initially use judgement and subtle customer knowledge to cluster the metrics into meaningful groups.   There will be a trial and error period at the beginning where the data (which has never been so widely mined for this cohort, or any other) is gathered and analysed.  This process has the added complication that a woman's bodyshape dictates more than just the metrics of her apparel; working along with her own taste, it has fit and style preference implications, too.  However, understanding these aspects just represents yet another way of better serving the consumer.

And this is just the beginning.  The bodyshape data will ultimately be used to create better-fitting apparel for people in all sizes and shapes (the slimmer cohort will also end-up getting a better fit), and achieve a more equal, diverse clothing offer to everyone, whether they are minority groups, fitness junkies, disabled people or have otherwise outlier bodyshapes.  It will allow the development of curated apparel offers, enabling brands to benefit from increased sell-through, and individual customisation for specific purposes (say, bridal wear, occasional or, indeed, that smart work suiting). It will slash fashion's shameful carbon footprint and boost the bottom line.   It will market all aspects of the fashion industry (from top luxe at one end, to budget fast fashion at the other, and everything in between) to the neglected half of the female population.  This will open up billions of dollars in increased commerce.

The first step is the development of the fit tools and associated input technology (like handheld scanning, for example, as relying on customers' willingness and ability to input their own measurements will not be scalable).  It will not be an immediate process, and the fashion and tech industries have to come together to dig-in for a long haul, being prepared to invest time as well as resources. Researching, acquiring, partnering and developing these advances should be the number-one priority for those fashion brands that do not want to be left behind by the next great leap forward in digital technology.

When it comes to fit, the most challenging sector of fashion ecommerce is plus-size womenswear...

Fashion's imaginary consumers

The fashion industry risks creating an inventory – and a set of fit tools – designed for a largely imaginary consumer base.  If this sounds unlikely, it’s worth remembering that it is something that has happened before.

Fashion e-commerce is suffering from an unsustainable returns habit that damages profitability, ruins customer loyalty, upsets shoppers, is wasteful and extremely damaging to the environment.  The majority of these returns are reported to be due to ‘fit issues’.  It’s a no-brainer that the industry needs to find a way to send out clothing that can be relied upon to fit its consumers.



One flank of the battle is for the fashion industry to ensure that the apparel being manufactured is ‘fit’ for purpose.  To do so, it’s necessary to understand exactly what clothing sizing and gradings should be produced in order to reflect society and satisfy demand.  This will entail a study of one of the most complex entities in the universe: the human consumer, both body and brain.  Due to the considerable variability of the population, it is going to result in a much broader range of sizing offers than has been produced up to this point.

The battle’s other flank involves tech companies developing the tools that solve the myriad technical issues involved in targeting customers with suitably sized and graded garments, a task made more difficult when involving the more comprehensive range of apparel that will be on offer.  For this to be achieved, it’s necessary not only to match the level of population metrics expertise of their fashion colleagues, but also to acquire their thorough technical knowledge about all garments being retailed – the matrix of measurements, fabric characteristics, relevant construction specs, usage information and designer preferences. 

When it comes to fit, the most challenging sector of fashion e-commerce is plus-size womenswear, which is what I will be addressing in this post.  Here, the rates of return can be swingeing: much higher even than in ‘mainstream’ fashion.

The legacy of plus-size fashion’s sizing (and the root cause of its inflated fit problem) is that the grading has been ‘extrapolated up’ from 'mainstream' sized women, where historically, sizing research tended to originate.  The idea that curve women are simply larger versions of smaller women may be true to a certain extent, but this is far too reductive: these larger consumers have much more exaggerated body shapes than their smaller equivalents, so, where they have been graded on a false premise of conformity, it's all too easy for garments to completely miss the essential fit points.  It would actually be more informative to create a range of diverse cuts based on the physiques of larger women, and shrink these down to their smaller counterparts, who would, in all likelihood, be delighted with the subsequent advances in the fit of their garments.

Historically, the plus cohort has been underserved by the clothing industry, of which this lack of specific research is an example.   It was long assumed that larger people are not as valuable to fashion commerce as their ‘mainstream’ counterparts, partly as they have traditionally averaged a lower spend, but also because their association with a brand was considered negatively.  Putting it bluntly, many companies did not like the aesthetics associated with larger people. 

With the growth in the proportion of fuller sized individuals in the population, both these considerations are fading away: the younger generation no longer balks at seeing brand ambassadors who vary from the traditional models’ slender bodyshape, whilst it has come more widely accepted that any shortfall in the spend associated with plus-size women is caused primarily by the poorer offer available to them – which actually represents an opportunity for forward-looking companies. 

Now that these reservations are being removed, in order to develop this sector to its full potential, the industry will need to reduce fashion returns significantly, necessitating a specific and comprehensive study of female bodies – from the smallest to the largest – in the kind of depth that has never been achieved or attempted before.

There are two general methods of collecting consumer body metrics: those undertaken by professionals, and consumers' self-reporting.  Some enquiries have involved experts who have reached out into the population to weigh, measure, scan, take surveys and live-test volunteers.  In others, subjects have been asked to either measure themselves, fill out surveys – or allow their bodies to be scanned in some way.  We already know that far fewer plus-size women are willing to participate in such studies, yet we are relying on this work because we will not gain a complete understanding of the customer base without it.  Is there a particular group of larger women that is more likely to step forward to provide data?  Is this going to have an effect on the quality of the information collected?

When designing anything for larger people (be it tech or clothing), it is advisable to think about people holistically, and consider, not just their physiques, but also their preferences, personalities, emotions, experiences and thinking.  This is particularly relevant to the prickly subject of how to go about finding a realistic plus-size sample of the population to study.  Many larger people (with good reason) are resistant to having their bodies categorised, scanned, analysed, measured or observed. Putting aside the differences brought about by the vagaries of personality types (which varies across all women of every size and body shape), there are particular reasons why the body confidence of certain groups of larger women is more resilient than others. 

A clue can be seen when observing the shapes of larger women who are happy to exhibit themselves, and compare them to the rest of the population (who largely don’t).  ‘Curve’ fashion models are women who make a living out of the fact that they (and society) find their bodies aesthetically pleasing, and these women usually tend to have certain features in common.  They are young, with a balanced physique, tall with smooth lines, and usually have either ‘perfectly proportioned’ or ‘hourglass’ body shapes.  They usually tend to share a European physical type.  These women are not at all representative of the plus-size population as a whole.

Larger women come in a range of highly distinct body shapes, the rarest types being the 'perfectly proportioned' and 'hourglass'.  This should come as no surprise to anyone: we don't really expect models to represent an ‘average’ woman.  What may come as a shock to the uninitiated is how resistant most plus-size women (who do not share this ‘aspirational’ shape: indeed, they vary from it considerably) are to being accurately measured.  When calling on the population to volunteer body metrics, it is necessary to be extremely careful not to end-up with a highly self-selected, un-representational sample.

It could be that a survey of plus-size consumers finds that 90% of them have hourglass or well-proportioned body shapes, when in fact, only 10% of the general population shares this profile. 

If this happens, the industry will be creating a fashion inventory – and a set of fit tools – for a largely imaginary consumer base.  Leaving it in exactly the same highly unsatisfactory situation as it is now, in fact.

