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Womenswear Fit: The Giant Leap Forward

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Here, Emma Hayes shares with us all her fantastic argument for why the time for changing apparel fit – and radically so – is now. Out of the wreckage of COVID-19, consumers might just be able to see beyond established, out-dated habits into a much more promising and cohesive fit future.

If your house was wrecked in a freak accident, would you choose to meticulously restore it brick by brick, exactly the way it was before? Perhaps you would tweak some details, adding something that is better suited to your present needs? Or even see it as an opportunity for radical change, and build anew from the ground up?

There never has been a situation like this in fashion retail. Few companies have emerged unscathed from the lengthy Coronavirus lockdown that has damaged most and broken many: the industry that is re-opening is different to the one that closed. Consumers (indeed, whole populations) are traumatised by the realisation that lifestyles and norms can suddenly radically change; old certainties and established habits have been swept away, some permanently. The ‘impossible’ just happened.

The most forward-thinking businesses will consider this as an impetus for much-needed change; for fashion, what might ensue is a giant leap forward. Such ‘giant leaps’ are extremely rare, and always require extraordinary circumstances. Commerce usually develops in a linear manner, seemingly, a perfectly logical way to proceed. However, like a computer that has been left running for too long, a set of damaging glitches inevitably start to build up. A re-boot is an opportunity to begin afresh.

Each fashion professional looks at the situation through the prism of their own work and my speciality, plus size womenswear fit, is an example of an area where change is desperately needed. Every online fashion retailer has long attempted to encourage their consumer to purchase the correct size in order to reduce the disappointment, expense and (crucially) the ecological damage of a product return. Indeed, arguably, the proof of the success or failure of any sizing and fit system for apparel can crudely be judged by the percentage of garments that are sent back to any given company (particularly those returns actually flagged by the customer as being caused by fit problems). At present, the rate of failed sales runs between twenty-five and fifty percent for all fashion and this rises steeply in the plus-size sector. About seventy percent of returns are reported as being due to fit problems, so this, by any estimation, is an indication of a major failing in this area. In view of today’s fashion’s damaging carbon footprint, something that urgently needs to be addressed.

The legacy sizing system used by most fashion retail makes few allowances for the divergent body shapes found in today’s female population (and particularly amongst the ever-growing number of plus-size consumers, whose physiques are considerably more variable). This sizing practice was largely developed in a completely different era: pre-internet, when consumers were shopping in-store and were able to try on garments prior to purchase. That a failing, simplistic list of crude sizing numbers (developed, as it was, in the twentieth century) is still the cornerstone of apparel fit in the third decade of the twenty-first century, is fairly damning. But it is a system from which it has proved difficult to break free.

The problem with developing a thoroughgoing, new customer-facing fit system that allows for diverse body shapes is that it would almost certainly need to involve a radical change of thinking on the part of that consumer. At present, a particular female shopper is expected to somehow deduce what size she is (let’s say, as an example, a size 16), and she will then go ahead and shop for apparel available in that size. This all seems a fairly straightforward and easy concept for the public to understand.

However, in the real world, it is rare that the consumer concerned is absolutely the standard size she thinks she is. There can be many reasons for this dissonance, but here I will stick to my speciality: body shape. It’s somewhat unlikely that a woman will be lucky enough to be a ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape as per the retailer’s specifications. Let’s take a website, for instance, Arcadia in the UK, to analyse what it means to be a size 16. Say that this imaginary customer’s bust happens to be the exact 40.2” that qualifies her as a size 16 on this chart, yet (as my exemplar is an ‘hourglass’ shape), her waist measures 30” (smaller than the 33.1” noted on the chart). Her hips, again, fit perfectly into the sizing at a 42.7”. Due to her divergent body shape, depending on the garment, her size will vary. For a dress, for instance, she may well happily wear a size 16, but for an ‘A’ line or dirndl skirt, she may fit better into a size 14. It’s even possible that she might take a size 12 for certain wide skirt styles, if the waistband was cut with a bit of ease. But for a jumpsuit or various styles of high-waisted trousers, she may find a size 16 is uncomfortably restrictive because the items are too short in the rise. How likely is she to understand these issues prior to purchase?

If this woman were an ‘apple’ rather than an ‘hourglass’ shape, her bust and hip may be smaller than that stipulated, and her waist measurement much bigger. In many incidences, in order to fit into the waistbands of garments, this thicker-waisted woman would need to buy a size 18 – or even a 20. Does this mean that, although most of her measurements are less than that of a 16, in fact she is a larger size? How is she supposed to understand that by looking at a website sizing chart? All of a sudden, the ‘straightforward and easy to understand’ system has become extremely confusing. And this example is just about one website: this problem amplifies when other retailers and manufacturers, each with their own sizing and grading (and ease), are brought into the picture. These two hypothetical women are the same height, weight and age, and their variation in body shape is far from unusual (indeed, it’s absolutely normal). In view of this, it’s easy to see how and why ladies are struggling to find garments to fit them when buying online.

