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Chief Fit Officer

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Following his article exploring sizing standards, in his latest exclusive for us, WhichPLM’s fit expert, Mark Charlton, now discusses the lack of ownership around fit, and how this has caused problems throughout the industry.

I have a passion for great fitting apparel and for over 20 years I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings.

In this article I would like to address what I believe is a gap in every organization with regard to apparel fit and understandable, consumer centric communication of said fit.

With e-commerce return rates soaring, on average, to around 50%, the topic of apparel fit is high on every brand or retailer’s agenda. Or at least, it should be. As a brand / retailer’s e-commerce portfolio grows, the question almost all are trying to answer is, how do we reduce these return rates?

A significant portion of these returns are related to fit in one way or another, be it true (i.e. the garment did not fit my body, or the garment did not fit as I, the consumer, expected), fabric fit (i.e. the fabric properties behaved differently than expected and therefore effected the fit), or style (i.e. the styling / design aesthetic was effecting the fit and not in sync with the customer’s expectations and/or fit preference).

In any organization, who can be held responsible for these returns rates? Who, ultimately, owns apparel fit?

The reality is that no one function or leader owns apparel fit from concept to, and beyond, the consumer. It’s a hybrid of ownership as the product is developed, manufactured and marketed. And there lies the problem.

Example Fit

Let’s look at the typical journey of apparel fit, from concept to consumer. A brand will have defined body dimensions, a specific body shape, proportion and measurements that best represents the brand’s target consumer average. (The delta between target consumer and actual consumer and the average approach to body shape is a topic addressed later in this article, suffice to say this is a contributing factor). Then, the brand will have a defined size range and rules or increments applied to their base size body to create the size range offered. Typically, these “body standards” are housed and upheld in the technical design or product development area.

Then the creation of an item of clothing is born in design, and how this item fits the body standards is typically a joint ownership between design (the voice of creativity and trend) and merchants (the voice of what the consumers want and/or what the competition is doing). The outcome is: body measurements meet design aesthetic and styling, meet brand intended fit preference, meet fabric properties …then the item is approved on the one body shape.

The execution and grading (across the size range) of this item is owned by technical design and/or product development. The scaling and mass manufacturing of this item is, of course, owned by the garment manufacturer and the consistency of product manufacture is owned by Quality Assurance / Quality Control.

The next stage is how this item is marketed to the sales team and, ultimately, communicated to the consumer. Be it internal sales to wholesale accounts and then in turn to the consumer; be it internal sales to bricks and mortar retail associates and then in turn to the consumer, or directly onto e-com sites. In my experience, sales are focused on sales and fit – even though I believe is the secret competitive advantage – is generally low on the agenda of sales, or the sales teams are not adequately educated on the nuances and complexities of apparel fit to successfully communicate fit to the consumer in a way that is meaningful to the individual consumer.

There is a relationship of few to infinite here that needs to be understood: few being the brand’s body standards (a targeted defined body shape, proportion and measurements, then the size range [i.e. XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL,] of six sizes), and infinite being the actual consumer’s body shapes, proportions and measurements.

As you can see from this example there any many inputs and owners of how a garment fits, but no one sole owner. In my experience, when digging into apparel return rates, the unanswered questions and variables are huge and very subjective. Things like:

  • What were the consumer’s body measurements?
  • What size did they order?
  • What was their expectation of fit?
  • Did they understand the designer’s intended fit and styling?
  • Did they understand the fabric properties and how the garment would drape / perform?
  • Was the garment manufactured to with the agreed manufacturing tolerances?

Due to the spread of fit ownership, no one owner takes responsibility or accountability and so the cycle continues.

Isn’t the definition of insanity repeating the same process and expecting a different result?

Taking Ownership

As with most problems, to truly define and drive a sustainable solution, roles and responsibilities with clear ownership and single accountability is key.

I appreciate and acknowledge that, design, merchandizing, technical design, product development, quality control, the garment manufacturer and sales all play a part in creating a product and have input into how the garment should fit, however there does need to be one over arching authority on fit from concept to, and beyond, the consumer. A CFO (Chief Fit Officer), if you like.

I reference beyond the consumer as, in most organizations, the focus is on sell through (how many garments did we sell?) as opposed to what did the consumer really like, and how are my garments performing wear after wear after wear? Then, how does an organization use this information in the creation of next season’s range, specifically with a view on fit? Most organizations are investing in business intelligence and consumer insight tools, but, due to the ill clarity and subjectivity around fit and fit communication, to derive any consumer insights from such tools is difficult. This is where the CFO would step in – to own the process, the metrics, reduce the subjectivity and create objective learnings, and ultimately be accountable for fit and ensuring a positive consumer experience regarding fit.

I also referenced above a delta between target consumer and actual consumer and the average approach to body shapes. Please allow me to expand: it’s good to have aspirations, but it’s also good to have a firm grasp on reality. Most brands have an aspirational “target” consumer and the standard body shape, proportions and body measurements are based on this aspirational view of consumers only. There has to be recognition that we humans are not standard or average – we are individual – and that the sizing standards used for decades need to be updated. This is more than validating the standard size; the range and the clustering of the sizes needs to be addressed. The dimension(s) of body shapes, proportions and sizes needs to be addressed. Again, this is where the CFO would step in to objectively create dimension, re-cluster the sizes, shapes, and proportions and monitor the success and respond accordingly.

For my last article with WhichPLM, I wrote on this exact topi, in relation to plus sizing: the need for us to look at sizing constructs differently.

The Fit Experience

As the growth of e-commerce evolves, what I find interesting is that the size range offered online mimics the in-store offering. While this creates a consistent shopping experience, one could argue it’s a consistently negative experience with regard to fit.

The barrier to offering more sizes, and more dimension in fit at traditional brick and motor retail is inventory (carrying all those units across all the sizes and potentially different fit offerings in stock, in store). The fear of excess inventory leading to mark downs effecting the bottom line, ruled this out as an option, and so was born the “standard”, “average” approach to sizing that we know today.

The logistical support mechanism to e-commerce is different to bricks and mortar stores. E-commerce stock is central and therefore can be leveraged. I believe there is an opportunity to address the diver’s needs of a diver’s consumer base online differently. Again, a single owner of fit can capitalize on this.

Opportunities are in abundance if there is acknowledgement that there can be only one undisputed owner of fit throughout the creation to consumer process.

Mark Charlton With more than 20 years’ experience in the apparel industry, Mark Charlton is a technical leader who has worked with manufacturers, trading companies, direct-to-consumer retailers,omni-channel national and global brands. His key focus is product groups from M2M tailoring to lingerie and everything in-between. He has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level. Additionally, Mark has a proven record of driving and implementing organizational and process change from corporate teams throughout the global supply chain.