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Not Fit Enough: Sizing up the Australian market

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In his first article for WhichPLM, Peter Richardson looks at the importance of fit through the lens of Australia’s outdated national sizing information and his own desire to see the science brought into the twenty-first century – both in his home country and elsewhere.

As is the case in most western countries Australians are getting bigger.  Since 1995 the average Australian man has added 3.9kg to his total weight, and his female counterpart 4.1kg.  And these changes haven’t come from muscle mass: the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ recent health survey results (published this week) reveal that an alarming majority (some 63% in total) of Australians are either overweight (35%) or obese (28%).

The effect this has on the retail and fashion industry is considerable.  After all, in a country where 60% of men and 67% of women have a waist circumference that puts them at risk of developing chronic disease, we can’t very well keep producing smalls, mediums and larges in the same relative dimensions as we have before!  A recent report by Kurt Salmon and Associates showed that more than 70% of potential in-store sales in the U.S. were lost because of issues associated with fit.

The question, then, is how do we avoid losing thousands of prospective customers and make garments to fit the unfit? (…continued below)

Three months later we shipped the scanner back to Europe.

At that time the Standards Australia body indicated that whilst they would like to amend the existing standards, they had no funds to do so.  They suggested that the clothing industry as a whole fund the survey, and following months’ worth of inaction and indecision, finally the idea of an industry-sponsored fit survey petered out.  Although the following year, in 2009, the federal government conducted a review of the Australian textile, clothing and footwear industry and emerged with a recommendation that the government allocate $5 million to develop a national sizing standard (and despite much industry lobbying) to date no action has been taken.

[quote]Whether it’s here in Australia or elsewhere in the world, there is now a host of reliable anthropometric data that can be subscribed to or purchased and directly imported into the CAD systems used by technical designers, leading to pieces that are designed from the very beginning with the best possible fit in mind. [/quote]

Finally, in May of this year, one of our larger chain stores (Target) used three-dimensional body-scanners to analyse the size and shape of more than 20,000 adults across the nation, with the specific goal of improving the fit and consistency of the sizing ranges in their apparel division.  Far from being the end goal, though, the data gleaned from this survey can then be used in a variety of ways to ensure that the information is disseminated and deployed in the right places to make a real difference to the way we produce our garments.

In the UK and USA, nation-wide sizing surveys have been undertaken with precisely this goal in mind.  Sophisticated three-dimensional scanning techniques were used in the “Size UK” and “Size USA” surveys and in the equivalent French Sizing Survey, and their results were compiled in order to create a comprehensive picture of each nation’s height, weight and body shape.  Needless to say this information was highly sought-after, and it’s been used since to create accurate dress forms, inform sizing gradients, and build and three-dimensional avatars of the “typical” man, woman and adolescent for a range of purposes.

In Australia, official sizing is still based roughly on manual measurements submitted by readers of Australian Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1969.  Hardly a source of scientifically-accurate sizing in comparison to the initiatives undertaken in Europe and the USA, and this is without even taking account of the whispered consensus – that back in 1969, most participants in the readers’ survey “cheated” and understated their size.

Unsurprisingly most retail and apparel companies have either dropped these old standards entirely, or adapted their fit to take account of modern trends and size variances.  Indeed, several companies have run their own, smaller and more specific surveys to try and fill this significant gap in their knowledge of their target market, as we saw in Rip Curl’s “Teens Fit” report.

In 2008, as part of a CAD/CAM promotion, I imported a 3D body-scanner into the country to demonstrate the technology at a trade exhibition I was attending in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.  The scanner attracted considerable attention, we received national press coverage, and various State ministers were quoted in the newspapers as saying that a national size survey of the kind we’ve seen elsewhere was a terrific idea.

For example, using this new sizing data Target can produce “blocks” (also known as garment patterns) that are based on the silhouettes of the surveyed sample group and representative of the true sizing requirements of the Australian population as a whole.  These blocks can be held within Target’s PLM solution as a digital file, and then subsequently shared and used by their suppliers’ CAD systems as a standardised DFX (Drawing Exchange Format) block pattern.

Outside of Target’s own requirements, these blocks should then be used by all retailers and manufacturers – whether their production model is single-sourced or conducted via multiple sourced suppliers – to ensure that finished garment measurements are consistent with the expectations of not just the designers and garment technicians that produced them, but the customer who might previously have been turned away by a poorly-fitting garment.

Whether it’s here in Australia or elsewhere in the world, there is now a host of reliable anthropometric data that can be subscribed to or purchased and directly imported into the CAD systems used by technical designers, leading to pieces that are designed from the very beginning with the best possible fit in mind.  Indeed, those same CAD systems are also becoming 3D-capable, with patternmaking systems playing host to draping and 3D-to-2D flattening capabilities.   Coupled with the kind of three-dimensional avatars we are today able to create from that contemporary sizing data, retailers and brands can begin to develop accurate virtual prototypes that allow them to quickly experiment with block styling, trims, and other aesthetic design elements without the costs associated with physical sampling.  Many of these capabilities exist today as plug-ins to popular PLM solutions, and we expect to see an increasing number appear as integral components of those solutions in the near future.

The one overriding conclusion we can draw from years’ worth of experience is that fit matters.  It can represent the difference between a sale and a lost customer, and between a returned garment and a brand evangelist.  And as Australian clothing manufacturing disappears and more and more retailers and brands bypass the traditional wholesaler and source directly from overseas suppliers, it is vital that we not leave fit to the vagaries of international collaboration and sampling and instead base this most vital aspect of our production processes on the best possible data that exists.

You might ask yourselves when the last time was that your basic blocks and grading were checked against your target market, but the simpler question would be: are your garments fit to sell?

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.

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