What’s standing in the way?

So, in this digital age, what is preventing fashion retail from introducing a fit system that copes much better with body shape diversity, and offers consumers apparel that fits them?  It turns out there are a number of serious problems associated with confronting consumers with the changes required.  Firstly, the method itself would need to be a lot more complex.  Instead of being described as a size 16, the customer will have to allocate a more detailed personal fit profile. Each one of her measurements will have to be recorded, along with height and as many other body shape details as are practical to obtain. It’s likely that, instead of being a two-digit size number, a woman’s fit profile will look more like a bar code.

Which leads onto the next problem: the consumer will be required to cede power over her fit. Instead of deciding that she is a size 16 and seeking out garments labelled as such, it will be technology that provides the selection of apparel in her size. Clearly, she will be able to input her personal ‘fit preferences’ (how tight or loose she prefers her apparel to be), but it will be the end of a customer being able to choose between a size 14 or a 16: that would be decided for her. The shopper will be expected to forget all about size. Indeed, the system itself will be so complex that most people would not be able to identify either their own size, or that of the garments retailed (which will be of a far wider array of gradings and will themselves be identified with complex codes).

There is also the issue of data. One way or another, in order to obtain her fit profile, the consumer will be required to provide quite a lot of personal information. The system will need to know a complex matrix of measurements (possibly through some kind of body scanning), as well as some general information, such as those fit preferences and the consumer’s age (and perhaps even other relevant data, such as returns history analysis and weight). Some organisation (perhaps, but not necessarily, the retailer) will then probably need to retain or even share this information, because it would be unthinkable for the consumer to laboriously re-enter it all on every website, each time she makes a purchase (or indeed, even when she is simply browsing). Even something as quick and simple as being body scanned using her mobile device is likely to be onerous if it has to be redone continually whist browsing. Allowing organisations to do this requires a high level of trust. Indeed, it may involve the creation of new legislation, protections and novel commercial entities, more akin to financial institutions than to fashion retailers. It’s going to require industry-wide co-operation: a massive groundswell that brings competing companies together in a common cause.

But it doesn’t end there. The customer will have to update the accuracy of all this data on a regular basis. Women change their measurements continually: when they have children, if they start fitness training, go on a diet, have a surgery or illness, go through the menopause, gain weight or start to age. Most women are on an ever-changing road. Learning how to keep abreast with them on that road is something that has to be done thoughtfully and with great sensitivity.

These are the barest bones of an ambitious fit system for apparel retail: there are further complexities (which spread out in almost every direction) which I will not attempt to outline here. It’s likely to be a tech-heavy set-up which most consumers will not fully understand, and some (perhaps, in the beginning, many) will not trust. This is, in my opinion, why retail has relentlessly continued with the failing, inappropriate, out-dated system that it has now: the idea of imposing something so challenging on a dubious consumer base has hitherto proved too unrealistic. It’s been considered impossible to ask the consumer to make such a huge leap into the unknown.

The right impetus

So why should a population’s experience of a Coronavirus make the slightest difference to the way they will buy their fashion in the future? Because if there ever was a moment in recent history when the population has had personal experience of a radical change to lifestyles and norms, that time is now. And if the fashion industry really needed a demonstration of the way a population can process knowledge and act for the greater good, this is it.

Consumers have a growing awareness of the unsustainable nature of the modern fashion industry and the clamour for a far greater commitment for ecological responsibility has been developing for some time. What has been missing was the industry’s faith in the ability of the public to understand the complex arguments and the willingness to cooperate with the changes necessary. Prior to COVID, arguably, only the naive optimist would believe that consumers could abruptly change their behaviour to such an extent. Since the pandemic, only the bleakest pessimist would maintain that it isn’t possible.

True, compliance with COVID restrictions has been spurred by about as extreme a reason as can be imagined: a real and immediate threat to life, something somewhat more important than buying correctly-sized clothing. However, the sacrifices required by a change in the sizing system are, in comparison to those being made during lockdown, miniscule. Suddenly, it looks like the womenswear consumer, far from being trapped in her habitual behaviour, needs only the right impetus to willingly undertake change. The question is whether the revolution being suggested is in reasonable proportion to the importance of the issue.

And I would argue it is.

Even were it possible, the fashion industry doesn’t have to meticulously repair the damage that has been done to it during this crisis: it has the opportunity to build something infinitely better suited to today’s world. The recent events during the pandemic may be telling the fashion industry just what it needs to hear to make the leap of faith necessary for the task at hand. It might also, perhaps, for one unique, brief moment, be a time that consumers are able to see past old certainties and established habits and make the impossible happen.

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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.