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Businesses are set to rewrite the rulebooks of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation

2020: Not a good year for dinosaurs

Emma Hayes, Womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – specifically, in light of the current global climate.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 27 August 2020.



Many corporations would prefer to avoid any involvement with the ‘P’ word: politics.  But after the events of the first half of 2020 – arguably – it is not an option.

A lot can happen in a year.  For example, it was in 2019 that an H&M advert was published depicting a small black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’.  Not surprisingly, it was widely castigated.  “As a black British person” wrote journalist Edward Adoo, “I felt uncomfortable when I saw the advert.  The historic context of the word “monkey” has caused outrage and pain to my generation and many others who came before us.”

Going back to 2017, Kendall Jenner starred in an advertisement for Pepsi, which also scored an own goal.  In it, Jenner plays the part of a model (herself?) who is drawn into a street protest, later appearing to win over a member of the riot police by offering him a cola.  According to blogger Maison Piedfort: “Pepsi mistook social justice movements for opportunities to sell soda, which is pretty disrespectful to the people who have suffered and sacrificed for the sake of protest and change.”

Few people believed that these companies intended to cause offence, yet, nevertheless, they did.  Mistakes are a normal part of life, but some argue that these ones actually indicate much deeper failings, pointing out that, had a more diverse range of people been involved in the decision-making surrounding these commercials, they would never have been made.  In publishing them, the brands exhibited that they weren’t just naïve: they also lacked empathy and engagement with the wider community, including some of their own customers.

As a fit consultant, body shape diversity advocate and, indeed, as a plus-size woman myself, I cannot speak for other marginalised groups.  I have no need to: there is plenty of this kind of thing happening in my own field and it’s not limited to advertising.  Many times, I’ve looked at a range of plus-size clothes and instantly observed that, had larger women’s voices been heard at any stage of conception, design, production or supply, it would have been a very different story.

This is part of a long and ignoble history of sub-standard treatment being meted out to various undervalued groups in the population.

When I first worked as a buyer for plus-size apparel, back in the 1990s, I observed a huge difference between the offer for the ‘mainstream’ size woman, who was, at that time, between a size 8 to a size 14, and the ‘plus-size’ woman, considered to be a size 16 upward.  The ‘mainstream’ story would often consist of pretty, colourful, fashion-forward apparel, whereas the plus-size option (were there one at all), would be a minimal selection of middle-aged looking styles.  With each new generation of the population growing bigger, it was the younger girls who took a larger size: so why only offer them a range of older looks?  It looked judgemental: apparently larger women, of any age, cannot be fashionable.

On the surface, this situation has changed substantially, but even in 2020, a larger-sized woman is likely to be presented with only a tiny fraction of the choice of styles as are offered to her smaller-sized equivalent, despite a loud clamour for greater equality in social media.  Various companies are striving to become more inclusive generally, and this is certainly reflected in a greater number of plus-size or size-inclusive ranges.  Yet significant problems remain.

From an inventory point of view, an example of this is the ubiquitous lack of appropriate grading.  Most plus-size womenswear companies have ignored the highly diverse body shapes of this cohort, opting instead for a generic ‘average’ cut that fits only a limited proportion of their customers.  It is due to lack of engagement with the fit needs of larger women that more than half of all the apparel sold online in this sector is presently being returned, because, in the main, it does not suit customers’ bodies.  This has caused some brands to have their profitability perpetually dragged down by woefully high returns rates and others to actually go out of business.
But this isn’t all: still there is insufficient choice of plus-size product, inaccurate assumptions, under-representation and patronising imagery or insensitive terms continuing to be used in the plus-size sector.

During the first half of 2020, many have watched – and supported – the great movement of this generation, the Black Lives Matter campaign.  It is a game-changer that spans every important aspect of human life, from education, health, to the justice system, industry and economics: even the inner workings of the human brain.  The cause of racial equality has been hundreds of years in the making, and, arguably, along with climate change, is the biggest challenge of the time.  The issues addressed are so vast and heinous that it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to ‘tack on’ side interests, such as size acceptance.  However, students of past great political upheavals have observed that any headway towards achieving social justice in one field will probably lead to similar advances in others.  As the proverb goes, “a high tide raises all ships”.

