Home Editorial Why Fit Matters, And How Technology Can Help

Why Fit Matters, And How Technology Can Help

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In her first article since April’s “Process Metamorphosis”, Kilara Le makes a case for the importance of proper and consistent fit when it comes to securing consumer loyalty.

The right fit is a huge part of what makes clothing look good beyond the hanger – on the customer.  The right size, shape and colour combine to achieve a certain “je ne sais quoi” that makes a person feel good about her or his appearance. It’s an aesthetic yet quasi-physiological amalgamation of visual appearance and comfort – all brought about by wearing something as simple as an article of clothing.

But how do we define fit? The right, or “good” fit can allow for fluid range of motion in the case of athletic wear, or conversely constrict movement in the case of a corset, reigning in those lumps and bumps to give the wearer a better shape.  Both are defined as “well-fitting” but could hardly have more different aims.  Fit, like art, is in the eye of the beholder, or wearer as the case may be.  Even though we’ve only covered its extremes, in more practical terms this subjective definition means that some people like loose fitting clothes, some prefer tighter fitting, longer, shorter… so even the right “fit” in the eyes of a pattern maker or technical designer might be the “wrong” fit in the eyes of the customer.

As has happened to most, if not all of us, you’ve seen a beautiful garment on a mannequin in a store and thought, “I love that, I bet it would look great on me”.  However, after rushing to the fitting room to try it on, shock sets in when the garment that looked great on the hanger makes you look like a shapeless blob or a strangely angled new species without the ability to lift its arms. Don’t worry- even though this is disconcerting and sometimes downright frightening, it’s not you- it’s the fit.

And the trick is to remember that the right fit is entirely subjective.

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Images are copyright Irina Shaposhnikova / Eric Elenbaas Agency.

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One of the best ways mitigate this inevitable issue of fit preference is to make fit internally consistent, which is to say reliable at a brand level. This, in tandem with desirable products, establishes a level of familiarity and reliability between the brand and the customer.  It means that the customer can purchase additional products with a higher level of confidence on return visits to a store, or via a brand’s other retail channels. And with large retailers reporting significantly higher sales from repeat omnichannel customers, there is a lot to gain by delivering a consistent product and meeting customer expectations every time they make a purchase; regardless of whether they try-on before they buy.

The first step in this journey to define fit is figuring out who the customer is by analysing more than just the typical metrics of age and style – you must also understand their body shapes and their measurements. The next step is using tools and technology to create guidelines that will be used at the earliest stages of garment fit, during design and development. Subsequently, control must be maintained over these measurements and guidelines for the duration of the development process, at every stage of the extended supply chain.

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Once the target market is determined, how do brands and retailers go about figuring out their customer’s measurements in order to achieve consistent fit? The answer used to be trial and error, in tandem with measuring customers with a trusty tape measure at defined body measurement points. As many technical designers are well aware, the tape measure is always reliable, but the person using it to take measurements might not be so consistent.

In the past, companies have also turned to datasets such as the US army and other governmental sizing information captured using these manual measurement techniques to help determine fit.  These were simply the widest-ranging sets of measurements available.  And in that same environment, many authors of patternmaking books created their own rules and guidelines based on their own experiences.

In the last decade, though, 3D body scanning technology has revolutionised the industry and given brands the ability to view, analyse and make much more sense of anthropometric (human body) data.

Population scanning projects such as the SizeUSA, SizeUK, SizeThailand, and SizeMexico initiatives have given us an unprecedented view into the actual and accurate body measurements of individuals and demographic groups within these countries.  And at least some of these advances came from consumer-grade hardware: Microsoft’s Kinect sensor – released in 2010 – has made it easier than ever to “scan” and capture the body measurements of individuals without necessarily resorting to heavier-duty, dedicated solutions.

These new techniques have also revealed what manual measuring could not: the volume and proportional differences between different body shapes and sizes – allowing the operators of these projects to create visual representations of the sometimes-dramatic variations in sizing in different markets.

It’s important to recognise, though, that 3D scanning produces body measurements, which are different from the finished garment target measurements that are typically sent to factories making products. There is another layer of translation needed to incorporate the body measurements into the pattern slopers, blocks and files to take into account ease and styling. This is the role of patternmaker and grader.

Once target body shape and dimensions have been determined, grading – or changes from size to size to fit the optimum range of customers – can be figured out.  This type of information is used to form the basis of standard grading rules across typical product types and fits, a handy shorthand way of transforming a single size into a garment that fits across multiple sizes.

However, analysis of this kind of far-reaching body scan data also revealed that standard grade rule increments do not always correlate with actual body measurements, and variations from the expected linear grading can be quite significant.  Rather than treat this as a stumbling block, though, the opportunity exists to gain a great deal of fit and grading knowledge by analysing the whole body data of subjects within a target market.

As you might have guessed from the fact that a number of regional surveys have been conducted, analysis of the right demographic is important as fit can easily differ between two people who technically have the same measurements. Depending on how their body is shaped and proportioned they may look totally different but wear the same size.

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Picture two photographs of female celebrities in fashion publications – the kind where they are wearing the exact same dress, but one looks great and the other is labelled a fashion faux pas. Likewise, between ethnic groups body shape and structure can be quite different, and one dress that fits a young professional in Thailand might not look anywhere near as good on her North American counterpart and vice versa.

In addition, our bodies change as we age and go through events such as pregnancy or illness.  But despite all of these factors, we still need clothes that fit us – whoever and wherever we are, and at every stage of our lives.

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Companies such as [TC]2, Alvanon and Human Solutions offer consulting services to help their customers home in on what the actual measurements of their target consumers are, and show them how to maximise patterns to capture the greatest number of subjects without sacrificing the fit.

