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”.

It’s annoying to think of the items in your wardrobe that are just sitting there, useless, because they really need that jacket

Fashion's 'cure'​


We’ve all been there (or at least some of us have; I doubt if I’m the only one)... browsing through fashion websites, trying to find something to buy. 

Arguably, it’s worse when you know exactly what you want.  Let’s say that you have a couple of items of clothing in your wardrobe that you would like to wear, but you need a jacket to go with them.  The new jacket must be a colour that looks good with what you’ve already got.  It should be fairly smart – not too heavy, not too light (it’s for a summer wedding of a work colleague).



You begin with high hopes.  Surely, the whole of the fashion industry is at your feet; after all, you are not asking for much, and you have just been paid.  There are thousands and thousands of jackets.  You flick through site after site... browsing, browsing, browsing.  All the jackets are either the wrong style or the wrong colour.  Occasionally, you find one that would be perfect if it weren’t for some weird stylistic feature that an overexcited fashion designer had inflicted on it.  With many of them, the fabric doesn’t appeal.  Some great ones are eye-poppingly expensive.  Then you find a perfect one.

Turns out it’s not available in your size. 

You remember what a pain it was trying – and failing – to find a jacket for exactly this purpose before.  You’ve just re-lived another wasted hour of your life that was irritating enough the first time it happened.  You sigh.  There is really isn’t anything as dispiriting as looking for inspiration and finding nothing but buzz kill.

Worse still, it’s annoying to think of the items in your wardrobe that are just sitting there, useless, because they really need that jacket.  They’ve been there for months, and you are beginning to think that you will never use them.  Fashion road kill.  And those aren’t the only unserviceable clothes in there: to your eternal irritation there are garments hanging in your closet which you do not wear, have not worn, and will never wear – because they are not right for you.  They should have been sent back at the start, but you just couldn’t be bothered.  Who has the time for all this?  What a waste.

Imagine a time that you could go online looking for clothes and everything that you see is something that you would want, because it has been expertly filtered for you. 

Now here you are, looking for a jacket for such a wedding, but this time you are being shown a succession of items that have been curated to tone with the clothes that you have: they are all available in your size and at a price that suits your pocket.  You can get the pick of the crop: a superb jacket that you just can’t wait to get your hands on.

Your personal stylist (a bot, of course) pops up and asks if you would like a little extra input.  You say yes.  The stylist knows about the wedding from your diary, and shows you a pair of shoes on sale that would smarten up the outfit; effortlessly bringing it up to ‘wedding’ level.  It also reminds you that you actually have a really good new suit in your wardrobe that you haven’t worn yet.  You bought it reduced at the end of last summer, and had forgotten all about it.  If you decide that this wedding might be an excellent opportunity for its first outing, the bot could find you a selection of items to complete the outfit.  You’ve now got a choice of two options.

The bot then suggests that the suit would subsequently make a key asset for your upcoming client presentations at work, and it suggests some combinations to re-work it for a professional take on the look.

After this quick, inexpensive and easy problem-solving session, you’re feeling good, and you start browsing.  Now you’re just window-shopping for pleasure, but are beginning to think that you might go ahead and update your style a bit with a few other new pieces.  You like everything you see.  Excellent colours, great styles... some surprises, and cool things that you would really love to try on.  You already know it’s all within your price range and will fit you perfectly. 

The tech makes you aware that you seem particularly fond of a certain look, and recommends that you buy other similar items.  It also reminds you that one of your well-worn tops may need replacing.  It looks like it is going to be a hot summer and you will need it soon. 

A long time ago – on the recommendation of a friend who (somewhat smugly) always looked really put together and effortlessly stylish – you let the tech into your life.  You did it slowly, because you didn’t trust it at first.  After a while, however, you came to see the bot for what it was.  Completely confidential; an extension of you that went out into the web to find what you wanted.  Everything that you put into your profile – everything you allowed it access to – was still your own completely private information.  It was your tool for getting exactly what you desired by clearing the way through the dross and fetching you what you were looking for.  It is as if your own brain – with all the time in the world – has gone online shopping for you without having to use up a single second of your time. 