It’s clear that this is no ‘surface’ movement: it’s highly likely that, ultimately, it will profoundly affect the apparel industry, with calls for greater social justice and demands for a more representative sample to populate the fashion corporations (or, at the very least, interact with them).  Also, there is already a strong groundswell towards the support of independent commerce that springs organically from consumers’ own communities.  These businesses are likely to rewrite the rulebook of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation.  Looking through this new lens, certain practices common to fashion companies are already beginning to look outdated, if not thoroughly unacceptable.

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing consumer attitudes

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing attitudes in this volatile era, where consumers and the press are hyper-vigilant to stories of injustice and exploitation. A stern warning of how this can present itself is what has recently occurred at the fast-fashion monolith, Boohoo.  According to Dazed, “Boohoo, the online fashion retailer behind brands like Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal had more than £1 billion wiped off its value this Monday (July 6) after reports of “modern slavery” at a Leicester garment factory.” 

Suddenly, some brands find that they look like dinosaurs, and now the Covid-19 pandemic has smashed into the world economy, setting off a once-in-a-generation economic firestorm, this is not a particularly good time to be a dinosaur.

In response to the prevailing situation in 2020, consultants will each have their own brief, and those advising brands about employee rights are likely to be busy.  From my (very narrow) point of view as a fit specialist, the first concern, as always, should be with the product.  The number one priority should be for brands to genuinely become more size-inclusive, better reflecting the population and offering access to a greater number of people. Ideally, all brands should also act today to begin the process of understanding the body shapes of women, such as using scanning technology to survey as large a cross-section of their customer base as possible.  Sensitivity should be showed to the fit requirements of all ethnic groups equally (especially those who have hitherto been largely ignored).  Then brands will be better placed to develop more varied and fit-for-purpose, inclusive grading for women, offering those with diverse body shapes, for the first time, ‘fit equality’.

From a point of sale standpoint, brands should develop or utilise fit technology, such as (but not limited to) fit tools and hand-held scanning tech, so as to diminish the returns problem.  Companies should see returns not as an irritating ‘fact of life’, but as an urgent problem to be solved as an indication of their dedication to fairness towards all customers, not just the privileged few.

All sectors of commerce have to adapt to some new realities.  To see an example of how this tsunami has already permanently re-shaped the landscape, it is worth considering again the two advertisements mentioned at the beginning of this article: realising that no brand would be so ill-advised to have produced them after the events of this year.

To say that these commercials are now outdated is a gross understatement. They already look like the historical oddities of a hundred years ago.


Prior to COVID, arguably, only the naive optimist would believe that consumers could abruptly change their behaviour to such an extent

Womenswear fit: The giant leap forward

Here, Emma Hayes shares with us all her fantastic argument for why the time for changing apparel fit – and radically so – is now. Out of the wreckage of COVID-19, consumers might just be able to see beyond established, out-dated habits into a much more promising and cohesive fit future.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 16 July 2020.



If your house was wrecked in a freak accident, would you choose to meticulously restore it brick by brick, exactly the way it was before? Perhaps you would tweak some details, adding something that is better suited to your present needs? Or even see it as an opportunity for radical change, and build anew from the ground up?

There never has been a situation like this in fashion retail. Few companies have emerged unscathed from the lengthy Coronavirus lockdown that has damaged most and broken many: the industry that is re-opening is different to the one that closed.  Consumers (indeed, whole populations) are traumatised by the realisation that lifestyles and norms can suddenly radically change; old certainties and established habits have been swept away, some permanently.  The ‘impossible’ just happened.

The most forward-thinking businesses will consider this as an impetus for much-needed change; for fashion, what might ensue is a giant leap forward.  Such ‘giant leaps’ are extremely rare, and always require extraordinary circumstances.  Commerce usually develops in a linear manner, seemingly, a perfectly logical way to proceed.  However, like a computer that has been left running for too long, a set of damaging glitches inevitably start to build up.  A re-boot is an opportunity to begin afresh.

