Returns are unremittingly expensive and wasteful, so if finding a magic bullet to solve the fit problem were easy, it would already have been done. The issues of fit are about as complex and contradictory as it gets. This post is not about physical
fit (I have and will cover this in other pieces): it deals mainly with the more slippery, yet still important, subject of customer preference. It's one thing to measure a human body and decide the apparel that is going to fit it: it's quite another when we attempt to supply a person with a piece of clothing that they feel truly happy with. It is only by perfecting both
aspects that we will strike gold.
If fashion were not an extremely competitive industry, and if garment returns were not an expensive millstone around its neck, then perhaps we could afford to ignore preferred fit (although there are arguments aplenty against ecological waste and customer disappointment caused by inappropriately sized and graded apparel). But I would ask every CEO in fashion the same question: if your competitor is going toe-to-toe with you with everything else, would you feel happy for them to be better equipped to deal with preferred fit than your company is?
I would also ask the tech companies: are you doing enough to make sure that its you, rather than your
competitors, that produce the game-changing, 'must-have tech' for fashion, one of the world's major industries?What is preferred fit?
If you were to take ten customers, and examine the way they like to wear their clothes, at first glance you might think that they are all over the place.
One consumer will want her clothing as snug as a second skin. Another will want her apparel to flow loosely over her body. One woman will insist that her sleeves be long enough to cover the base of her thumb, yet the next person wants them to expose the bones of her wrists. Confusingly, the same woman will sometimes have different preferences: her favourite 'comfy' boyfriend jeans may serve a completely different aesthetic than her skin tight ones. These partialities spread out in all directions, encompassing every area of each garment. If your aim is to find your customer's preferences, you have got your work cut out.
It is surprising that many companies still do not adequately address the subject of fit, and few even approach the complexities of preferred fit. If addressed at all, the current approach is often to just to ask a few cursory questions. Preferences, however, are often subtle and innate, and can be far more complex than immediately obvious. There are reasons why some consumers cannot say, will not say, or do not even know what to say about them. The nature of the beast is that we are often talking about personal norms:
something that the consumer believes to be a non-issue, so asking predicates the kind of self-awareness or product knowledge that the average consumer doesn't always have.
Then, also, there are reasons why questions are not always practical. In order to know enough or anything meaningful, actually we may have to ask a lot, and we have to have some expertise (and subtlety) as to what to ask. We have to incentivise the customer to take the time and effort to answer all these questions (preferably honestly), and keep on answering them... because our bodies and preferences change all the time. There really has to be a better way, because what we need to do is to replicate (as near as possible) the 'trying on'
While looking minutely at individuals will not be the most effective use of our resources, seeking patterns on a grander scale is going to be much more rewarding. Observing the population is like looking at a pointillist painting: standing too close and staring at the individual dots isn't going to get you anywhere. It's necessary to back off and look at the big picture, because the more dots you can see, the better sense it all makes.
Let's start at one small part of the picture. Why would
one person want her sleeves to fall so much further down her arms than another? Do they have anything in common with other people who like the same thing?
We are often talking about optical illusions. If your sleeve is above the bones in your wrist, it has a tendency to make your arms look longer. If they are halfway over your hands, they look much shorter. As human beings, we tend to want to converge into the middle of the pack. Indeed, the nearer to the norm we are, the greater is our perceived beauty. Without realising it, if we are shorter (with short arms), we want to look more 'regular', and many petite women would unconsciously feel alienated if their sleeves draped over their hands, emphasising their smaller stature: infantilising them visually.
Conversely, a tall person with long arms may start to feel freakish if her upper limbs are seen to overly protrude out of her sleeves, emphasising their divergence from the norm. Of course, there are 'preferred abnormalities', such as a model's enhanced height or low body fat, but these must be emphasised as 'elite', 'aspirational' and 'intended', and thus well catered to.
This is just one glimpse at the engine behind preferred fit and there is much else to know. I've had 30 years of experience of fitting and measuring thousands of fashion consumers, meaning that the pointillist dots started to coalesce a long time ago. 'All dogs have four legs. This table has four legs. Therefore this table is a dog.'
The list of aspects affecting consumer preferences is, on the face of it, pretty banal: age, size, height, body shape, personality type, garment function and/or style, cost... Yet we have to be subtle and knowledgeable about each of these issues, which are, in fact, very complex. We cannot lump inappropriate groups together. And we have to be respectful: we need to avoid using stereotyping and patronisation. We are predicting, not dictating, preferences; discovering, investigating and learning all the time.
When it comes to 'predictive fit preferences', such is the paucity of our knowledge, we are in the Stone Age. To mix metaphors, it's a chicken-and-egg situation where we cannot know if it works until we start to use it, and many companies may not want to sink their resources into it until it has been proven. Yet now, with the ability to gather customer data on a huge scale, we actually have an opportunity to build something very exciting.
We need to be swift to use customer experts, who already know a huge amount about those mysterious consumer preferences, and team them up with thought leaders, statisticians, tech developers, scientists, garment technicians, PRs and other influencers all manner of differing disciplines and get stuck in. It is the correctly targeted use of science combining human ingenuity, experience and curiosity that is going to allow us to fully interpret what big data can tell us about our population. This is not a job that is going to do itself.
There is one other aspect to this situation that, like the oft-mentioned elephant in the corner, looms silently and patiently over the proceedings. If we do manage to identify customer preferences, do we actually manufacture the clothing necessary in all those diverse fits? Anyone with an understanding of apparel cutting will know from what I have written that addressing these preferences is likely to widen
the envelope of fits, especially towards the more outlying body types. Those people who already have long arms are going to want to have their sleeves even longer
. The difference between the short and long sleeve length just got extended. Spread this out across every part of every garment and you get an idea of the issues in question.
Lack of information was the reason why so far we've been having such a problem with creating fashion that fits our customers well enough for them to want to keep it; if we do not know what grading and sizes we actually need, we are unlikely to make the correct ones just coincidentally. Although it will never be possible for big fashion to suit every preference to perfection, there is enormous opportunity here to create apparel that is far better fitted to purpose.
In 50 years' time, fashion historians will look back on the next decade as a kind of 'mass extinction event' and remark that the comet that has hit Planet Fashion has been e-commerce. Those companies ill-prepared to develop the correct response to consumer fit are the ones who are going to turn out to be the dinosaurs.