Creating these kinds of standards and ideals is great, of course, but as with any great idea, the real measure of success is in the execution.  And smart use of apparel design and management technology is one of the best ways to maintain control over the ideal fit once you’ve found it, and deliver it to your target market.

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2D CAD (Computer Aided Design) pattern software has been around for many years.  It’s now the standard for pattern making and sharing.  And the current-generation of this technology – 3D CAD software that utilizes the 2D pattern wrapped around a three-dimensional form – is finally starting to see wide adoption.

There are quite a few companies that sell this technology specifically to the apparel market  – companies such as Optitex, Lectra, Tukatech, Assyst Bullmer, Browzwear, and others.  Exactflat’s CAD software works a bit differently by starting with a 3D form and then flattening it to 2D, but it’s often mentioned in the same breath as the others.

There are a myriad reasons for graduating to 3D, including the potential for improved fit, quick visualization of design concepts, and virtual show rooming of collections. These 3D files and other files can of course be emailed for sharing and collaboration purposes, but anyone who’s read my previous columns will know that they are far better managed in a shared database system that is accessible to the developers and manufacturers working on the style.  A system like PLM.

3D technology by itself already offers opportunities for sample cost reductions.  For example, Adidas recently issued a statement that they have avoided making one million samples over the last three years, due entirely to the success of their 3D modelling initiatives.

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Aside from saving physical resources, there is, of course, time saved in ordering, logging, fitting, discussing, shipping and storing these un-needed samples- both by workers at factories and those at the brand.  Decreasing sample submits and indeed number of items designed and sampled versus those actually put into production has been a hot industry topic for a number of years now, and the combination three-dimensional design and collaboration before a physical fitting appears to be one of the most promising methods of achieving this goal.

As 3D technology continues to improve it is easier to view “sample” garments virtually to see if they do meet design team expectations from the start. Changes can be made in minutes to virtual garments, giving them a better chance of hitting the right fit if they are subsequently requested as actual samples. Simulation of movement and fabric properties on virtual models continues to improve, too, allowing for more confidence in the accuracy of the virtual garment.

Like any new technology, since 3D was first introduced to the industry, the capabilities of each company’s software has increased by leaps and bounds, and today designers and patternmakers alike are adopting 3D solutions specifically to help with fit.

Customers also stand to benefit through better fit today, and eventually virtual trying-on of garments – but that’s a topic for a future article.

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As many retailers and brands have shifted production to overseas factories and agents, they’ve essentially relinquished control over their fit.  During this transition many have also outsourced patternmaking, or even if this is not the case, never even get to see their production patterns. They don’t, in fact, know if the patterns are being made from an original block they provided, or if they are even consistent between manufacturing facilities.

Being able to view and analyse all versions of pattern information is a key component of achieving and maintaining consistent fit.  As this task falls on the shoulders of technical designers, its essential that they have training to fill in any knowledge gaps, understand the production construction process and be able to ask the right questions. Access to markers, if possible, also helps to ensure that what is actually cut is in the correct dimensions. It’s all too easy to shear off pattern pieces to increase fabric utilisation. Understanding what is happening with a problem garment is easier with access to the patterns and having the training to be able to think about why that might be the case.

While 3D solutions can help to draw attention to fit and design intent and the desired pattern at the start of the development process, there is still a definite need for a physical sample eventually – whether garments are being produced just up the street or thousands of kilometres away. Though many retailers and brands are moving toward having agents or overseas offices appointed to approve fit, as we know, communicating detailed changes and comments across long distances and language barriers can be a challenge. Fast Fit 360 is an interesting fit focused solution that provides clients with a standard yet simple photo studio setup and cloud based image storage. Their software aligns with PLM systems, yet provides a social platform to showcase and comment on fit images and videos, specifically designed for teams working in different locations.

As I said, however detailed the 3D model, there is still the eventual need to make physical samples, whether they are shipped across continents or viewed virtually using a solution like Fast Fit 360.

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Once a physical sample does exist, standardised mannequins are a very useful tool to ensure that all parties are looking at a garment from the same fit starting point. These could be standard forms from any number of suppliers, or custom ones either created from 3D body scans or based on measurements taken from fit models. Designating standard or customised forms from one supplier allows vendors to order them as well, but ensuring that those vendors actually use the forms to fit garments is another matter entirely.  Before going down this path, an important question for retailers and brands to ask themselves is: “Does our fit model actually resemble our target market?” And if it doesn’t, they must find one that does.

And finally, if QC does not actually check shipped production garments in the warehouse, otherwise-successful fit processes can be undone at the final hurdle. Giving quality departments access to essential measurement specifications and perhaps even fit comments via a system such as PLM is another layer of assurance that all of that hard work at the front end will pay off in the form of a great and well fitting range of garments.

The ubiquity of spandex in just about every category of women’s clothing is a testament to the challenge of getting fit right.  “If we can’t make it fit everyone, make it stretch”, is a kind of logic that not many companies would own up to, but one that’s more prevalent than many people realise.

But, since most of us are not lucky enough to “look good in a burlap sack” as the saying goes, there is a lot of potential to make customers happier, better dressed, and more loyal without resorting to malleable materials. With a good process in place to maintain the right fit consistency, customers can purchase more confidently.

And confident customers are a retailer or brand’s dream: a group of loyal fans eager to be connected with, keen to live the product lifestyle, and open to education about which items will make them look their best.

Whatever their size.

Kilara Le A senior contributor to WhichPLM, Kilara Le has a background in design and textiles, and a passion for streamlining product development. She has worked with major international retailers, brands, and technology providers on improving business processes, technology implementation and software development. A seeker of elegant solutions to meet business goals and challenges, she is currently a freelance consultant with Walter Wilhelm Associates, and has previously worked with Gerber Technology, PTC, Dassault, and Lectra software.