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Multi-Dimensional Body Shapes; the Department Store’s Secret Weapon?


Here WhichPLM’s fit expert, Mark Charlton, shares his views on fit in relation to department stores – and what they might have been getting right all along…

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.

Most of my articles have addressed the complexities of creating, perfecting and executing fit across a diverse and changing consumer landscape. I always allude to solutions around creating more dimensions into a size offering.

Most brand products are created and perfected on a single body shape / proportion then scaled up and down from that shape. I refer to this as a two-dimensional sizing construct: the first dimension being the body shape, and the second being the size scale.

Some brands are recognizing that this traditional, linear approach to grading (the term used to grade from one size to another) is no longer reflective of the population. After all, the population’s height is not a linear trajectory in line with chest size. This gives us a third dimension of a non-linear grade – perhaps in the guise of offering petite or tall sizes, where the proportions of the base size have been altered to reflect a different sizing construct. Or perhaps distorting the grade to better reflect how humans apportion growth (think neck girth in relation to chest girth, which is not a linear and consistent growth trajectory). More commonly, this is seen in a plus size offering.

I believe, however, that there is a fourth dimension!

I refer to this as 4D fit – not to be confused with a technology , like 3D, but more of a concept.

Instead of offering sizing dimensions of product built around one defined body shape, we need to understand that different body shapes exist and thus create product that will fit multiple body shapes across the dimensions of sizes.

Of course solutions for brands do look different based on:

  • Target demographic vs actual demographic vs desired reach
  • Regional landscape vs global landscape
  • Product type and diversity / mix of product type (tailoring vs athleisure, for example)
  • Brand fit intent vs individual fit intent and the diversity thereof.

This is a delicate balance and needs to be considered along with a brands current fit proposition. A regular fitting t-shirt developed for one body shape could be a slim fitting t-shirt for another body shape. The same could be true of sizes, where a size ‘medium’ in one body shape could be a size ‘small’ in another body shape.

I refer to this as body shape / size product leverage, which then produces a matrix to avoid SKU proliferation. The key being how this matrix is intuitively communicated and understood by the individual consumer.

I had an epiphany over lunch a few weeks ago. Is my concept of a multi-dimensional fit proposition (aka 4D fit) present in department stores? And, has it always been present? Is this their secret weapon? But, most importantly, do they know it?

Let me explain, a department store will carry multiple brands, and each brand is designed, developed and perfected on one body shape. These body shapes will differ, as will the brand fit intent of each product. This creates a sea of product and ultimate choice for the consumer. The consumer just needs to know how to navigate this.

I know my body shape, I know what I am searching for in terms of product, style, and fit preference, and I know my size (although possibly not my size in relation to each brand, for the afore mentioned reasons).

This would be the value add of the personal shopper present in some department stores: to know each brand, to know the body shape each brand uses to create their product, to know the fit intent of each brand, and then to navigate this for you and present choices and sizes that are suited to your search. In the absence of a personal shopper the consumer is on the front line navigating the sea of product by trial and error – the latter being most common. [I wrote about the challenges with the success ratio of the fitting room last year.]

In the present day when data is the new gold, all this information is not a secret.

Brands target body shape. Brands fit intent. Brands create sizing constructs and the incremental differences between each size. Brands know fabric property’s and fabric behaviour for each product offered. All of this is obtainable from the brand.

Consumers’ body dimensions can be obtained via various methods; traditional manual measurements or technological solutions are also available.

Consumers fit preference, I believe, can be predicted: if an operating system knows your movements (past, present and future) your influences, your social events, even the weather, then trend adoption pace and individual fit preference can be predicted.

I do believe this is the secret weapon of the department store, be it traditional bricks and mortar or e-commerce. The diversity and inclusion that consumers are craving is catered for under one roof / one screen. But navigating this sea of product and intuitively communicating this for the individual consumer is the key to unlocking this secret weapon and will be a competitive advantage for the multi-brand retailer / department store.

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.