Gradually, like your stylish friend, you totally ‘got it’, and you allowed the bot to have access to your social media, your photographs, body scans, interactive clothing, sports, hobbies, wearable tech, activities, nights out, location information, phone and holidays... and you regularly updated it with new information about such things as career developments.  The system is clever enough automatically to check up home weather forecasts and climate reports on your holiday destinations.

You are happy to spend a couple of minutes informing it about any new fabrics you like, or price-preferences that you change (you find that you can spend a little more on individual purchases now, because you aren’t wasting money on the wrong things, and what you are buying fits you so well that you want to hang on to it for longer).  Your wardrobe works together seamlessly, so you are able to create many more looks from what you have.

You have even allowed your sister special ‘gift’ access to your bot when she was buying your birthday present.  Knowing that she delights in nagging you about your weight, you only did so because you were completely confident that she couldn’t get hold of any of your vital statistics.  The result was the best – and most unexpected – present she ever got you.  That cerulean jumper has hardly ever been off your back. 

You smile when you think about the struggles you had before you worked out this clever way of organising your purchases.  What an improvement now!  It’s hard to remember you actually hated shopping.  How is that possible?  Now you love it.

During this browsing session the bot pops up again and asks you whether you would like some new direction.  You say yes (you like this process, which happens every now and again).  There is then a stream of new looks on your screen.  Different styles and colours inspired by magazines, designers, fashion journalists, celebrities, bloggers and social media trends, plus a couple of nudges from mates who want to show you stuff.  Among these completely new looks, if there are any styles that you particularly like, you show your approval.  Those that you hate, you dismiss, and the bot takes note.  You nudge a couple of friends with some of the new ideas, and there's a little online banter between you and some of them.

You learned that you could manage the way the curator interfaces with you, and someone recommended that you let it challenge your style now and again.  You are grateful that you did this, because it has stopped you getting stale; the bot asks if you would like to clear some of your old preferences, and you realise that it's probably time to leave some outmoded looks behind.

It’s exciting to see the latest fashion that is coming through, and you put certain favoured fresh styles into your preferences as you go along: throwing up some entirely new, cool looks. 

Over time, you have become more confident, and this has affected your everyday life.  You used to feel a bit insecure at important work events, or when meeting people, but now you always feel that you are wearing the right clothes, which is one thing less to worry about.  You also have forgotten what it felt like to wear ill-fitting clothes, so you feel less negative about your body.  Stylistically, you have grown:  you never before realised that you actually had rather good taste, and a lot of fashion creativity – but now it’s obvious that you do.  Just look at you.

The only problem that you could find with your curated fashion is that, should you ever go back to shopping without it, you would lose patience almost immediately. 

After all, who on earth wants to put up with the waste, the irritation, the time-consumption, the expense and the disappointment of shopping without the help of the clever tech that they developed back in the first third of the twenty-first century?


With advances in fashion e-commerce fitting technology, we will soon be able to identify the measurements of consumers using an array of clever devices

'Sizing'​ control

Have you ever tried to tell someone what clothing size they are?  Did you attempt it with a friend or family member?  How about a complete stranger?  If you really did that, how did it go for you?

Informing someone what their dimensions are is a very difficult thing to do – and it’s all the more sensitive if that person already has a strong idea what size they are; particularly if their idea is wrong.



With advances in fashion e-commerce fitting technology, we will soon be able to identify the measurements of consumers using an array of clever devices from body scanning pods, apps that work on mobile phones, interactive changing room mirrors, and everything else that those clever tech people can come up with.

These advances matter, because ever since fashion started to be sold online, we have been seeing an enormous proportion of stock returns.  It’s fashion's dirty little secret (although not so little and not so secret these days) that many online brands see 25% stock returns, and this can grow to a whopping 75% when we look at the ever-growing plus-size market, where body shapes are more variable.  The vast majority of these returns are put down to poor sizing: customers are complaining that we are distributing apparel that does not fit them, and they are sending it back in huge quantities.

Quite apart from the expense and ecological waste concerned, every garment return represents a disappointed customer, which can damage loyalty to a company; 70% of purchasers say that they will never revisit a brand again if their first buy turns out to be a dud.  That’s quite a loss of trade.

Surely the new tech is going to be a magic bullet that will deal with the difficult subject of finding clothing that is comfortable for our population?  We have the means of discovering what size each individual is, and all we have to do is to tell them.  The solution is the technology, pure and simple.  However, as Oscar Wilde said: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple ’.

