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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.

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.


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'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?


'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 '.


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.

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.


e-Commerce fashion retail: in order to get customers into our clothes, we first have to get into their heads

A friend, an owner – like myself – of an independent womenswear store, once complained to me that she was going to have to compose a grovelling email apology in order to settle a grievance that was threatening to cost her the custom of her best client – a woman who spent big, and also happened to be a very influential local personality.

This customer, Helen Smith (not her real name) – the kind of woman who knew just about everybody who was anybody socially in that town – had come into my colleague's posh fashion boutique, and – as was her habit – picked out an extremely expensive outfit, which she was intent on trying on.



As luck would have it, on duty that day was a fairly unusual member of staff. Most of the people who worked in the store were experienced sales assistants. However, this time the staffing was augmented by the presence of a man who had decades of practice as a fashion designer, pattern-cutter and dressmaker – a semi-retired old friend of the owner, who simply enjoyed 'keeping his hand in' by helping out occasionally.

This gentleman hurriedly stepped in to prevent Ms Smith entering the changing room. The conversation went something like this:

Designer: 'Oh, I see you have the wrong size there (it's a size 12: obviously you need at least a size 14). I'll get you the right size to try on'.

Helen Smith: 'Excuse me, I'm fully aware of what size I've got. I always take a size 12'.

Designer: 'You certainly won't fit into a size 12. We'll see if you can get into a size 14'.

There followed a brief contretemps marked by a spike in ambient temperature. La Smith declined to take a size 14 into the changing room on the ironclad reasoning that she had 'never taken over a size 12' in her life.

The designer, who knew everything there was to know about the fit of all the clothing in the store, and was perfectly capable of sizing up every millimetre of Helen with a single icy stare, stood firm. Perhaps she had put on a little weight recently, he speculated. The mercury continued rising.

The situation really came to a head when the designer strategically barred the way into the changing room, having opined that, if Ms Smith 'tried to force her way into that size' she was likely to 'do an awful lot of damage to an outfit worth a thousand pounds'.

I would say that Helen Smith left the store in a huff, but the expression 'towering rage' would be more accurate. This was not a woman who ever intended to do any business with my comrade's company ever again. Nor were any of her equally big-spending friends likely to remain ignorant of the slight.

In order to get customers into our clothes, we first have to get into their heads

So what does this story – something that happened a long time ago in an old-fashioned retailing era – tell us that is going to help in today's new world of fashion e-commerce?
Well, in human nature, just as nothing is ever completely new, so nothing is ever totally out-dated. This confrontation was actually one that holds crucial relevance to today's online fashion industry.

Looked at through a modern-day lens, the elements of the incident can be broken down thus:
  • A customer who didn't know what size she really was.
  • A customer who had been scanned, and her measurements and shape accurately identified by the retailer.
  • A retailer who had perfect knowledge of the size and fit of garments being retailed.
  • A client who was very emotionally invested in being a particular clothing size.
  • A garment that risked unnecessary handling, likely to be detrimental to its value.
  • The potential loss of a sale due to a poor fit.
  • A possible loss of repeat sales due to confusion, disappointment and lack of confidence about sizing.
  • Damage to goodwill: a valuable client left feeling alienated by the failure of the communication and customer service process.
  • The contagion of bad PR to other potential customers.
From such a point of view this is a checklist of problems that apparel e-commerce retailers are now up against when trying to fit their customers. This industry needs to be able to target the correct fit towards consumers, as never before. Online product returns have reached epidemic levels, and are an extremely expensive and unsustainable luxury that we cannot afford.

We are rapidly approaching a time when, technically, we will have the ability to direct precisely measured and graded garments towards perfectly sized-up customers, but until we understand how to bring about a meeting of minds between buyer and seller, we will fail to make the most of our advances.

I believe there are tech developers working in the fashion industry right now who – like the designer in my example – think everything is going to be really easy. All we have to do is to point subject A towards product B. Simple. I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but sometimes it's worth irrigating the grass every now and again. From a practical point of view, how are we going to go about getting that necessary 'meeting of minds'?

Let's transpose the story into the near future. Helen Smith intends to buy some designer clothing online, and she visits a site and sees some garments she likes. She allows herself to be scanned (we are, as I write this, working on having this tech readily available to everybody at home). She then goes ahead with selecting her garment. As before, she sees herself as a size 12. But she needs to take a size 14.