Each fashion professional looks at the situation through the prism of their own work and my speciality, plus size womenswear fit, is an example of an area where change is desperately needed. Every online fashion retailer has long attempted to encourage their consumer to purchase the correct size in order to reduce the disappointment, expense and (crucially) the ecological damage of a product return.  Indeed, arguably, the proof of the success or failure of any sizing and fit system for apparel can crudely be judged by the percentage of garments that are sent back to any given company (particularly those returns actually flagged by the customer as being caused by fit problems).  At present, the rate of failed sales runs between twenty-five and fifty percent for all fashion, and this rises steeply in the plus-size sector.  About seventy percent of returns are reported as being due to fit problems, so this, by any estimation, is an indication of a major failing in this area. In view of today’s fashion’s damaging carbon footprint, something that urgently needs to be addressed.

The legacy sizing system used by most fashion retail makes few allowances for the divergent body shapes found in today’s female population (and particularly among the ever-growing number of plus-size consumers, whose physiques are considerably more variable).  This sizing practice was largely developed in a completely different era: pre-internet, when consumers were shopping in-store and were able to try on garments prior to purchase. 

That a failing, simplistic list of crude sizing numbers (developed, as it was, in the twentieth century) is still the cornerstone of apparel fit in the third decade of the twenty-first century, is fairly damning. But it is a system from which it has proved difficult to break free.

The problem with developing a thoroughgoing, new customer-facing fit system that allows for diverse body shapes is that it would almost certainly need to involve a radical change of thinking on the part of that consumer.  At present, a particular female shopper is expected to somehow deduce what size she is (let’s say, as an example, a size 16), and she will then go ahead and shop for apparel available in that size.  This all seems a fairly straightforward and easy concept for the public to understand.

However, in the real world, it is rare that the consumer concerned is absolutely the standard size she thinks she is.  There can be many reasons for this dissonance, but here I will stick to my speciality: body shape.  It’s somewhat unlikely that a woman will be lucky enough to be a ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape as per the retailer’s specifications. Let’s take a website, for instance, Arcadia in the UK, to analyse what it means to be a size 16. Say that this imaginary customer’s bust happens to be the exact 40.2” that qualifies her as a size 16 on this chart, yet (as my exemplar is an ‘hourglass’ shape), her waist measures 30” (smaller than the 33.1” noted on the chart). Her hips, again, fit perfectly into the sizing at a 42.7”. Due to her divergent body shape, depending on the garment, her size will vary. For a dress, for instance, she may well happily wear a size 16, but for an ‘A’ line or dirndl skirt, she may fit better into a size 14. It’s even possible that she might take a size 12 for certain wide skirt styles, if the waistband was cut with a bit of ease. But for a jumpsuit or various styles of high-waisted trousers, she may find a size 16 is uncomfortably restrictive because the items are too short in the rise. How likely is she to understand these issues prior to purchase?

If this woman were an ‘apple’ rather than an ‘hourglass’ shape, her bust and hip may be smaller than that stipulated, and her waist measurement much bigger. In many incidences, in order to fit into the waistbands of garments, this thicker-waisted woman would need to buy a size 18 – or even a 20. Does this mean that, although most of her measurements are less than that of a 16, in fact she is a larger size? How is she supposed to understand that by looking at a website sizing chart? All of a sudden, the ‘straightforward and easy to understand’ system has become extremely confusing. And this example is just about one website: this problem amplifies when other retailers and manufacturers, each with their own sizing and grading (and ease), are brought into the picture. These two hypothetical women are the same height, weight and age, and their variation in body shape is far from unusual (indeed, it’s absolutely normal). In view of this, it’s easy to see how and why ladies are struggling to find garments to fit them when buying online.

What is preventing fashion retail from introducing a fit system that copes much better with body shape diversity, and offers consumers apparel that fits them?

What’s standing in the way?

So, in this digital age, what is preventing fashion retail from introducing a fit system that copes much better with body shape diversity, and offers consumers apparel that fits them?  It turns out there are a number of serious problems associated with confronting consumers with the changes required.  Firstly, the method itself would need to be a lot more complex.  Instead of being described as a size 16, the customer will have to allocate a more detailed personal fit profile. Each one of her measurements will have to be recorded, along with height and as many other body shape details as are practical to obtain. It’s likely that, instead of being a two-digit size number, a woman’s fit profile will look more like a bar code.