There is evidence, possibly because they vary from the ideal to a more exaggerated degree than their smaller equivalents, that those who are not ‘conventionally attractive’ or 'balanced', physically, are far less likely to come forward to be tested by a professional, nor can they be expected to enter correct measurements into any fit system, even in the privacy of their own homes.  They may be slow to volunteer to be scanned, and extremely reluctant to want to know their own metrics.  They are likely to be very concerned about privacy, and many of them will not even possess the tools (a tape measure, or a weighing machine) with which to gather their data, choosing to enter invented measurements if pushed.

If developers are not careful, this is a situation that may be carried forward into the new generation of e-commerce retail fit tools and scanning devices, causing a diminution of effectiveness.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Forewarned is forearmed, and, with anticipation of these issues, strategies can – and will – be put in place to collect an accurate, representative sample of fashion consumers, and the development of effective fit tools.  In order to do this, it is necessary to abandon the wishful thinking, the 'common sense' (that is not backed-up by empirical knowledge), the prejudice, myths, or the incorrect extrapolation that has plagued the plus-size fashion sector for too long.

Most of all, we should see the end to imaginary plus-size, standardised female consumers, and replace them with the rich diversity of real women.

We can only solve the issue of apparel fit by rising above simply thinking of it as returns problem

Apparel fit and inclusivity

With consumer apparel purchasing increasingly moving online, the subject of apparel fit is at the heart of fashion e-commerce.  In this article, four industry insiders come together to merge their differing viewpoints: 

Mark Chalton:

‘Diversity inclusion’ is a term used frequently by corporations intending to ensure everyone has a voice and that there is equal representation of gender, race, religion and other human variations. Equally important is diversity of thought.



So how does this concept relate to the fit of apparel?

Each week brings fresh potential technical solutions to bear on the current apparel fit problem.  This is a Good Thing, as the tech geniuses are recognising fit as an area where technology can offer a significant contribution.

It’s our opinion that most of these advances are instigated and developed within the somewhat rarefied environment of the tech industry – employing one very specific way of thinking.  We note – not as a criticism, but as an observation – that there is an opportunity to redress any imbalance of reasoning by introducing some art into the science.

This observation is not a novel one: for example, it is supported in principle by The Medici Effect (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), which explores why the most powerful innovation happens at the intersection where ideas and concepts from diverse industries and disciplines collide.

Apparel fit is part art/emotion and part science/tech
Think about the last time you purchased a garment that fitted amazingly... how did it make you feel?  Apparel fit speaks to, and stimulates, the senses.  It creates an emotional connection greater than the sum of its parts: much more than mere body dimensions and garment measurements.

So what’s raising the age-old problem of apparel fit among the tech solutionists?

E-commerce apparel return rates are eroding brands’ and retailers’ margins and profitability.  As e-commerce continues to grow, this erosion can no longer be sustained... or masked.

But as a consumer, what do I care?  If I don’t know what size I am, know for certain that I will like a certain product, or that it will suit me, I have the option to order it anyway – perhaps in multiple sizes – hoping to figure out for myself whether it will work.

We all know that so-called ‘free shipping’ and ‘free returns’ are, of course, nothing of the kind.  It’s these delivery costs, coupled with the task of processing returned products back into inventory, and attempting to balance stocks when over half of demand is returned, that are causing margin erosion and higher prices to the consumer.

Reasons for high returns
Apparel e-commerce return rates on average hover around the 50% mark –  70% of which are attributed to poor fit.  It’s a cliché, but for such a tiny word, ‘fit’ is a very complex process!

To put it in a nutshell, ‘fit’ is where individual consumers’ body measurements meet brands’ sizing and garment specifications; designers’ fit ideas meet consumers’ fit preferences; real-life material properties meet consumers’ fabric expectations; and designers’ styling decisions meet the pace at which consumers are willing to adopt trends. 

Emma Hayes:

Many of us are aware that in future we will be able to take 3D scans of ourselves from our mobile phones or similar devices.  These will generate accurate avatars of our bodies, complete with all our measurements, upon which we will be able to virtually ‘try on’ potential purchases – checking our images on-screen in three dimensions for how good the fit is, and whether the style suits us.

At the time of writing, all over the world, many apps, devices and methods are being developed that are advancing rapidly towards this dream.  For example, there is an app on which you can see a three-dimensional avatar of your body – complete with measurements – after simply taking front and side view photographs on your phone.  Another app allows you to upload pictures, and your virtual-reality self will then try on the clothing of your choice – draping naturalistically.  There is a clever hand-held device that takes your measurements by scanning you.  There are even smart body suits and scanning pods, which offer the promise of the gold standard of human measurement: a perfectly accurate rendition of your entire body in three dimensions. These all exist today at various levels of development.

Such devices are exciting and headline-grabbing, but it’s unlikely that most of the companies selling us apparel online will opt for them quite yet – partly for technical reasons, but also because they need to be integrated into the systems currently employed in the fashion industry.  In the early stages, retail companies will need to ‘grow out’ their operation to merge with the technology – and many changes will be required.

Fit tools are clever online algorithms that work out which sizes of apparel need to be ordered, based on ‘inputs’ – and it is these tools that are making the big inroads right now.  Inputs are various pieces of customer information – weight, height, age, perhaps body measurements, ordering/returns history, and body shape – which the consumer loads into the tool.  In the near future these will also include personal preferences. A vital ingredient of these tools is profound apparel knowledge, allowing them to match the consumer with the optimum garment.

Even at this early stage, this tech is proving to be effective – the best tools boasting a considerable reduction in the number of product returns.  They also have the advantage that they are already doing a lot of the heavy lifting required for the digital transformation of the fashion industry.  This is what is building the infrastructure that will plug into all the extra data that’s collected.

The human angle
However, like all new technologies there are going to be issues surrounding adoption by the public.  Predictably, the tech people may think that the problems are all centred on the technology, but there are considerable social, psychological and emotional difficulties to overcome.  As consumers, we have to learn how to travel around this new technology.

Whatever tools we use, we are asked to take some time gathering – and inputting – information.  But there are problems with asking people to do this, and they fall into two categories... 

The measurement problem
Studies show that our measurements are in a state of constant flux, so measuring will not be a one-off activity.  We are being asked to continually monitor our measurements and weight – possibly on a monthly basis – regardless of whether we use a tape measure or scanning device.

There are confidentiality issues to think about. If we are not going to have to keep repeating ourselves with every company we buy from, we will have to develop methods whereby our information can be shared between various organisations.

Our experience is that people only substantially change their behaviour and attitudes when there is something in it for them, and that something often has to be more important to them than a new pair of jeans – even if they fit beautifully.

The phrase 'conform to new habits' fills consumer experts with a mixture of dread and concern.  Can we consumers really be expected to be 'educated' into new habits?  In our leisure time (and shopping is supposed to be that) most of us want to undertake enjoyable activities with an instant reward, rather than toiling through worthy chores in the hope that something better will come along later. 

We need to create usable, enjoyable tech that will draw everyone in from the inception; ideally, fun tech that we don’t even notice we are using.

The revelation problem
The second problem is revelation.  Many people don’t know, don’t want to know, don’t believe and/or would never tell you their accurate measurements. 

We need tech that is 'unconscious': having given our permission for the data to be collected, we should have the right not to have to have any interface with our body metrics unless we choose to do so. 

Jessica Couch:

The future of fit technology
Fit is becoming a buzzword and everyone has an answer to the online returns problem, but the best solutions have two qualities:

1.   Ease of use – How simple and convenient the solution is: mobile phones vs. specialist devices for example?
2.   Ease of integration – How easy it is for brands to integrate the technology into their current systems?

