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Fit has a Communication Problem


In his first exclusive for 2018, WhichPLM’s fit expert, Mark Charlton, discusses how simple brand communication can help the fit challenge in fashion.

We all know a great fit when we find one; in business we all understand fit is a competitive advantage. So why is it so hard to find a fit that fits you? And is it getting harder? Are brands losing control?

Hopefully I now have your attention, so let’s try and answer some of these questions.

In short – yes, finding a perfect fit is getting harder. The world is getting smaller, and a consumer travels the globe for product (if not physically, then virtually with a little help of the Internet). That creates the next problem of purchasing product via e-commerce. Then, comes the fact that across the globe different body shapes exist, and compounding this is globalization. We are living in a multicultural society meaning those different body shapes – previously somewhat restricted regionally – are now global.

In layman’s terms, a brand would cater to the Asian consumer with a different fit specifically designed for the Asian body shape and distribute this product to Asian retail channels. Well, here’s the kicker: there is indeed a different body shape akin to an Asian culture, however, this is not restricted to Asians nor to the Asian region. And, what’s more, there is more than one single body type in the world.

Global diet is also changing how the human body apportions growth; both the obesity epidemic and a global fitness trend have created much more variance across the size scale and within a single size.

Again, in layman’s terms, there could be an ‘XL’ guy who’s a cross fit junkie, or an ‘M’ guy who is trapped in a ‘XL’ body due to poor diet choices? This might sound harsh, but the reality is that a brand could be trying to cater to both bodies with one size: an XL.

I can assure you brands are not losing control. Having worked for various different brands, retailers, and manufacturers for over 20 years, hours and hours are spent during the development process perfecting apparel fit, then once the fit is perfected (approved) on a base size, scientific grade rules are applied to create the size range. In most cases this is reviewed several times to ensure it’s a correct representation of the base size Then, apparel manufacturers have evolved to six sigma quality control models to ensure consistency across mass production.

So why, then, is it so hard to find a fit that, well, fits?

I believe there is one major contributing factor and one sub-contributing factor here.

The major factor is communication. As I stated above, brands are meticulous in crafting the perfect fit. However, they fail to communicate on what body shape and how the product is intended to fit that body shape (industry term, fit preference). And in most cases this is one-dimensional, i.e. one body shape, and not catering to the myriad different body shapes that exist across the globe.

Then how does said brand grade between sizes? Brands attempt to communicate this via size charts, mostly found online, but without understanding the base size and how the base size fits, these are futile.

The sub-contributing factor I’m referring to is change management. Let’s assume you (via trial and error) find the perfect fit, then the next season you purchase the same fit, perhaps in a different fabric, perhaps in a different color / print. Different fabrics react differently, and different colors of the same fabric can also react differently (it’s possible the dye chemicals and the dying process can effect fabric properties). Most brands try to counteract this and minimize the effect, however, I see a communication opportunity here. You may think this overkill but I’ll try to play this out – let’s take 2 x Pima cotton tee shirts, 1 x white, 1 x black; the black tee has more dye chemicals and as a result will not feel as soft. Harsher garments have the effect of feeling smaller on the body as they are not as fluid. So:

  • Option 1 is to make both colors the same, (where black will feel smaller)
  • Option 2 is to account for this, and in store the same size is actually different across the 2 colorways and is perceived as an inconsistency and a quality control problem.

You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

But, what if you simply educated the consumer, by actually communicating?

The bigger problem (in my opinion) is when you do find the perfect fit, then next season return to repurchase and learn it’s not the same. In most cases the brand evolved the fit. This isn’t a bad thing: fashions change and fits of core items need to evolve – just Google a polo shirt from the ‘80s and you’ll see what I mean! No judgement, it’s simply evolved. However, most brands again fail to communicate the evolution of fit. At best, there is a hangtag stating updated fit, but what has actually been updated? And what does this mean to that loyal consumer?

So, enough ranting, what’s the solution?

Fundamentally effective, intuitive communication is the key.

I also believe a radical approach to sizing; S-M-L-XL, 32,34,36,38 feels outdated, not to mention that a 32 trouser does not measure 32! Vanity sizing has now become insanity sizing.

In the age of consumer reviews and friend recommendations, what if you associated yourself with a body shape and size. Let’s say Amy of English descent, who’s 5’6 and 120lbs, 34D, 26” waist. You could see product on Amy and how this fits Amy. As a consumer, I don’t need to know the size Amy wears and decode this for myself. It could be made simple for the consumer, by just calling this size ‘Amy’ and ordering size ‘Amy’.

Then, create other body shapes and sizes, give these names and identityies and align the size offering with the identities.

I would like to see a world where I know Paul in brand X is my size (42” chest) and my proportion aka build (mesomorphic) and wears his clothes like I do (or like I aspire to), therefore I just order size ‘Paul’.

This is not SKU proliferation – Paul could be wearing a traditional size M and this fits slim.

Using the same example, Steve is the same 42” chest but a different body shape – let’s say ectomorphic (long and lean). Steve could be wearing the same product as Paul but the same traditional size ‘M’ would fit Steve more like a regular fit (a little looser), than the slim fit for Paul.

Same product, same size, but fits two different body shapes of the same size chest, differently.

The key is communication and understanding the different body shapes and sizes across the globe, and how your products fit across this spectrum, then devising intuitive communication to manage customer expectations.

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.