Which leads onto the next problem: the consumer will be required to cede power over her fit. Instead of deciding that she is a size 16 and seeking out garments labelled as such, it will be technology that provides the selection of apparel in her size. Clearly, she will be able to input her personal ‘fit preferences’ (how tight or loose she prefers her apparel to be), but it will be the end of a customer being able to choose between a size 14 or a 16: that would be decided for her. The shopper will be expected to forget all about size. Indeed, the system itself will be so complex that most people would not be able to identify either their own size, or that of the garments retailed (which will be of a far wider array of gradings and will themselves be identified with complex codes).

There is also the issue of data. One way or another, in order to obtain her fit profile, the consumer will be required to provide quite a lot of personal information. The system will need to know a complex matrix of measurements (possibly through some kind of body scanning), as well as some general information, such as those fit preferences and the consumer’s age (and perhaps even other relevant data, such as returns history analysis and weight). Some organisation (perhaps, but not necessarily, the retailer) will then probably need to retain or even share this information, because it would be unthinkable for the consumer to laboriously re-enter it all on every website, each time she makes a purchase (or indeed, even when she is simply browsing). Even something as quick and simple as being body scanned using her mobile device is likely to be onerous if it has to be redone continually whist browsing. Allowing organisations to do this requires a high level of trust. Indeed, it may involve the creation of new legislation, protections and novel commercial entities, more akin to financial institutions than to fashion retailers. It’s going to require industry-wide co-operation: a massive groundswell that brings competing companies together in a common cause.

But it doesn’t end there. The customer will have to update the accuracy of all this data on a regular basis. Women change their measurements continually: when they have children, if they start fitness training, go on a diet, have a surgery or illness, go through the menopause, gain weight or start to age. Most women are on an ever-changing road. Learning how to keep abreast with them on that road is something that has to be done thoughtfully and with great sensitivity.

These are the barest bones of an ambitious fit system for apparel retail: there are further complexities (which spread out in almost every direction) which I will not attempt to outline here. It’s likely to be a tech-heavy set-up which most consumers will not fully understand, and some (perhaps, in the beginning, many) will not trust. This is, in my opinion, why retail has relentlessly continued with the failing, inappropriate, out-dated system that it has now: the idea of imposing something so challenging on a dubious consumer base has hitherto proved too unrealistic. It’s been considered impossible to ask the consumer to make such a huge leap into the unknown.

The right impetus

So why should a population’s experience of a Coronavirus make the slightest difference to the way they will buy their fashion in the future? Because if there ever was a moment in recent history when the population has had personal experience of a radical change to lifestyles and norms, that time is now. And if the fashion industry really needed a demonstration of the way a population can process knowledge and act for the greater good, this is it.

Consumers have a growing awareness of the unsustainable nature of the modern fashion industry and the clamour for a far greater commitment for ecological responsibility has been developing for some time. What has been missing was the industry’s faith in the ability of the public to understand the complex arguments and the willingness to cooperate with the changes necessary. Prior to COVID, arguably, only the naive optimist would believe that consumers could abruptly change their behaviour to such an extent. Since the pandemic, only the bleakest pessimist would maintain that it isn’t possible.

True, compliance with COVID restrictions has been spurred by about as extreme a reason as can be imagined: a real and immediate threat to life, something somewhat more important than buying correctly-sized clothing. However, the sacrifices required by a change in the sizing system are, in comparison to those being made during lockdown, miniscule. Suddenly, it looks like the womenswear consumer, far from being trapped in her habitual behaviour, needs only the right impetus to willingly undertake change. The question is whether the revolution being suggested is in reasonable proportion to the importance of the issue.

And I would argue it is.

Even were it possible, the fashion industry doesn’t have to meticulously repair the damage that has been done to it during this crisis: it has the opportunity to build something infinitely better suited to today’s world. The recent events during the pandemic may be telling the fashion industry just what it needs to hear to make the leap of faith necessary for the task at hand. It might also, perhaps, for one unique, brief moment, be a time that consumers are able to see past old certainties and established habits and make the impossible happen.


Few companies have emerged unscathed from the lengthy Coronavirus lockdown that has damaged most and broken many


 

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