Businesses are set to rewrite the rulebooks of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation

2020: Not a good year for dinosaurs

Emma Hayes, Womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – specifically, in light of the current global climate.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 27 August 2020.



Many corporations would prefer to avoid any involvement with the ‘P’ word: politics.  But after the events of the first half of 2020 – arguably – it is not an option.

A lot can happen in a year.  For example, it was in 2019 that an H&M advert was published depicting a small black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’.  Not surprisingly, it was widely castigated.  “As a black British person” wrote journalist Edward Adoo, “I felt uncomfortable when I saw the advert.  The historic context of the word “monkey” has caused outrage and pain to my generation and many others who came before us.”

Going back to 2017, Kendall Jenner starred in an advertisement for Pepsi, which also scored an own goal.  In it, Jenner plays the part of a model (herself?) who is drawn into a street protest, later appearing to win over a member of the riot police by offering him a cola.  According to blogger Maison Piedfort: “Pepsi mistook social justice movements for opportunities to sell soda, which is pretty disrespectful to the people who have suffered and sacrificed for the sake of protest and change.”

Few people believed that these companies intended to cause offence, yet, nevertheless, they did.  Mistakes are a normal part of life, but some argue that these ones actually indicate much deeper failings, pointing out that, had a more diverse range of people been involved in the decision-making surrounding these commercials, they would never have been made.  In publishing them, the brands exhibited that they weren’t just naïve: they also lacked empathy and engagement with the wider community, including some of their own customers.

As a fit consultant, body shape diversity advocate and, indeed, as a plus-size woman myself, I cannot speak for other marginalised groups.  I have no need to: there is plenty of this kind of thing happening in my own field and it’s not limited to advertising.  Many times, I’ve looked at a range of plus-size clothes and instantly observed that, had larger women’s voices been heard at any stage of conception, design, production or supply, it would have been a very different story.

This is part of a long and ignoble history of sub-standard treatment being meted out to various undervalued groups in the population.

When I first worked as a buyer for plus-size apparel, back in the 1990s, I observed a huge difference between the offer for the ‘mainstream’ size woman, who was, at that time, between a size 8 to a size 14, and the ‘plus-size’ woman, considered to be a size 16 upward.  The ‘mainstream’ story would often consist of pretty, colourful, fashion-forward apparel, whereas the plus-size option (were there one at all), would be a minimal selection of middle-aged looking styles.  With each new generation of the population growing bigger, it was the younger girls who took a larger size: so why only offer them a range of older looks?  It looked judgemental: apparently larger women, of any age, cannot be fashionable.

On the surface, this situation has changed substantially, but even in 2020, a larger-sized woman is likely to be presented with only a tiny fraction of the choice of styles as are offered to her smaller-sized equivalent, despite a loud clamour for greater equality in social media.  Various companies are striving to become more inclusive generally, and this is certainly reflected in a greater number of plus-size or size-inclusive ranges.  Yet significant problems remain.

From an inventory point of view, an example of this is the ubiquitous lack of appropriate grading.  Most plus-size womenswear companies have ignored the highly diverse body shapes of this cohort, opting instead for a generic ‘average’ cut that fits only a limited proportion of their customers.  It is due to lack of engagement with the fit needs of larger women that more than half of all the apparel sold online in this sector is presently being returned, because, in the main, it does not suit customers’ bodies.  This has caused some brands to have their profitability perpetually dragged down by woefully high returns rates and others to actually go out of business.
But this isn’t all: still there is insufficient choice of plus-size product, inaccurate assumptions, under-representation and patronising imagery or insensitive terms continuing to be used in the plus-size sector.

During the first half of 2020, many have watched – and supported – the great movement of this generation, the Black Lives Matter campaign.  It is a game-changer that spans every important aspect of human life, from education, health, to the justice system, industry and economics: even the inner workings of the human brain.  The cause of racial equality has been hundreds of years in the making, and, arguably, along with climate change, is the biggest challenge of the time.  The issues addressed are so vast and heinous that it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to ‘tack on’ side interests, such as size acceptance.  However, students of past great political upheavals have observed that any headway towards achieving social justice in one field will probably lead to similar advances in others.  As the proverb goes, “a high tide raises all ships”.

It’s clear that this is no ‘surface’ movement: it’s highly likely that, ultimately, it will profoundly affect the apparel industry, with calls for greater social justice and demands for a more representative sample to populate the fashion corporations (or, at the very least, interact with them).  Also, there is already a strong groundswell towards the support of independent commerce that springs organically from consumers’ own communities.  These businesses are likely to rewrite the rulebook of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation.  Looking through this new lens, certain practices common to fashion companies are already beginning to look outdated, if not thoroughly unacceptable.

