Essential Questions for Fashion Fit
Today’s blog post is guest-authored by Emma Hayes of At Last Limited. Emma has worked in fashion retail for 35 years, and has become fascinated by – and developed deep expertise in – bodyshape diversity among womenswear consumers.
We’ve recently switched-on to her thought-provoking ideas, and jumped at the opportunity to share it with you. To find out more about Emma and the work she does, be sure to look her up on twitter, linkedin, and atlastlimited.com.
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 jump 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 sized 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 actually 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.