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Why is it so hard to make apparel that fits?



In his first exclusive article for WhichPLM, Mark Charlton discusses the problem our industry has with fit. Mark has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level, and sits on WhichPLM’s Expert Board.

mark-charltonI have a passion for great fitting apparel. I guess we all do, but for over 20 years I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings. There is a very interesting convergence in the marketplace today and this is affecting how apparel fits consumers.


So, what’s happening?

Let me begin by stating that, historically,  most brands operate as a regional entity growing from their marketplace of origin, creating product with a regional point of view to fit a regional consumer. As these brands globalize, the product offering and how that product fits the consumer, is specific to a region. More sophisticated brands (from an operational perspective) create a global product offering but manage apparel fit via regional fit standards, creating the same product in different fit / size constructs for different consumer body shapes.

As brands grow globally their global SKU count proliferates (due to regional fit) or their probability of achieving good fit across the regions diminishes.

Let’s explore some facts that we know to be true:

  • People are all shapes and sizes globally, originating from different anthropometric body types.
  • Fit, and how a product fits, is very personal, very subjective and very individual.
  • People have different levels of comfort when it comes to their bodies, something referred to as “ease preference”, How tight or oversized a garment is, for example, which is again subjective.
  • People adopt trend at different paces (innovators, early adoptersearly majority, late majority and laggards)

The apparel industry has created the fitting room environment, a space and a concept that has allowed brands for years to become lazy at communicating fit to the individual consumer.

I am assuming we have all encountered the fitting room experience. The thought process a consumer goes through is directly linked to the above facts, however on an individual level. The experience will go something like this: here is my individual body type; here is my individual body shape and size; here are my individual comfort boundaries / ease preference; here is my comfort level of trend adoption. Now, consider all of these points, combined with the ultimate question of, “does this item fit me?” 

Managing fit is complex; to successfully manage fit as a brand you need to unpack each component, understand your brand’s point of view and understand the ramifications of this point of view.

So, back to the original question, “what’s happening?”

I have noticed four cultural movements that are impacting the ability for brands to accurately manage fit.

  1. A brand, no matter how regional or global its presence, cannot rely on one area being regional / one dimensional with its population.  There is a cultural, global homogenization taking place. Cultures are mixing, meaning your consumer has different body types, different body shapes, with a different spread of sizes within the same city / region.
  2. The growth of e-commerce. Unless you have been cryogenically frozen or living under a rock for the last decade you will have witnessed the growth of e-commerce. This poses a problem for the apparel industry as the fitting room experience the industry has created now takes place in your own home. Transporting that 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of garments taken into a fitting room to lead to a purchase decision into an industry of free returns for online purchases. While good for the courier companies – as e-commerce grows into a significantly larger portion of most brands / retailers portfolio – unless this problem can be solved the free return model consumers expect is not sustainable.
  3. The ramifications of the obesity epidemic. This is a point that cannot be ignored. You may think plus size is not your business and therefore not relevant, however the way the human body grows and the way that it apportions measurements differs with differing amounts of body mass. This means that the range within a single size, size Large for example, is greater than before.
  4. A change from brand push to consumer pull. No longer is product king, the consumer is now king. Today, it’s all about giving the consumer what they want, when they want it. This will be the competitive advantage.

The good news is that all of the above is happening on a global scale, therefore a global solve can signal the end of regional fit that fits very few people.

The solution, although complex, is (as most things are) part art and part science. There is a plethora of data out there on body shapes and sizes which can be very helpful. However, first and foremost, there are three categories of questions that need to be understood and then answered:

  1. What are the body types my brand wants to fit? Anthropometrically speaking there are three different body types in the world: ectomorphic, mesomorphic and endomorphi. Typically a brand will choose (generally by accident rather than purpose) to fit one. This is of course limiting from the onset.
  2. What is your brand’s size construct? And how does this look globally? What are the smallest sizes offered and the largest size offered? What are the increments in between? Globally, what are the relationships across size offerings?
  3. How do you choose to fit these body types / sizes?

I stated these as questions that need to be understood and then answered as understanding the complexities of fit and the cultural movements taking place will help to answer the questions, then manage the consumer’s expectations around fit.


I believe the solution lies in managing expectations. Do you understand, prior to trying on a garment, how it will fit you? Here I would like to draw a parallel to the food industry. Let’s take a Michelin Star chef, and aliken the head chef to the creative director of a brand. There is a point of view as to how the head chef / creative director envisages you enjoying their product.

Taste, food and apparel are intrinsically linked; both are individual, both are subjective, both follow an unpredictable and individual pattern of ‘similar, similar, similar, something new!’

I assume you like food, and I assume you have different tastes than those of the nearest person; I also assume you have ordered food in a restaurant without trying it first. I am willing to wager that you have returned more apparel online than you have meals in a restaurant! But, why is this? In a restaurant the menu serves as a method to manage expectations – the convergence of individual taste and experience desired to what’s offered by the chef.

I believe the apparel industry can learn from the food industry in not trying to be ‘all things to all people’ and managing expectations of a brand’s point of view, how to experience it and how to individualize that to your taste on any given day.

As we journey through the digital revolution there are some digital advancements today to help navigate the solution. There are also some technologies on the horizon that could create a competitive advantage. However, first understanding and master the fundamentals of each component of fit is key.

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.