The best technologies do not try to train users to have habits that are not simple or natural.  They allow end-users easily to add technology into their everyday lives. Accuracy is key, and the less effort required the better.

Neither do the best technologies try to do everything.  Instead they connect to existing technologies and enhance outcomes.

Many smaller brands find it difficult to integrate fit technology because their current 'solutions' are unable to connect to other solutions, and buying an entire suite of IT products is not an affordable option.

Expensive, rigid technologies are out.  The best technologies are those which integrate easily with existing platforms and create more efficiency.  Because tech has not existed in fashion in the past, many departments are siloed and are not properly integrated for it.  Great technology companies have to take this fact into consideration before they can succeed.

How fit is your competitive advantage?
Fit and fit technology are customer experience tools – A lot of brands believe that implementing more lenient return policies can somehow impact the quantity of returns.  In our view this is similar to putting a Band-Aid® on a gash... it simply doesn’t treat the real issue of customer expectation. 

According to an article on online apparel returns myths:
  • Most returns are made by one-time buyers.
  • Good returns policies do not affect sales.
  • Most shoppers don't think about returns before buying.
  • Most people are not concerned with free return shipping.
  • Bad returns policies don't affect sales, and a returns policy won't impact  future sales.

By the time a customer has had to return an item, you have lost them for future opportunities.  Customer expectations must be met and returns avoided. This can be done through building confidence with consumers, whether in-store or online, and helping them understand what to expect in regard to fit.

Fit and fit technology are loss management tools – Implementing fit technology helps to increase consumer confidence in products. $62.4 billion worth of apparel and footwear is returned every year due to incorrect fit. That works out to about 57% of footwear and 64% of apparel purchases, according to a recent Footwear News study.  The same study found that if fit were not a concern, 51% of respondents would purchase footwear more often, both online and in-store, while 58% would purchase clothing more frequently.

Excellent communication around fit is important because it helps build confidence with the shopper – increasing sales and generating fewer returns.  Implementing fit technology tools that create directive shopping experiences and manage expectations can help to reduce the amount of unsold inventory.

Fit can help reduce fashion’s carbon footprint – A recent op-ed piece published in The Business of Fashion revealed that dead inventory (unsold clothing) costs the US retail industry $50 billion a year.  Although brands may be able to absorb some of these costs through write-offs on the balance sheet, the environment (through landfills, toxin pollution, etc.) cannot.

Newsweek published an article stating that Americans alone produced 15.1 million tons of textile waste in 2013 and around 85% of that ended-up in landfill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fit technology allows brands to create better-fitting clothing for shoppers, and helps to match them to their products – so clothing is not created unnecessarily, quickly ending up in landfill.  Although changing the shopping habits of consumers is a difficult task, brands have to take more responsibility for their impact on the environment.  Implementing fit technology can help to fix fashion’s misaligned supply and demand issues.

Fit is inclusive: more people shopping equals more money – In a survey conducted by Fung Global Research, some 72% of respondents did not believe that fashion designers create their designs with the average American woman in mind.

Approximately 78% of people would be willing to spend more money on clothing if more designers offered plus-size options.  Some 68% are interested in participating in fashion trends, but 67% feel that there are not as many fashionable clothing options available in their size as they would like. This isn't just a plus-size issue.

According to a Business Insider report on petite people, over 70 million US women fall into the 'special' size category, and 50% of the population is under 5' 4" tall, but brands' size offerings do not reflect this.  In addition to these categories, there are also tall women, big and tall men, petite men, and people with physical handicaps that are also opportunities for brands to target.

Richard Irons:

Fit tool desired output
When thinking about creating a fit tool, firstly it’s necessary to think about what is needed from that tool.  For instance, whilst producing a custom-made dress, a pattern with all the correct measurements will be required from the outset. 

However, in this piece we’re not talking about bespoke garments, but clothes that are already manufactured, and are available in a finite number of sizes.

Best size
When shopping in a store for clothes, most consumers who are not sure what size to pick opt to try them on – and when a size doesn’t fit correctly they may examine different sizes until either finding a good fit, or deciding that none of the available options is suitable.  It’s this process that we want to duplicate in a fit tool – essentially the algorithm 'tries on' every available size on a body, selects the best size for that body, or concludes that none of the sizes are any good. 

So really what is being asked from a tool is 'best size, if any'.

Ideal garment measurements
In future, if manufacturing processes change so that fit plays a greater part, we may want the tool to provide us with a list of 'ideal' measurements for a garment.  This could, for example, be used as input into some sort of electronic manufacturing system that makes every garment to order. 

But perhaps this is jumping ahead.

Required inputs
In order to get the best results from a tool it needs consumer information to work with. To return to the analogy of trying clothes on in a shop, there are two things involved: a body and a garment. A tool needs information about both.

Clearly, a fit tool needs the body-in-question’s measurements, and the most obvious way of obtaining them would simply be to measure with a tape, the way a tailor would. This is actually the best way to get accurate metrics, if it were a professional who was undertaking the measuring. However, for a customer at home, it’s not a great system. Firstly, the subject needs to possess a tape measure, and secondly, they need to be willing to stop in the middle of shopping in order to take measurements.

These issues are problematical in themselves, but worse, the majority of people don’t know the correct measuring method, so will ultimately supply inaccurate metrics. And if the data is inaccurate, there’s no way the tool can give a good result.

AI method – 'pertinent questions'
An easier and more reliable way to get the information needed is to ask the customer some pertinent questions – age, weight, height – simple information that people already know about themselves. Once it has this information, the tool can use a neural net, armed with a great deal of knowledge that has been previously collected, to deduce that user’s measurements surprisingly well. This method is usually significantly more accurate than asking consumers to measure themselves.

Garment info
The information that is required about a garment is a little more complicated. It’s not enough to simply know the physical dimensions (although these are necessary), since other considerations, such as how closely the garment is meant to fit at certain points, and how stretchy the material is, must be taken into account.

The easiest place to get this information is from the manufacturer. All the details about the apparel’s dimensions, the fabric’s 'handle', and the design’s 'preferred fit', are known to them, because this information is needed for the manufacture of the garment.  However, sometimes the retailer doesn’t have a direct relationship with the manufacturer and won’t have access to that information.

Without these details, it’s necessary to use one of a number of methods. The most accurate would be for a garment technologist to acquire the apparel in each size and undertake accurate measurements, using their expertise, along with product photography to judge the preferred fit.  However, with a large number of products, this approach becomes prohibitively expensive. Other available methods include generic size charts, information from similar garments, and artificial-intelligence inference from product descriptions and photography.

Ideal future
Manufacturers who want to make sure that an accurate fit could be calculated for all their products would be best advised to make all the measurements and design information easily and freely accessible. 

If this became an industry norm, customers would find obtaining a good fit much easier, and the level of expectation and competition would ultimately cause manufacturers to raise their game with regards to fit.

Checks
To make sure a tool is reliable, developers need to check that the results make sense. There are certain ways to do this.

One simple method is for a specialist to test tools by entering lots of different measurements and then see if the recommended size 'looks right'.  Of course, this method can be subjective and inaccurate, as, for example, it depends on the manufacturer’s idea of 'size 10' broadly agreeing with the technologist’s.

More accurate testing can be done, albeit more expensively, by buying garments in the recommended sizes for many people of different shapes and sizes, and judging the fit when trying them on. Information from this process can then be fed back into the tool to improve its accuracy.

