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

'Sizing'? control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential questions for fashion fit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it's really worth it.

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

Preferred fit: the science of profitability

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

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

Returns are unremittingly expensive and wasteful, so if finding a magic bullet to solve the fit problem were easy, it would already have been done.  The issues of fit are about as complex and contradictory as it gets.  This post is not about physical fit (I have – and will – cover this in other pieces): it deals mainly with the more slippery, yet still important, subject of customer preference.  It's one thing to measure a human body and decide the apparel that is going to fit it: it's quite another when we attempt to supply a person with a piece of clothing that they feel truly happy with.  It is only by perfecting both aspects that we will strike gold.

If fashion were not an extremely competitive industry, and if garment returns were not an expensive millstone around its neck, then perhaps we could afford to ignore preferred fit (although there are arguments aplenty against ecological waste and customer disappointment caused by inappropriately sized and graded apparel).  But I would ask every CEO in fashion the same question: if your competitor is going toe-to-toe with you with everything else, would you feel happy for them to be better equipped to deal with preferred fit than your company is? 

I would also ask the tech companies: are you doing enough to make sure that its you, rather than your competitors, that produce the game-changing, 'must-have tech' for fashion, one of the world's major industries?

What is preferred fit?  If you were to take ten customers, and examine the way they like to wear their clothes, at first glance you might think that they are all over the place.

One consumer will want her clothing as snug as a second skin.  Another will want her apparel to flow loosely over her body. One woman will insist that her sleeves be long enough to cover the base of her thumb, yet the next person wants them to expose the bones of her wrists.  Confusingly, the same woman will sometimes have different preferences: her favourite 'comfy' boyfriend jeans may serve a completely different aesthetic than her skin tight ones.  These partialities spread out in all directions, encompassing every area of each garment.  If your aim is to find your customer's preferences, you have got your work cut out.

It is surprising that many companies still do not adequately address the subject of fit, and few even approach the complexities of preferred fit.  If addressed at all, the current approach is often to just to ask a few cursory questions.  Preferences, however, are often subtle and innate, and can be far more complex than immediately obvious.  There are reasons why some consumers cannot say, will not say, or do not even know what to say about them.  The nature of the beast is that we are often talking about personal norms: something that the consumer believes to be a non-issue, so asking predicates the kind of self-awareness or product knowledge that the average consumer doesn't always have.

Then, also, there are reasons why questions are not always practical.  In order to know enough – or anything meaningful, actually – we may have to ask a lot, and we have to have some expertise (and subtlety) as to what to ask.  We have to incentivise the customer to take the time and effort to answer all these questions (preferably honestly), and keep on answering them... because our bodies and preferences change all the time.  There really has to be a better way, because what we need to do is to replicate (as near as possible) the 'trying on' experience.

While looking minutely at individuals will not be the most effective use of our resources, seeking patterns on a grander scale is going to be much more rewarding. Observing the population is like looking at a pointillist painting: standing too close and staring at the individual dots isn't going to get you anywhere.  It's necessary to back off and look at the big picture, because the more dots you can see, the better sense it all makes.  

Let's start at one small part of the picture.  Why would one person want her sleeves to fall so much further down her arms than another?  Do they have anything in common with other people who like the same thing?  

We are often talking about optical illusions.  If your sleeve is above the bones in your wrist, it has a tendency to make your arms look longer.  If they are halfway over your hands, they look much shorter.  As human beings, we tend to want to converge into the middle of the pack.  Indeed, the nearer to the norm we are, the greater is our perceived beauty.  Without realising it, if we are shorter (with short arms), we want to look more 'regular', and many petite women would unconsciously feel alienated if their sleeves draped over their hands, emphasising their smaller stature: infantilising them visually. 

Conversely, a tall person with long arms may start to feel freakish if her upper limbs are seen to overly protrude out of her sleeves, emphasising their divergence from the norm.  Of course, there are 'preferred abnormalities', such as a model's enhanced height or low body fat, but these must be emphasised as 'elite', 'aspirational' and 'intended', and thus well catered to.

This is just one glimpse at the engine behind preferred fit – and there is much else to know.  I've had 30 years of experience of fitting and measuring thousands of fashion consumers, meaning that the pointillist dots started to coalesce a long time ago. 

'All dogs have four legs.  This table has four legs.  Therefore this table is a dog.'
The list of aspects affecting consumer preferences is, on the face of it, pretty banal: age, size, height, body shape, personality type, garment function and/or style, cost...  Yet we have to be subtle and knowledgeable about each of these issues, which are, in fact, very complex.  We cannot lump inappropriate groups together.  And we have to be respectful: we need to avoid using stereotyping and patronisation.  We are predicting, not dictating, preferences; discovering, investigating and learning all the time.

When it comes to 'predictive fit preferences', such is the paucity of our knowledge, we are in the Stone Age.  To mix metaphors, it's a chicken-and-egg situation where we cannot know if it works until we start to use it, and many companies may not want to sink their resources into it until it has been proven.  Yet now, with the ability to gather customer data on a huge scale, we actually have an opportunity to build something very exciting.

We need to be swift to use customer experts, who already know a huge amount about those mysterious consumer preferences, and team them up with thought leaders, statisticians, tech developers, scientists, garment technicians, PRs and other influencers – all manner of differing disciplines – and get stuck in.  It is the correctly targeted use of science – combining human ingenuity, experience and curiosity – that is going to allow us to fully interpret what big data can tell us about our population.  This is not a job that is going to do itself.

There is one other aspect to this situation that, like the oft-mentioned elephant in the corner, looms silently and patiently over the proceedings.  If we do manage to identify customer preferences, do we actually manufacture the clothing necessary in all those diverse fits?  Anyone with an understanding of apparel cutting will know from what I have written that addressing these preferences is likely to widen the envelope of fits, especially towards the more outlying body types.  Those people who already have long arms are going to want to have their sleeves even longer.  The difference between the short and long sleeve length just got extended.  Spread this out across every part of every garment and you get an idea of the issues in question.

Lack of information was the reason why so far we've been having such a problem with creating fashion that fits our customers well enough for them to want to keep it; if we do not know what grading and sizes we actually need, we are unlikely to make the correct ones just coincidentally.  Although it will never be possible for big fashion to suit every preference to perfection, there is enormous opportunity here to create apparel that is far better fitted to purpose.

In 50 years' time, fashion historians will look back on the next decade as a kind of 'mass extinction event' and remark that the comet that has hit Planet Fashion has been e-commerce.  Those companies ill-prepared to develop the correct response to consumer fit are the ones who are going to turn out to be the dinosaurs.

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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