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The Clothing Industry Wants the Shirt off Your Back

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on May 02, 2013

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Some passengers balked when airports first installed body scanners. Since then, the novelty has worn off, and most of us view the devices as just another obstacle to hurdle as we race to our destinations.

Now, similar scanners and other technologies are cropping up in the retail clothing industry, intending to provide garments that fit…without visiting a fitting room, or relying on inconsistent sizing.

And they’re also raising questions about how much we’re willing to give in order to get something we want. To get a more comfortable fit, we may have to confront some uncomfortable truths.

The emperor’s new clothes

What would you be willing to do if you could get a bespoke suit without visiting a tailor? Or find the perfect pair of jeans without spending an entire day trying them on?

Would you pose for photos in front of a webcam…in your underwear?

Doing so (from the privacy of your home) would allow software to create a 3D image of you, ensuring the precise fitting of clothes from participating retailers, either online or in stores.

Envisioned by the London College of Fashion, in collaboration with a number of experts in body mapping, this “virtual tape measure” platform is just one of the innovations that aims to reduce the high cost of return postage for clothing retailers, while helping customers select the correct sizes.

One size doesn’t fit all

Finding clothes that fit is a challenge felt keenly by both retailers and customers. Roughly 20% of all online clothing purchases are returned, and the majority of shoppers who won’t buy clothes online say that fear of not getting a good fit is what stops them from making Internet purchases.

It’s hard enough to find a good fit even in a real store with real fitting rooms. Knowing what size to start with is the first challenge.

Shop ’til you drop…A size

It’s rumored that in the 90s, some clothing manufacturers reduced all clothing by one full size to appease a marketplace that’s growing fatter—both literally and figuratively (pun intended).

Vanity sizing is no longer a Garment District secret; it’s a common marketing practice. A dress that was once designated a size 14 by manufacturers now proudly displays a “12” or even a “10” on its tag, leading customers to feel good when they’re able to fit into a “smaller” size. Men, too, have noticed size creep…but it typically doesn’t make them feel better to find that they’ve been downsized.

Beyond vanity sizing, there’s a lack of standards between manufacturers and brands that contributes to the problem of ill-fitting clothes. Someone who wears a small-sized tee at The Gap might find that a medium shirt by Lucky Brand fits them better. Online and catalog apparel retailers have measurements pages, which customers are supposed to consult to determine what size shirt or pant they wear.

We currently have a sizing system that’s complicated, inconsistent, and, frankly, chaotic. Forget disrobing in a fitting room…it’s time for some disruption in there.

Fitting solutions

Like the solution being developed in London, Berlin-based UPcload gathers the measurements of users with tailor-like accuracy. Named Germany’s startup of the year, UPcload’s users don form-fitting dark clothes against a light background, and pose in front of a webcam with a CD in their hands. The standard-sized CD provides the scale the software needs to determine measurements. A profile is created from the photographs, allowing shoppers to use a widget to select clothes at participating retailers.

At this date, Upcload has signed ten retailers; more are “coming soon,” according the website.. With benefits like a 15%-30% reduction in returns, a 20% increase in sales conversions, and greater customer satisfaction, UPcload’s goal “to initiate a new era of e-fashion commerce where clothing returns are a thing of the past” may well be possible.

Clothes Horse doesn’t need your own measurements or photos to suggest the correct size for you. Using a widget that questions customers about their body types, which brands fit them, and which don’t, Clothes Horse mines a database of human measurements and brand information to determine what size someone should buy.

Unique Solutions has more than 60 body-scanning kiosks in malls and shopping centers in the U.S., and scans approximately 200,000 shoppers every month. In just 10 seconds, a fully clothed shopper can get scanned, and be matched with apparel specifications appropriate for his or her measurements and body type. Shoppers can view recommended styles, and get a printed out shopping list. uses “FitBots,” or robotic mannequins, to figure out how clothes fit different body types to see which brands will look best on you. Participating retailers (including the Otto, the world leader in online fashion retailing) need only to ask online shoppers for a few basic measurements, and they’re able to display how a certain style will fit them., named by Vogue as one of the “Power 100” in online fashion in 2012, boasts that it increases retailers’ sales by 57%, while reducing returns and costs by 28%.

Using a video gaming console or a PC, Styku creates a virtual fitting room within the home. It gathers hundreds of measurements in just a few seconds, and lets customers “try on” different garments in an accurate virtual rendering.

Just my size

There are privacy issues surrounding these new smart shopping solutions, to be sure. Some of them collect ZIP codes and other information beyond just measurements. The potential to leak both images and data certainly exists.

But in a world where we surrender vital data to get a loyalty card that earns discounts, or teens allow access to voice and data information in exchange for a free phone, submitting to a body scan or a series of photographs seems less like a strip search when the prize is clothing that fits well. As these shopping technologies continue to be deployed, their use will likely be accepted more rapidly by younger generations, who’ve demonstrated a lower concern over privacy in a myriad studies.

A bigger fear than privacy, perhaps, may be that we will have to confront our true sizes. For shoppers who buy tight garments just because they think they’re still a size 14, not a 16, or an XL instead of an XXL, what will it feel like to see a 3D rendering of their bodies?

If these new fitting solutions really work, perhaps they herald the beginning of an era in apparel where clothes no longer need to have a size, and where customers can literally design their own garments. With shoppers armed with profile printouts and online avatars, why would a garment even need to be labeled with a size? All it would need is a barcode to match it to a shopper’s information.

Otherwise, shopping 2.0 may deliver an experience that’s just a little too uncomfortable for some people.


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