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing consumer attitudes

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing attitudes in this volatile era, where consumers and the press are hyper-vigilant to stories of injustice and exploitation. A stern warning of how this can present itself is what has recently occurred at the fast-fashion monolith, Boohoo.  According to Dazed, “Boohoo, the online fashion retailer behind brands like Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal had more than £1 billion wiped off its value this Monday (July 6) after reports of “modern slavery” at a Leicester garment factory.” 

Suddenly, some brands find that they look like dinosaurs, and now the Covid-19 pandemic has smashed into the world economy, setting off a once-in-a-generation economic firestorm, this is not a particularly good time to be a dinosaur.

In response to the prevailing situation in 2020, consultants will each have their own brief, and those advising brands about employee rights are likely to be busy.  From my (very narrow) point of view as a fit specialist, the first concern, as always, should be with the product.  The number one priority should be for brands to genuinely become more size-inclusive, better reflecting the population and offering access to a greater number of people. Ideally, all brands should also act today to begin the process of understanding the body shapes of women, such as using scanning technology to survey as large a cross-section of their customer base as possible.  Sensitivity should be showed to the fit requirements of all ethnic groups equally (especially those who have hitherto been largely ignored).  Then brands will be better placed to develop more varied and fit-for-purpose, inclusive grading for women, offering those with diverse body shapes, for the first time, ‘fit equality’.

From a point of sale standpoint, brands should develop or utilise fit technology, such as (but not limited to) fit tools and hand-held scanning tech, so as to diminish the returns problem.  Companies should see returns not as an irritating ‘fact of life’, but as an urgent problem to be solved as an indication of their dedication to fairness towards all customers, not just the privileged few.

All sectors of commerce have to adapt to some new realities.  To see an example of how this tsunami has already permanently re-shaped the landscape, it is worth considering again the two advertisements mentioned at the beginning of this article: realising that no brand would be so ill-advised to have produced them after the events of this year.

To say that these commercials are now outdated is a gross understatement. They already look like the historical oddities of a hundred years ago.


Prior to COVID, arguably, only the naive optimist would believe that consumers could abruptly change their behaviour to such an extent

Womenswear fit: The giant leap forward

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.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 16 July 2020.



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 among 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 is preventing fashion retail from introducing a fit system that copes much better with body shape diversity, and offers consumers apparel that fits them?

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.


Few companies have emerged unscathed from the lengthy Coronavirus lockdown that has damaged most and broken many

BBC Radio 4 Four Thought ident

Four Thought – Fit and finished

Please press the play button below to listen to my BBC Radio 4 'Four Thought' broadcast/podcast on 17 June 2020.



The process of clothing-size standardisation is at odds with the diversity of human bodies

Plus-size fashion: the shape of fit to come

Today's plus-size women's fashion suffers from a serious problem with fit.  This struggle is evinced by an unsustainably high level of e-commerce garment returns (between a half and three quarters of all online sales in this sector are ultimately cancelled), the lion's share of which is reported by consumers as being caused by 'poor fit'.  The subject of fit has become inextricably linked with the lack of sustainability that fashion (one of the world's major industries) presently wrestles with.

Fit has repercussions that go way beyond mere aesthetics and customer dissatisfaction: with major disruption to the inventory, wasteful delivery costs and newly manufactured product even ending up in landfill (just to scratch the surface: the list of ramifications is substantial).



Failure to obtain accurate apparel fit reliably presents ongoing ecological and product lifecycle damage that cannot be ignored.  So, if the industry could just develop dependable ways to ascertain the size of a customer at the point of sale, this would surely cure the problem?  No, it would not.  For one thing, size is not fit.

Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26

Anyone who is active in the plus-size (or regular) fashion social media platforms will be familiar with the drum-beat of pressure from consumers, influencers, activists and even the press who are desperate for there to be more 'standardisation' of the sizing system of apparel.  What they want appears to be reasonable: it is for all items that are sold as the same size to be of the same measurements, believing that this will result in an improvement in the ease of obtaining well-fitting apparel.  But it will not.  With the present system of sizing, it would almost certainly have the opposite effect, because the very process of standardisation within such a limited range of options is at odds with the diversity of human bodies.

It's easy to see why consumers are dissatisfied and confused.  My research with this cohort shows that any plus-size woman may well have a wide array of differently sized apparel in her wardrobe. Indeed, when ordering online (where she can't try something on before she buys), she has to make judgements about sizes on a brand-by-brand or style-by-style basis, often using sources such as customer reviews or her own experience of a brand, rather than the retailer's sizing information.  Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of, say, a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26.  Attempting to judge by size label alone, it's practically impossible for a consumer to know for certain which garment to order online, so it is little wonder that the fashion industry is suffering from a major fit-related returns problem.

