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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


BBC Radio 4 Four Thought ident

Four Thought – Fit and finished

Please press the play button below to listen to my BBC Radio 4 'Four Thought' broadcast/podcast on 17 June 2020.



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

Plus-size fashion: the shape of fit to come

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fashion fit and the returns covenant

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size

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

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

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

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

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


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

Plus-sizing tech: a fatal glitch

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus-size fashion: the new Gold Rush?

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparel fit: big fashion and the glass wall

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There really is nothing to lose and much to gain.

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

Fashion's 'mind-blowing' fact

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As my friend concluded, "It's a great time to be alive".

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

Fashion's 'cure'?


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

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



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

Turns out it's not available in your size. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

'Sizing'? control

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Essential questions for fashion fit

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it's really worth it.

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.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Flow' – e-commerce technology versus whimsy

Recently I attended the Fit Match Launch, hosted by Rakuten Fits.me, a market leader in e-commerce fit technology, and was fascinated, among other things, by the talk given by the extraordinary Alexandra Shulman – who edited British Vogue  for several decades.

There were at least three powerfully revelatory insights that I took away from her talk (probably a record for me from any speaker at one time), and one in particular really set me thinking.



I admire and respect Ms Shulman, not least because even as she was introducing this new breakthrough, she had the mettle to pinpoint a potential drawback in one part of the technology in which her host is a leading player... that of consumer preference.

I have written before about e-commerce developments that are, in the next few years, going to transform retail (I will confine myself to talking about womenswear fashion here). There are going to be advances in every direction, and one of these will almost certainly include virtual department stores. These online stores will be made up of many different retailers, a unique entity for each customer, and will be filled with apparel that will fit not only the customer's body, but her heart and mind too. Technology of the type that Fits.me has developed is already able to track a customer's ever-changing body size and shape, along with fit preference, and match this knowledge with expert analysis of garment properties to give the customer the information needed to choose a perfect fit when buying apparel online.

But there are other equally important customer preferences to that of fit. Every day giant strides are being made in the understanding of all manner of other customer preferences (otherwise known as 'taste'), and using these to investigate and curate relevant products available at any given time, to place them under the customer's eye. These, ultimately, will form the 'virtual department store' that I mentioned.

What's not to like here? The customer will go online, click on her familiar website, and see only those items that will fit and suit her. More than this, using information mined from her history, as well as her personal input, she will only be shown items that she is likely to like . What kind of colours does she appreciate? Does she seek sustainable fashion? Is she a fully paid-up member of a fashion 'tribe'? Does she have preferences about fabrics or patterns? How modestly does she like to dress? Is she a fashion risk-taker...? There are thousands of tiny points of contact that a woman has with her world, each of which leaves a minute footprint by which her personality can be understood. These, added to what information she is motivated to volunteer, will paint an ever more accurate portrait of her as a consumer of fashion.

Yet Shulman made a highly cogent point in her talk. If we only listen to our own echoes, we are ever-diminishing. If we travel a path down a hall of mirrors, we are unlikely to see anything much of the world. We won't even know what it is we don't know!

Recent political developments have shown that we can become hemmed-in by a technology that only shows us that which has been assessed to be compatible with the worldview that we already have. With social media, current events are being served up as ready-meals: not very nutritious, and with a bland taste that palls after a while.

People often see fashion as a trivial subject. I am not of this opinion. Fashion is a way that the population stitches itself together in unexpected ways. Some people differentiate themselves from their peers (sometimes channelling the unknown or bizarre), whilst others cling on to their tribe. Others still, burrow into their own culture to find buried treasure – the strange roots of the familiar. The choice is ours. Our eyes are opened wide by the geniuses amongst us; we are shown the whole world when we look at fashion – and we shape fresh personas with our own will and originality, or display our lack of those qualities with a clichéd or safe style.

But choice is needed to do this – and it has to be our own. I for one would hate to think that I might in the future lose out on seeing the silly, the ugly, the weird, the impractical, the unexpectedly gorgeous, and the beyond aspirational on my browser. If something has automatically removed all of these, then they have also shrunk something in my life.

I went to art school, and a photography tutor told me that in order to take good pictures you have to have your camera with you at all times. He said that if you only had your camera when you were anticipating getting a worthwhile photograph, then you would be limited to obtaining solely the type of image that you were expecting.

So my suggestion as antidote to this hall of mirrors is something I'm calling 'Flow'. Flow is a system that mines the latest fashion and cultural images and collates them into streams of differing trends. Anyone who knows anything about the inner workings of fashion knows all about this – it's how the latest colours and trends are predicted, and it's been done for many decades.