In conclusion... Mark Charlton:
The diversity that exists across the human race meshes with the complexity of each fashion brand's design aims, layered to the multiplicity of fabric properties and fit preferences, both of designers and consumers. These issues create a mind-bogglingly intricate problem of achieving the perfect fit.

But this is only part of the challenge: for example, optimal fit can also differ across POMs (points of measurement). An instance of this would be where stretch jeans would require greater elasticity in some areas than in others, so that there is flexibility on the hips, but a snug fit on the waist: a combination of variable body shape, but also of preference.

No individual company, however great their resources, can solve the fit question in isolation: one brand can hope (at best) to supply a solution for their own apparel – which only represents a fraction of their consumer’s overall fit needs. 

We need the vision to collaborate with fit solutions across the entire fashion industry, whilst still competing in this space.  A necessary step towards this is to understand that we must solve the issue of apparel fit by rising above simply thinking of it as returns problem.  It is far more important than that.

Trapped inside their glass towers, the big fashion decision-makers indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently, returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’.  Image courtesy of Josh Calabrese https:/unsplash.com/@joshcala

Apparel fit: big fashion and the glass wall

Large companies are not all the same. Take the big fashion retail brands, for example. It might be expected that there would be a high degree of industry-wide conformity, given that the overall activities of different companies are basically the same.  Large e-commerce apparel businesses all either buy or manufacture clothing, which they then market to the public – but nevertheless there are wide areas upon which they diverge. Fast/low price-point fashion contrasts widely with classic/luxury wear, for example, and there are an infinite number of other vivid combinations of apparel genres that combine to create a massively varied, vibrant and exciting industry.

All this ‘difference’ adds up to a sector with a great many players who revel in their diverse approaches – and not just about what they stock and how it is made.  Because the fashion industry’s very beauty lies in its originality and variation, some brands have created a culture which makes a fetish of singularity, that, when taken too far, can be detrimental to the bottom line. 



Take my specialist subject, fit, for example.  I'm not talking about the characteristic differences in grading between brands – I'm speaking about the process of fitting each brand's own customer base. This is something that should be of ubiquitous interest, due to the truly horrendous returns problem that is slicing away at margins throughout the fashion industry.  Product returns can run at between 20–40% for mainstream-sized womenswear, rising to a whopping 70% for plus-size female apparel.  Disappointed customers report that most of these returns are ‘fit-related’

The implications of the online fashion industry’s returns problem now are truly horrendous: the ripples of cost from a single garment return spread out like a toxic spill in every direction – from credit card charges, to picking, packaging, consignment, carriage, loss of customer loyalty, disruption to the inventory and tainted and/or wasted stock. It’s clear that this is an expensive, detrimental, ecologically damaging process that should be avoided if at all possible.  Yet, with the growth of the proportion of consumers who choose to buy online (and of those who are plus-size) it is growing year-on-year.

In the pre-internet era most ‘mail order’ fashion retail companies simply offered their consumers a size chart.  A customer was expected to take a measuring tape, expertly deploy it on a series of areas of the body, and then check their measurements against the chart, so as to judge for herself which size she should order.  This was the legacy system of the fashion industry at the beginning of the online shopping era.

I could write an entire piece on the failure of this method, beginning with the not unimportant fact that less than 10% of the population have measurements that can in any way be shoehorned into the proportions assumed by these charts.  However, as it is not the subject of this article, I shall make just this observation: this system does not work, it has never worked, and it will not work in the future.  Indeed, the proof is there for all to see: the continued use of this legacy 'method' (and the thinking behind it) is largely to blame for the high level of returns that we are seeing today.

I’ve worked with a number of companies (and looked at many others) that are developing the new generation of sophisticated fit tools, which generally perform two functions.  They identify the sizing and shape of individuals with better accuracy, and they use that information both to assist consumers to obtain the correctly fitting apparel, and to feed back large quantities of precious customer metric data to brands, allowing them to create stock better suited to demand.

All of the IT e-commerce fit tools that I have seen have offered a significant reduction in returns. They are extremely cost-effective, so with the plethora of IT fit solutions for fashion e-commerce now emerging, we should be seeing a stampede from the large retailers... each busily transforming their systems to stem the tide of unnecessary returns. We should also be witnessing the tech companies seeing their client lists growing exponentially. 

However, as with everything in fashion, the picture is mystifyingly varied, and there are a wide range of approaches in play.  Finding out how each apparel 'e-tailer' addresses the subject of fit is the easiest thing in the world.  Simply click on a given fashion website and see.  Extraordinarily, there is a significant proportion of websites that still employ technology whose principles haven’t changed substantially since the middle of the last century – having dragged those old size charts on to their websites. A few have high-end fit tools created by the best minds in the field, and some seem to have produced their own in-house systems.  Because the genius of the apparel industry tends to be in fashion, rather than IT, many, if not most of the latter, are lacklustre, crude and basic. So what is going on?

It’s easy to see why company officers have to screen those who have access to them.  If a director of a major retailer read every email trying to interest her in a new service, she would never have any time to do anything else.  If she allowed cold-callers from all those promising her profitable new innovations, she would be driven mad within a day.  And if she agreed to meet with everyone who was trying to talk her into an offer she couldn’t refuse, she would instantaneously fill her calendar with enough meetings for the remainder of her career.  Top company directors get remorselessly pestered, and they have to build a carapace around their world, so it’s easy to understand why they are not easily accessible to the men and women in shiny suits trying to sell sparkly new technological ideas to them. 

When I talk to companies who create IT fit tools, the most pressing subject on their mind is recruiting new clients – particularly among the bigger brands.  It seems that even the best of them are finding that they cannot break through the plate-glass windows that protect the big fashion decision-makers from unwanted contact. The chatter is that those businesses that don’t have fit tools have failed to get them because they don’t really know how effective they are.  Trapped inside their glass towers, they indulge in a counsel of despair: apparently returns (like death and taxes) are just a ‘fact of e-commerce life’, and nothing can be done to avoid them.  Put simply, there is disconnect between many big fashion brands and the IT industry.  Those trying to sell fit tools are having trouble getting a foot in the door.

This situation is a miserable one: on one hand we have fashion retail, where many large companies are suffering from a horrendous returns problem, and on the other we have a tech industry that has already achieved substantial advances, but which needs enough clients to make every further solution financially viable.  It’s a chicken and egg situation: the fit tools will ultimately prove to be the instigator of transformation in the fashion industry, yet they need to be taken-up in greater numbers in order to facilitate progress. The money people who are backing the IT start-ups in this field are getting impatient.

Where fashion companies are privately owned any reluctance of the board to bring in outside tech expertise could be argued to be no-one else’s business than their own.  However, for a publicly quoted fashion brand to neglect to equip its website with a cutting-edge fit tool that is going to substantially improve the bottom line, is a dereliction of duty. To see a major brand with a sizing box in their online store is frankly an embarrassment.

Shareholders could be forgiven if they look on out-dated sizing systems on websites as unacceptable, and evidence of managerial complacency: especially where they are mirrored with a profit-draining returns problem. 

Fashion industry best practice should dictate an informed, pro-active and responsible attitude to returns, centred on cutting-edge IT solutions.

Some readers will be impatient with my thesis, asking when all the other benefits from a better sizing system are going to be mentioned. It's true; we can see a slew of advantages for our diverse population – ranging from better social justice to improved levels of happiness. However, I have written about those rewards before, and will do so again. In this post I am focusing on one thing: money.