Scenario 1: She is shown an accurate (some would say, cruelly precise) 3D avatar of herself.

She takes one look at the image, and is appalled. This is not because she is vain (although she might be); it's because few (if any) of us look like Lara Croft in real life, and Helen, like the majority of people, will not like the look of her avatar. She leaves the site straight away, and goes on her chosen social media to warn her substantial quantity of followers against the brand concerned.

Scenario 2: Helen visits a second website, which this time uses an idealised avatar – one with more attractive proportions and fewer 'lumps and bumps' than their customer's actual body.

The brand offers the ability to virtually 'try on' clothing, and Helen stubbornly opts to view the size 12 garment on her avatar. The text indicates that the garment is too small. Because the avatar is flatteringly unrealistic, the tight dress looks fairly good on it: this firmed-up image is actually aspirational.

The recommendation system suggests that she views a size 14 on the avatar, but Helen ignores the advice.

She orders the size 12, which is subsequently returned.

It seems that if we want to get e-commerce customers into our clothes, we are going to have to get into their heads.

Not everybody has in-built issues about their size (although a sizable – I would even say surprisingly large – proportion of people do), but most need help with obtaining their preferred fit when purchasing remotely, because it is an individual and complex issue. Each person (particularly each woman) has one of a number of distinct body shapes. Apparel is made in a selection of these shapes (nowhere near enough to actually suit the consumers, but that's another story) – meaning that one person, if they can get a fit at all, may well take a certain size in one brand, and something completely different in another. This just adds to the confusion.

The systems that we evolve in interacting with our e-commerce customers have to be every bit as carefully considered as was the customer service that developed over many decades in bricks-and-mortar stores. We should not be blasé and jump into unnecessarily fulsome disclosure with our customers, because, if we did so, we would often have to tell – or show – people something that they do not want to hear or see.

How did I train my staff to deal with squaring this circle? The most important thing is to help the client to find her preferred fit as swiftly as possible. Consumers quickly get demoralised when confronted with ill-fitting apparel – and many times they take failure personally. The aesthetic result is always the customer's call, but it is important that she is offered expert advice to help her to achieve her goal without overemphasising sizes or measurements. Ultimately, the customer is happier if she is simply given the correct size from the outset.

If we are experts (and we certainly should be), we should be bold and confident about taking control of the fitting service – it is our duty to curate what is offered to our clients – but we have to be thoughtful, subtle and tactful as well. With the development of avatars, we are going to have to create a new language where the customer is not shown the unvarnished truth about their bodies, whilst they are fully aware that what they see is not to be taken too literally, either.

Now we are experiencing the new technology we have to introduce a new framework within which to interface with it. This doesn't mean a loss of control for the consumer – although it can seem so initially. When we board an aeroplane, we enjoy the freedom of movement that our society, our technology and our pockets, allows. We choose where we are going, how, and at what time. We may even select our seats, meals and entertainment, and rightly feel that we have the management of our journey, yet we do not expect to be taken to the cockpit and handed the controls of the plane.

By the same token, the customer's control over the selection of the size of garments should be limited to the final destination – their preferred fit of the chosen piece. Once we have established the customer's preferences and their physical sizing, and been able to refer to a perfect knowledge of the actual measurements of the garment, it makes no sense to offer a choice of sizes. We can say that our aim is to minimise product returns, but another way of putting it is that we are aiming at consistently providing customer satisfaction.

Alexandra Shulman, the celebrated Vogue editor, once said that when fashion concentrates on size, the garment is in control: emphasising fit wrested that control back into the hands of the consumer. As soon as we can body-scan our customers, we must throw the myth of size choice out of the window, and provide a fitting service instead.

In order to achieve this we are going to have to remove the whole concept of standardised clothing sizes from the wearer's mind – and this is going to be helped by the fact that it is shortly going to be a defunct concept anyway.

When we are able to scan the majority of our consumers we will see how divergent the body shapes of human beings are, and then move forward into creating apparel in the far wider range of gradings and fits that are necessary to provide customer satisfaction for the majority of our population. To shoehorn these divergent shapes and measurements into the old sizing system will not be possible.

Let's quickly welcome an end to today's outmoded sizing system, which is no longer fit for purpose – if it ever was. We need to educate our industry and our consumers into a new era of accurate fitting. In my opinion, this can't start soon enough.

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. 


 

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

Please contact me on emma@AtLastLimited.com or via social media...



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