There are very many issues thrown up by the sizing tech, but in this piece I am going to deal with just one of them: the concept of size disclosure.

People don’t usually have any emotion invested in the size of things.  Tell a man the size of his windows, the length of his street – the distance to the moon – he may not always agree, but there is no passion involved.  It’s unlikely that he will storm off, refusing ever to return, because he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with your estimation of the length of his car.  However, we all have an emotional relationship with our bodies.  Anyone who takes it upon himself to bustle up and inform us of our clothing size is likely to find that we (or at least some of us) really don’t appreciate it.  

Many tech specialists I know doubt whether there is any problem disclosing measurements and sizes to a consumer.  After all, the privacy of a tablet, laptop or smartphone is a kind of confessional: no one else need ever know.  So what’s the big difficulty with stumping up the numbers?

Sizing disclosure, even if it is performed in confidence, presents a problem.  I will give an example of what I mean.  A man I know, let’s call him Neville, is a useful case study.  When asked to supply his waist measurement to his doctor, he unhesitatingly replied that it was 38” (Neville has for years worn a 38” trouser).  When it was pointed out to him that the medic needed his actual waist measurement, Neville reacted with dismay. He had to face up to something he had been dodging for years – the prospect of a measuring tape wrapped round his middle.  The result – that his waist measurement was nearer 44” – was even worse than he feared. 

Poor Neville was having a bad day: he started that morning as a man who was a size 38” waist, and which had been unchanged for years.  By the afternoon he was an overweight guy whose waist had grown by 6”.  It was something that he had not been mentally prepared for, and the fact that it was a secret between him and his doctor was irrelevant... he now knew something that he could never ‘un-know’.  Luckily, he had not planned to go clothes shopping that day, because – had that been his intention – he would have been far too upset to do so.

But this problem is not restricted to men.  Women are also problematical when it comes to size disclosure.  Many take on their dress size as a vital part of their identity, and only shop in brands where their mental size matches up with what is written on the label.  There will be a substantial proportion of these women who will not wish even to visit a website that informs them that they are a size they do not wish to be associated with.  Accuracy be damned; they, too, would rather not know.

Others will listen to the retailer’s suggestions, then simply ignore the information and go ahead with ordering the size that they intended to all along – the size that felt like ‘them’.  When it arrives and doesn’t fit, they reason that it’s the brand’s fault.

But arguably, ‘facing up’ to one’s clothing size can also be troublesome.  Some vulnerable groups can become obsessed with their weight, continually monitoring, and riding an emotional rollercoaster as it naturally varies over time.  Eating disorders, bullying, depression, or worse, can be exacerbated with too much information and disclosure about sizes and measurements.

So, is the new sizing technology going to be a retrograde step for our consumers?  Not at all: this is going to be the tech that will set us free.  We just have to stop being so obsessed with clothing size.

From an apparel commerce point of view, there is only one reason for a person to have to know their measurements, or indeed dress size: in order to be able to input them into our systems so that they can buy the correct clothing. Why don’t we just cut out the middleman so that the consumer does not need to do anything at all?

In the future, we will think in terms of fit – and forget about clothing sizes altogether.  We will be scanned and automatically fitted for apparel, according to the customer’s individual preferences – which are just as important as those pesky measurements.  Better still, those that provide the clothing will get a precise picture of the body shapes of fashion consumers, all the better to create apparel graded perfectly to fit today’s diverse population. 

It’s going to happen; it’s now up to the go-ahead brands to ‘size the day ’.


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.

One consumer will want her clothing as snug as a second skin; another will want apparel that flows loosely over her body

Preferred fit: the science of profitability

In an industry where many consumers are buying their apparel without the ability to try it on first, the capacity to remotely find a perfect fit becomes a key fashion business function.  And where each customer's fit is governed, not only by his or her measurements, but also by their preferred fit, understanding the elements that predict this preference is vital.

'Bad fit' is the number one reason cited in the biggest problem facing e-commerce fashion today: that of garment returns.  Those companies that are first to successfully get to grips with this issue are going to be transformed in many ways, both predictable and unforeseeable, but all of them beneficial.



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' experience.

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.



 

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