All fashion e-commerce decision-makers should be looking to acquire the very best fit tools available as a matter of urgency.  This should become the new industry-wide norm. Shareholders should be clamouring for it, and business analysts should be investigating where and why it is not happening. It will not be costly: rather, the whole point of them is that they will save a lot of money.  Directors who do not have the expertise, time or energy to undertake the search for an appropriate IT fit solution for their business can, for now, outsource the search to independent consultants. In the future, they will be expected to own the brief for themselves.

There really is nothing to lose and much to gain.

Over a half of all women in the US are clothed in dress size 14 or over, yet this sector accounts for less than a fifth of women’s apparel sold

The black hole at the heart of plus-size fashion

I learned at school that the all-powerful law of ‘supply and demand’ meant that where there was consumer desire for something, a market would emerge to satisfy it.  Yet, on the surface at least, this law seems to mean nothing in the business in which I have spent most of my professional life... plus-size fashion.   To this day, over a half of all women in the US are clothed in dress size 14 or over, yet this sector accounts for less than a fifth of women’s apparel sold yearly, and the UK fares no better.

Why should this be?  Social media is pretty clear that it’s all about prejudice.  The fashion industry 'hates' bigger people, and refuses to produce exciting enough clothing for them to want to buy.  However, nothing happens without a reason – and that particular one simply doesn’t hold water.



I’m not going to deal with sizeism.  I’m here to talk from a business point of view, and it’s clear that, where a product is likely to make money, commerce is only too willing to supply that product. Corporate directors – in any industry – do not choose to lose billions of dollars simply to indulge their own peccadilloes, even supposing they had any.

So what’s the real problem distorting the supply/demand process in the plus-size apparel industry?  What is causing the horrendous returns problem that afflicts this sector?  Is there some mysterious black hole at the centre of this market?  And, most importantly, is it something that can be solved?  Do we now have an opportunity to create a new plus-size industry that is far more fit for purpose? 

Let's go back to the pre-internet era, where the problem was already manifested. Back in the days where the consumer visited a bricks-and-mortar store and purchased her fashion after having checked the fit in a changing room, things were already far from peachy in the plus-size market.  The level of customer satisfaction, the maturity of the market and the fulfilment of financial potential in this sector have always been extremely poor. 

The poison in the bloodstream of the plus-size industry was a fit problem.  All women – of every size, from the tiniest to the very largest – enjoy one of a number of diverse body shapes, such as ‘hourglass’, ‘busty’, ‘pear-shaped’, etc.  This is because women have a number of differing areas of the body on which they store fat.  As we grow larger, women add their excess body mass mainly on to these discrete areas, rather than evenly all over (or just around the middle, like most men).  This means that women’s differing body shapes become more exaggerated the further up the size range they go.  Women of the same overall dress size can have a 20cm or more difference in any number of their measurements, meaning that two women of exactly the same dress size may simply find it impossible to fit into the same clothes.  Plus-size women are, therefore, very difficult and complex to fit.

This complexity has created a cascade of negative effects that have always affected this market.  Brands tried to create fits that they believed were likely to suit most people (just as they do in the ‘straight’ size ranges), by crunching the statistics into one ‘average’ grading. Even in 'mainstream' sizes it doesn’t work brilliantly, but in the plus market, it fails because the resulting fit (the ‘well-proportioned’ body shape) counts for only about 10% of the population. 

When plus-size designs requiring ‘specific fits’ (like tailored workwear suiting, for example) were produced using this formula, they therefore only fitted a small proportion of customers, creating very disappointing sell-throughs.  The industry’s response of providing ‘non-specific’ fits – a baggy, stretchy, shapeless offer – meant that although the clothing could actually fit on to their customers, it disappointed and infuriated them, causing them to refuse – as anyone would – to spend big on goods they found uninspiring. 

Because the spend was poor, the industry assumed that the plus-size consumer was ‘cheap’, and reacted with a cut-price offer.  The fabric and workmanship became low-cost, which minimised choice in the sector.  Instead of having a range of price-points to match the ‘straight’ brands on the high street, plus-size apparel was relegated to one offer... that of the lowest price.

When brands tried to introduce fashion-forward looks, the fit for this type of apparel, again, needed to be specific, and, worse, the style had to be matched up to the correct body shape in order to look flattering, regardless of fit.  When the bewildered consumers weren’t physically able to buy into this enhanced design level, the industry concluded that larger women ‘simply weren’t fashionable’.  This again affected the offer, with the choice of styles available to this cohort being limited largely to the predictable, repetitive, banal and mediocre.

At every point, new, good quality, stylish, exciting, fashionable looks for the plus-size market hit a brick wall... and it was always the same wall: fit.  Unlike the sages of social media, I don't blame the industry for a failure in trying.  In the pre-information age, they were at a loss as to know why nothing was working.  Women went into the changing room with clothes, and came out without buying.  On the high street, the plus-size fashion business was stalled and disproportionately small. 

Plus-size women, already at a great disadvantage in society, were forced to wear cheap, shapeless, sexless, frumpy garments, reinforcing stereotypes and damaging self-esteem, careers and relationships.  Fashion matters, and these women were being underserved.

Roll forward into the Internet age, and broadly we are still in the same situation.  Brands continually make attempts to widen this sector with diverse looks, price points, fits, quality and utility, but again these get sucked into a black hole.  This time we can actually see that the consumer is interested in what’s on offer, as plus-size fashion is being bought in ever-increasing quantities and social media is alive to the excitement caused with the new directional fashion-forward looks.  However, the sector is suffering from truly horrendous levels of product returns – almost three out of every four plus-size items of apparel are presently being sent back.  One thing has changed, however.  In the information age, the answer as to why this is happening is now coming through loud and clear: overwhelmingly, these items are being returned due to poor fit

Pre-ecommerce, it wouldn’t have really mattered if we had found out that we needed to provide a wider range of gradings for this sector: stores could hardly have carried all that extra inventory, nor trained enough staff to target these diverse products and consumers correctly.  But that was then, and this is now.

Where the legacy is poor, it is our responsibility – and opportunity – to build a completely new system, throwing out the bugs as we go along.

With the latest methods, we will have the ability to study our customers in huge numbers, clustering the data into body types and creating gradings that match each group of statistics.  Larger brands will easily have enough capacity to create collections that are suitable for each shape – both in fit and style.  These different collections will all overlap in design with basic items, diverging only where the looks become best suited to one specific body shape.

When selling, we will be able to take note of an individual’s measurements so as to assign them a ‘fit ID’ – their body shape, height, measurements and fit preference – and supply them with the garment that will fit them.  This must be done automatically.  Customers will quite naturally browse the collections specifically created for them.

Smaller brands will create looks for their particular ‘muse’: as an exaggeration of what they already do, but with greatly enhanced two-way fit knowledge and communication.  These brands, removed from the largely unsuccessful and damaging attempts to be ‘everything to everybody’ will have greatly enhanced profitability and opportunity for expansion.

To paraphrase George Santayana, "Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it".  We have the ability to learn from what has previously damaged the plus-size fashion industry, and the technology and capability to create a new response to this incredibly exciting, growing and lucrative market.

There is absolutely no reason why plus-size womenswear cannot be every bit as exciting, fashion-forward, inspiring – and lucrative – as 'mainstream' fashion.


78% of customers reported being willing to share body metrics in exchange for a better fit

Fashion’s 'mind-blowing' fact

The good news for fashion e-commerce is that customers are choosing to purchase apparel online in ever-growing quantities; the bad news is that some 40% of that is being returned. 