However, my idea of Flow is for the public – not the industry insiders. In my mind the original Flow – called Pure Flow – is run 24/7 by bots continually assessing and compiling the latest, most influential images from (human) designers and creators in the world of fashion, art, celebrity, photography, interior or product design, music, theatre and film... collating them into related streams. These will be the images that are shown on TV, are popular on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, online and print magazines, films, publicity, etc.

Certain features marking them as related will help these images or cultural trends to be collated into animated mood-boards. For example, a stream could comprise the following set of images: Various vintage-inspired printed patterns or stripes in cool colours, made into a sumptuous silk quilt. Photographs of natural ocean scenes and Nordic landscapes. Clean Swedish interiors; sapphire jewellery in white gold, or silver. Art Deco liquid metallic apparel from a 1930s Hollywood film, modern Japanese Celadon ceramics. Scandinavian vintage silver teaspoons. Cate Blanchett wearing a white silk trouser suit. These are just less than a minute's worth of images that could go towards a stream called 'Nordic Ice'.

This Pure Flow is the raw end of the service. These streams are shown to those who wish to sign up to them on the side of their screen while they are browsing content. They will periodically flick from one to another (there will be many separate streams), and the client will be able to delete certain streams from her flow if she finds them irksome. Each stream will usually only last a few days, or at the most, months, when a look naturally runs out of steam. No images are ever repeated, except when they are automatically plucked from different media. This is a very democratic system: the average consumer will have all the latest knowledge that only high-ranking fashion insiders presently have. Any style elite or fashion-forward insight will be created solely through natural individual qualities of talent, sensitivity and sophistication.

The individual images will change fairly quickly, but the user can click on any one at any moment to get full details. She can also slow a stream down to look at it in more detail.

The next stage of Flow is commercial, and it's called Flow.co. In this, the bots use the images from Pure Flow and link them up to fashion products. The client is likely to click on a stream on Pure Flow that she is particularly taken with, and wishes to have access to this type of look. She will then be put through to the part of Flow.co that is working on that particular stream.

This Flow.co system could be something as simple as finding the original piece of fashion that was in the image in the stream (a dress from Balenciaga, for example), and then, if it were available in a form that suited the price-point and size preferences of the user, offers the dress for immediate sale. It may be, though (as it is with most high fashion) that the dress imaged is not available at that moment (high fashion photography usually references apparel between six months and a year in advance), nor in the size (many designer dresses are not made in 'adult human' sizes), nor at the price point (if this were a couture dress, only a tiny portion of the public would be able to afford it), or the preference (many women do not have the opportunity to use, or the desire for, a full-length silk dress). So the Flow.co image would be tasked to show a further, more accessible set of items.

There may be a high street version of a similar dress, or jumpsuit, blouse or even a pair of shoes that has a similar colour combination, pattern, style or vibe. There may just be a ring or a handbag that echoes the feel. If required, everything shown by Flow.co is commercially available in the size, fit preference and price-point of the user. It may be somewhat removed from the original image. However, it's a way for the user to be swept off her feet by catching the coat tails of a passing fashion whimsy.

Moving onwards to Wave Flow, we see the Flow idea taken to a greater area of commerce, which it is not all about fashion. The Wave Flow images are related to all sorts of other items that link in terms of aesthetics, and everything... and nothing... else. Thus, that Balenciaga dress may reference a peeling wooden door, photographed in Crete (you can click on a relevant airbnb), a glass sculpture of a jellyfish created by the Blaschka brothers (as shown in a museum exhibition nearby) – see below , Roman mosaic floor on a Greek island (hotel availability), a pair of earrings (for your pierced ears, within your price point), some kitchen tiles (available online), an Impressionist painting in the Musée d'Orsay (accessed via Eurostar).
Glass sculpture of a jellyfish created by the Blaschka brothers

The commercial part of Flow does use certain customer preferences in the technology; they will guide you towards items at your price-point, in your size and fit preference, and which are also available in your marketplace. Pure Flow will sit naturally alongside any 'virtual department stores' that the customer frequents, offering a counterpoint to it. Thus the client will be able to create her own diet by shopping what she knows well and trusts, nourished by the preferences algorithm – while seasoning it with the changeability and originality that is unique to creative human beings. This is because there is no editing of the style content of Pure Flow, which represents the ideas being spun on a moment-to-moment basis out of the world's aesthetic centre of gravity at any one given moment.

By watching the streams, the user will be able to turn a blank page with her taste. If she frequented nothing but her safe curated stores, the most she could hope for would be that her style will slowly evolve over time. Yet if she is a personality that is susceptible, she may regularly 'jump out of her own skin' when inspired by Flow.

She will see the latest thinking of the style-makers, visual influencers, creatives and cultural architects, and be able to spin on a sixpence to alter and create a new aesthetic persona using her own will – possibly driven by nothing more than a whim.


 

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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