It’s now common knowledge that these product returns create a matrix of detrimental effects on every element of the fashion industry.  The loss of sales, customer dissatisfaction, forfeiture of loyalty, damage to stock, administrative/distribution/picking and re-stocking expenses, along with and ecological harm, create a powerful engine for change.



We know that around 70% of customers report ‘poor fit’ as their reason for returning apparel, and the industry is slowly edging towards developing the kind of intelligent solutions that are needed to drill down to the root causes of this fit problem.  The beginning of this process is to take a long, hard look at our customers. 

How, exactly, do we get to see our customers?
The solution still favoured by many brands is to simply ask consumers to choose the clothing size they wish to purchase, without any real inquiry as to their measurements. This is a legacy from bricks-and-mortar stores, where this system worked adequately – only then it was supported by the ability of the consumer to test personally the fit of each item in the changing room.  Online, however, size self-reporting has proved too blunt a tool to provide acceptable results. 

Many online retailers have therefore been forced to seek out some physical information about their customers, asking them to input body measurements, weight, height, and, occasionally, bra size and/or body shape.  However, even when returns data is added into the mix, most of these systems have not been supported by sophisticated enough tech, and they must take their share of the blame for the level of product returns that we see today.

Luckily, the cavalry, in the shape of clever tech people, are busily doing what they do best: developing technological solutions.  At present there are scanning devices, smart apparel, measurements from photographs and mobile phone apps undergoing rapid development, so very soon we should start to be able to get a much clearer idea of the size and shape of our customers.  It’s clear that the tech will not cease development until a thorough, accurate, continuous, ‘sub-conscious’ system of gathering consumer body metrics is perfected.  This omnipotent tech may take some time to arrive, but we had better not sit around waiting for it: we urgently need to develop interim techniques that will help us do as much of the heavy lifting as we can.  Any system that is even marginally more effective than what we have now is going to diminish the numbers of returns, which is enough of a reason to adopt it.  However, a more vital motive will prove to be the ability to begin participating in the industry transformation that will advance with every fresh piece of customer data gained.

Will fashion customers willingly give up personal information?
The answer to this is a resounding yes... and also a frustrating no.  78% of customers reported being willing to share body metrics in exchange for a better fit.  Yet, like everything else to do with human beings, the answer is more complex than at first view.

Consumers can – and do – contaminate their own information every time they come into contact with it. 

If body measurements are continuously being requested (or fed back), a number of detrimental effects will be seen.  Some customers will balk at even knowing accurate personal statistics (“The last time I measured myself was when I was at my slimmest: I really don’t want to know how my waist compares now”), some will disagree with feedback from automated measuring systems (“How much?  There’s something wrong with this set up!”), and others will be deterred from purchase (“When I find that I’ve put on weight, I find that I’ve been put off buying anything”).  These, and many other emotional reactions to sizing, add up to a situation where input is often out-dated, inaccurate, or, even worse, the very act of obtaining the latest data deters or upsets the consumer to the extent that it has a detrimental effect on sales. 

We will solve this conundrum only by providing an automatic apparel fitting service designed to keep conscious customer involvement to a minimum.  As usual, we will have to get smart.

“It’ll blow their minds”
When considering the effects of new advances, many people focus on the tech itself – in this case, assuming that once we have the body metrics of our fashion consumers, this information will be slotted into the sales process at the point of sale.  In other words, the stock sits in the warehouse – the consumer at his or her screen, and the tech simply pairs up the matching size.

This, although true as far as it goes, understates the case a thousand fold, because, like all great technological advances, it is the way tech interacts with society that brings about the most significant disruption – often in the most unforeseeable ways.  In this case, we will see the effects on the fashion industry of a tidal wave of information.

When talking to a friend (a fellow customer expert), I asked him how he thought the fashion industry would react once it gets hold, for the very first time, of all the body metrics of its consumers (and particularly those of the ever-growing plus-size section of the population).  He instantly said “It’ll blow their minds”.  I agree.

It is only once we have seen in detail the huge diversity between the body shapes, sizes, heights and weights of our population that we will begin to have a true picture of what we are up against.  The fact is that we have never produced apparel that actually reflects the sizes and shapes of our population – far from it. 

The true reason for a return may not be that an individual is being supplied with the wrong item of stock – with the right piece having remained at the depot.  It is actually highly likely that the brand has not manufactured any items that will adequately fit this person – and many others – because their choice of gradings is inadequate.  The information will tell the company that there is no 'right piece' for this individual – not even close.  And this is going to be happening millions of times across the industry.  The brands that find this out are going to have to think about what, if anything, they are going to do about the river of gold of potential business that they are presently losing out on.

If we are going to offer the correct apparel to our consumers, we will need to redesign every size, introduce every grading, redefine our offer and our entire tech – root and branch.  We will have to learn to think completely differently about the way we fit people into apparel, and how we create clothing fit for people. 

Those fashion brands that are swift to realise the enormity of the opportunity gained by this enhanced knowledge are going to be at such competitive advantage that they will sweep all before them.  In turn, tech companies that win the race to develop the technology driving this disruption are going to become the behemoths of commerce.

As my friend concluded, “It’s a great time to be alive”.

Fashion is on the cusp of developing tech that will enable the physical 'sizing' of consumers, but are we prepared to handle the results?

Essential questions for fashion fit

Fashion e-commerce is suffering from a surfeit of expensive, wasteful and unsustainable apparel returns from customers who complain that their purchases don’t fit them properly. Luckily, rescue is on the way: the advent of body scanning and other new methods of consumer data collection.  We are on the cusp of developing the tech that is going to enable us to physically ‘size’ our consumers, but are we actually prepared to handle the results?  I believe that these are the questions that we need to ask whilst we move forward with this tech...

Is the fashion industry ready to take a long hard look at its customers?
'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ' (Alexander Pope): Those fashion retailers who believe that they are not in for any surprises from the plethora of data their customers will be soon be supplying, are likely to be the ones least ready to deal with the results.



The more we know about our population (particularly the female half), the more we realise that we have a very diverse set of body shapes and sizes to contend with.  At present, our clothing comes in standard sizes: human beings, rather inconveniently, do not.  Companies who are preparing themselves for the technological disruption of the fashion industry brought about by enhanced body data would be well advised to understand that this disturbance is going to spread far wider than just the selection of this or that garment at point of sale.

The most successful brands are going to take a long hard look at their customers and decide that they have an obligation – and a huge opportunity – to respond to their consumer’s reality, and create clothing in a range of body shapes and sizes that is far better fitted to purpose. Hitherto, women have ‘blamed themselves’ if there are no garments to fit them, but this is ripe for change.  In the future, women will place the blame for failure to supply well-fitting apparel firmly on the brand.

How are we going to categorise body shapes into sizes? 
Let’s say that we get data from a customer which shows that her top half is a size 12 and her bottom half is a size 14 (the classic 'pear shape').  This is not at all unusual.  Indeed, research has shown that only about 10% of women actually benefit from a ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape, so we can anticipate about 90% of data to throw up some such dilemma.  

What size would this customer be categorised as?  Clearly, in separates she would take a different size top and bottom (so we have already created a sub-group: those who have differently-sized constituent parts).  But what size dress, coat or jumpsuit would she be recommended?  

If we are obtaining a lot of information about our customer’s body shapes, we are going to have to start to make decisions about creating new sizing that takes them into account.  The size 12 'pear shape' is going to be a specific size; it will differ markedly (in nearly every measurement) from the size 12 'apple shape'.  Plus size body types are even more diverse.

Do we understand enough about 'preferred fit'?
The whole object of trying to obtain a better fit for fashion consumers is the prevention of stock returns.

It's one thing to find tech solutions that supply a ‘perfect’ physical fit for apparel: however, if the women who buy these garments do not like the way they make them feel, they will return them anyway.  Physical fit is not enough, and we are going to have to understand a lot more about customer preferences before we are ‘out of the woods’ with returns.

How do we communicate with our consumers?
There are many differing ways that we talk to our customers, but with all of them, there is one major question: how do we ‘speak truth to power’?  We are going to have to find a way to respect the intelligence of our consumers, communicate with them honestly, and put them at the centre of what we do.  However, we should never underestimate the social and emotional pressures that are placed on women in our society.  Many define themselves by their dress size and have a less than warts-and-all vision of their figures.  Without being able to actually try something on, our clients will need to be shown any shortcomings there are in the fit of apparel, and this will need to be done using convincing descriptions and depictions that are nevertheless not so graphic that they risk causing offence. 

How are our consumers going to take to being measured?
In order to have an accurate vision of our customer’s bodies, we will have to quantify them in some way.  Can we rely on them to give us measurements?  Can we expect them to weigh themselves? Will they all be happy to be scanned, and repeatedly re-scanned when it’s estimated that the average woman changes size 35 times during her lifetime?  Do we know enough about the emotional toll that being measured, weighed and scanned has on individuals?  And are there times (immediately after gaining weight, for example) when clients are most likely to supply inadequate and incorrect data, or refuse to co-operate in the gathering of such information?

What happens with vulnerable groups? Morally, do we have a duty of care for these?  Are there ‘unknown unknowns’ about this... and unintended consequences?

Are consumers prepared to accept their categorisation?
As things stand, the tech available gives a ‘fit recommendation’, informing the consumer as to the size they should purchase.  Do we know enough about how customers react to having their size assessed for them?  Will this reaction change over time (after repeated exposure to the sizing tech, for example)? What’s going to happen with what could be a considerable can of worms, which promises to be far more alive than we might imagine?

We may well decide to give up altogether on the notion of sizing, and concentrate on fit, instead. In twenty years' time, none of us may have any idea what 'size' we are: we simply order clothing and it arrives in a size and shape that fits us.

Are we ready to understand that sometimes, ‘no sale’ is the only good result?
There are going to be a number of pinch-points in the new set up, and one of these is when a brand tells a ‘mainstream-sized’ customer it’s a no deal (the industry delights in telling plus-size women the bad news, but telling ‘straight’ sized women creates a whole new landscape).

This is infinitely better than sending out something that is going to diminish trust in the fit tech, disappoint the customer in the brand, increase the overall carbon footprint of the product, and set in motion expensive return and refund processes.  It’s up to the brands to deliver fashion in enough gradings for their customers, and to come clean if they have failed to do so.  Once size 10 women are regularly being told that certain brands have nothing that will fit them, the cat will be out of the bag and we will start to see a much greater level of consumer knowledge about the paucity of divergent fits.

Is it all worth it?
When looking at all the complexities of new technology – especially the big, highly disruptive stuff – it’s very easy to think that it’s all so difficult and troublesome, that it may not be worthwhile.  Every huge technological change has had far-reaching, subtle ramifications that stretch far out from the original product.  The fit technology, which at first view seems fairly humdrum (just finding apparel that fits people when they purchase online) turns out to be a huge game-changer that will improve the fashion industry immeasurably.  Unless they have got something else very special going for them, those brands that do not respond to it adequately will be swept away.

When we start to think of the secret of each individual’s perfect fit, assiduously mined and carefully maintained by a company, as a business asset rather than an inconvenience, we are going to really enjoy the fruits of this technology.  

Yes, it’s really worth it.

Plus-size women's problems finding clothes that fit are usually all about 'grading' rather than size

Cause and effect: How women's diverse bodyshapes have stunted the fashion industry

We all know that plus-size female customers in search of fashion-forward, high-end, or even just good quality or varied apparel are far less well-served than their 'mainstream-sized' equivalents. Many people are also vaguely aware of the fact that there is some kind of problem afflicting larger women who are trying to obtain clothing that fits their bodies properly.  Is there cause and effect at work here?

When plus-size women report problems in finding well-fitting apparel, they often conclude that it is down to bad or inconsistent sizing.  In fact, the difficulties are usually all about shape, cut and fit (also known as grading), rather than size.  On the face of it, it seems a mystery that this should be so much more of a problem for bigger rather than smaller women.  It sounds simple enough to find the average shape of plus-size women and create suitable grading, but strangely – judging by a number of factors, such as the level of customer satisfaction, the maturity of the sector's offer, and disproportionate number of e-commerce returns – this is something that has not yet been achieved satisfactorily.



The situation at the heart of this conundrum is the enhanced diversity of bodyshapes among larger women.  If the bodies of women just moderately varied here and there as they increased in size, then the time-honoured way the fashion industry has always developed its grading would have worked well enough: a suitably-sized sample of females would be measured, and the numbers crunched to provide a 'typical' shape of woman for each size. This is generally the method used to provide apparel grading for 'mainstream-sized' customers, and although it is far from perfect, the results are considerably better than they are for plus-size women.

Whatever sizing group we look at, women's bodyshapes are not homogenous throughout the population – instead, they tend to clump.  These shapes become considerably more diverse as the sizes grow larger. 

For example, a size-12 woman who has a somewhat large bust for her frame would nearly always have an even more disproportionately generous bust if she increased to a size 20.  Furthermore, this same woman, were she to grow to a size 26, may well benefit from a bust that has become larger in comparison to her frame with every dress size increase.  This contrasts with what would happen to the body of a pear-shaped woman, who, were she to increase in size, would typically have hips that become ever larger, whilst her bust size would lag proportionately further and further behind.  Both these women may end up with bodies that comprise two different dress sizes.  There are at least six main bodyshapes – so this is evidently a complex situation.

When there is such a diverse set of shapes, any number-crunching to find one typical shape works in a very detrimental way.  Here's an analogy to illustrate my point.  Let's say a cosmetic company decided to start to sell foundation cream.  Instead of going to all the bother, effort and expense of creating many differing shades to suit all skin types, they decide to create just one 'average' skin tone.  They take scans of all the differing skin colours, crunch the numbers, and come up with a 'medium' skin tone that they consider would be just perfect for everyone.  Of course, the resulting foundation colour would be wildly unsuitable for almost all women.

Yet this, on the whole, is what the fashion industry has been doing with the data on larger women's bodyshapes – which are every bit as diverse as the same women's skin tones. Information is being collected from the plus-size cohort, and an average grading is created for their apparel.  The only problem is that the resulting clothing suits just one body type – the 'well-proportioned' shape.  And this happens to be the body type of less than 10% of the plus-size female population.

With 90% of their customers not enjoying a satisfactory fit, there begins a cascade of effects that has had a devastating impact on the plus-size sector of the fashion industry.

Without an acceptable fit, customers will not pay top-dollar for clothing.  No one would, whatever their size.  As bodyshape diversity exaggerates as the sizing increases, this means that fit becomes worse as we go up the size scale, and the spend goes down.  This in turn means that most plus-size fashion is kept artificially cheap.  Because pricing is a priority, the resulting clothing tends to be of poorer quality.

Without being able to physically check fit prior to purchase, we are seeing huge problems with e-commerce returns, which again get worse as sizes increase.  The subsequently squeezed margins make for a lower-wage industry that also has a disproportionately large carbon footprint.

Unable to establish accuracy in fit for their larger customers, manufacturers have fallen back on a limited fabric range (often unoriginal, cheap, and/or stretchy), and need to be cautious about providing risky innovative fashion-forward styles that rely on precise fit to achieve the look.  Plus-size women are being denuded of their directional fashion... and they feel short-changed.

Ironically, the market for larger clothing has thus become stunted – making it disproportionately small.  There is a huge degree of customer frustration and therefore untapped commercial opportunity.

If this all sounds gloomy, it shouldn't, because this actually is a story of enormous possibilities. Identifying the shortcomings in the existing apparel offer and exploiting this underserved market is the epitome of what business enterprise is all about.

Luckily, the growth of the plus-size population has coincided with the development of technology that can provide retailers with sophisticated knowledge of their customers, alongside systems tailored to assist them with their fit needs.  I am working with Rakuten Fits.me, a company playing a leading role in developing cutting-edge fit technology for e-commerce. Their present system for helping fashion customers obtain an accurate fit is extremely effective in preventing returns and enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty – and this is only going to improve as the technology develops further. A huge advantage of using this tool is the quantity and quality of data obtained from the customer cohort, which can offer a roadmap to a much more appropriately sized and graded apparel offer across the entire size range.

But is it realistic to believe that our industry can cope with having to provide a selection of fits?  It's my belief that in plus-size fashion, from a UK size-20 upwards, we will need to be seeing at least three differing fits for separates, and anything up to six for whole body apparel, such as dresses and suits.  This spells complexity and expense.

It's pretty clear that the alternative – struggling to find a 'one-cut-fits-all' grading is not sustainable, and the reality is that this diversity of fits is on its way.  In all likelihood we will see it evolve from the spread of gradings that we already see to a less extreme degree in the fashion industry: different brands will adopt a particular shape, throw caution to the winds, and push it to its logical conclusion.  Elsewhere, we will see larger or specialist brands introducing a number of targeted lines that will both fit and stylistically suit their chosen bodyshapes.

The system has to fit together perfectly in order to work.  If we are to create clothing in the necessary variety of fits and sizes, it is also vital to identify the bodyshapes of individual customers as they browse, and target them with correctly fitting apparel – alerting them to the product that has been specifically developed for them.  This means the tech fit tools will become ever more vital.

With the knowledge of the range of fits that we need to suit our customers, and the vision and will to bring to market a much more diverse range of grading, we will be armed with a powerful tool to disrupt the whole plus-size industry... indeed the whole apparel sector. 

Emma Hayes

Fitting into e-commerce

I've spent most of the past 30 years working in independent large-size womenswear, and I had my own plus-size retail business for 22 years.  To achieve a perfect result each time we fitted every one of our customers, altering more than half of all the fashion we sold.  So I have undertaken many thousands of fittings, gathering so many measurements that it's hard to estimate their number.

During these fittings there was a friendly, fun atmosphere; it was cool, comfortable and private.  We had a laugh, but when customers knew that I was trying to perfect their clothes, they realised that this was a serious business.



Our customers were usually stunned by the results of having clothing specially tailored, and many of them wrote to us in gratitude: Emma Plus testimonials.

I love accuracy and fit, but I have no respect for the measurements and sizes that can cause stress.  I don't care what size a person takes, and I am passionately against any kind of sizeist hierarchy.  Every generation has its own preferred fit: today's young girls have their own style, and it was our job to 'get' people.

Now I have moved into a new exciting arena – that of e-commerce fitting.  This is something that someone like me... an old timer who has had decades of hands-on experience of larger bodies... needs to embrace to help solve the dreadful fit problems that have plagued this young branch of the fashion industry.  It's my opportunity to take the inequality, embarrassment, inconvenience, waste, frustration, disappointment, irritation and expense of buying plus-size clothing online – and do my bit to help solve these problems, once and for all.

The good news is that it will soon be possible to accommodate women of every size – from 'mainstream' to plus-size – in e-commerce, with fashion that fits just as beautifully as I was able to achieve in a bricks-and-mortar store.  In the meantime, while we are perfecting the AI fitting that will give us the fashion we deserve, in the styles and fits that suit our needs, I may be coming to somewhere near you.

I am part of a team tasked with finding out the sizes and shapes of plus-size womenswear customers.  So, should our paths cross, if you are a larger woman, I may ask you if I can record some of your measurements.

I promise that it will be a perfectly pleasant experience, that it will be over in a jiffy, and that we will have a bit of a laugh – even though it's a serious matter.  We have a job to do to – there are few things more serious than the business of getting gorgeous clothes for ourselves.  I'm hoping that you will help.

Emma Hayes speaking at Moda 2017

Moda seminar 2017

As a fashion professional for over 30 years I have attended so many fashion fairs that I can no longer count them.  These fairs – more accurately trade shows – are where the independent side of the industry comes together to do business.  It's not something that the public sees, and most people have no idea they even exist.

Such fairs take place in every country that has any kind of notable fashion industry – so we see them in Paris, Milan, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Amsterdam and, of course, London.  My usual haunts were the German fairs, because it was there that I had access to as many plus-size designer ranges as I could ever want.  However, over the years I have been to many elsewhere as well.





These shows have various aspects in common.  The first is that they are big – CPD occupies a huge exhibition space in Düsseldorf, Germany, for example, and in the UK the shows usually take place at Excel, Olympia or the NEC.

They contain stands displaying the next season's fashions, complete with samples and the ordering paraphernalia necessary to run one of the world's most important industries.  Buyers and agents walk swiftly or huddle over tablets – time is money in this environment and business has to be transacted quickly.

At the heart of each of these fairs is the catwalk.  It often runs down the centre of the space, and the music from catwalk shows can be heard across the hall.  Models stride out wearing the samples – time travellers from the future, telling us what we will be wearing in a year or so.

In between the catwalk shows, the runway is given over to the seminars.  This is where senior fashion insiders offer their insight, experience, knowledge and ideas to fellow professionals.  It's considered a mark of respect to be invited to give one of these presentations, and they are always good value.  Despite having a million other things to do at a show, I have often taken time to sit-in on seminar programmes, as I've found they offer fascinating information and thought-provoking perceptions.

So when I was invited to give a seminar in August at the UK's premier fashion show – Moda – which takes place twice yearly at the NEC in Birmingham, I was very honoured.  As a bodyshape and fit expert I am now working with the leading e-commerce fit experts, Rakuten Fits Me, and I was excited by the opportunity to talk about fit issues to fashion professionals.

In the past apparel was sold through bricks-and-mortar stores and customers were able to try on clothing before making their purchases.  Now more and more transactions are happening online, and suddenly – without being able to 'try-before-you-buy' – fit issues have become huge news.  One significant problem is the level of returns generated by the current somewhat hit-and-miss method of buying clothes online.

We need to use all the available expertise in bodyshape, fit, garment technology and online technology to move into the next phase of fashion retail.  The opportunities are fantastic.  This is already a very positive story, and I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to Moda about it.



READ the full transcript.

READ Fits.me blog post: 'Rakuten Fits Me talk inconsistent sizing at Moda '.

REGISTER for the next Rakuten webinar on 6 September 2017: 'The issues of fit – specifically consistency vs diversity in women's clothing sizes'.


 

Now there's a solution to buying fashion online... At Last!

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