The lack of consistency of apparel sizing is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, which is that not all women are the same shape.  Plus-size women's figures diverge far more than 'mainstream' sized women, who themselves vary considerably.

The fashion industry doesn't really know enough about the body shapes of the female plus-size population, because the subject has never been studied with a large (or a representative) enough sample.  There have been far too few studies of 'curve' women, and there is no evidence that those that have been undertaken have actually looked at the entirety of the shapes of the consumer cohort.  In general, women who are willing to reveal their fit data to the fashion world are likely to be those who have an 'acceptable' body type: that is to say, their bodies are either 'well-proportioned', 'straight' or 'hourglass' shapes.  These are the figures that look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, yet which, in all probability, encompass only half at most of all women.  Other shapes, which look less conventionally attractive, such as 'apple', 'pear' 'supersize' and 'busty' demand to be better studied in order for the industry to find out all it needs to know about the female plus-size consumer.

The present sizing method works on a very small and crude set of sizing, theoretically with no variation in body shape whatsoever; indeed (apart from being able to source garments with personal stylistic fit synergies) the only reason why most women find anything to fit them at all is the lack of precision and random variations that have grown up between brands over time.  Through a process of evolution, it is the very mutations in the grading DNA of various brands that have allowed them to exploit whatever niches in the commercial ecosystem to which they are best suited, with consumers learning which brands 'understand' them.  This is why so many plus-size women have to rely on brand knowledge, customer reviews and guesswork in order to buy apparel.

Even were it actually possible, standardising sizing would mean that all items of apparel (from every brand) would be manufactured with precisely the same measurements, doing away with this variety and creating a homogenised situation that would be less fair than ever.  It would be comparable to a cosmetics company producing a foundation for all women's skin tones by offering just one 'average' colour.  The resulting single-shade option would only suit a tiny number of women, disenfranchising most of the customer base.  If it sounds ridiculous to do this with skin tone, it is equally so with body shape: yet this very 'one grading fits all' system that is (albeit somewhat theoretically) what the fashion industry is deploying to fit customers. It is a situation that urgently calls for change.

Our society is highly censorious of women whose bodies differ from the 'beauty standards' of the day, so negativity is disproportionately directed at those with particularly divergent body shapes.  These women therefore experience an avalanche of opprobrium, with the mainstream media, strangers, social media (even friends or family members) directing health-vigilantism, ridicule or critical judgements towards their bodies.  Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements.  This means that, in order to find out about their fit requirements, the fashion industry needs women who may be dissatisfied, secretive, embarrassed and perhaps even ashamed of their bodies to cooperate with having their fit data harvested.  Obtaining the participation of enough of this cohort is an extremely difficult ask.

Some divergently shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements

It is, in all likelihood, a better idea to approach consumers whilst they are participating in an activity when they look on body monitoring and analysis in a more positive light.  For example, my studies have shown that those who are engaged in what may be termed 'body transformation' are often far more accepting of physical examination.  Looking at scans taken from the health and fitness industry, it's clear that these have offered a far wider, more representative range of body shapes than those gathered by fashion studies.  It might be time to take a more imaginative approach about where to seek volunteers for the examination of the sizes and shapes of the female population.

The effort will be well worth it: with modern scanning techniques, the technology is available to make much more penetrative studies of the body shapes of this astonishingly diverse cohort.  What the apparel industry needs to accomplish it is the acceptance that body shape diversity is at the core of the fit problem, and the will to do something about it. 

The stakes are high enough to warrant making radical changes to e-commerce fashion: the returns issue is a significant problem assailing not only the plus-size sector, but all womenswear.  Anything that provides a fit for plus-size customers will also do so for all fashion consumers, of every size and sex.

Once the data has been obtained, in order to create a sizing system that is better suited for online retail, as can be anticipated, it will be necessary to develop one that is far more complicated than the model presently in use.  Given the wide number of differing body contours (which is virtually infinite), in the beginning it will be necessary to group women into a workable range of body shapes (say, six or seven), and then, possibly three heights (petite, average and tall), taking average measurements of each group to create a grading. Even with this (fairly gross) simplification, already there are 18 types of grading.  This is not size: this is body shape (which can probably be simplified down to about 12 for separates, when taking similarities between various 'half body zones' into account).  So, if the plus-size womenswear size range started at size 16 and went up to size 30 (just 8 sizes in the present system), the result would be a variety of around 100 differing sizes and gradings.  If this were expanded out to include 'mainstream' apparel sizes (which would be preferable), there may ultimately be something like 150 differing fits, as opposed to the 12 (official) sizes that exist now.  This is only one imagining of how a new methodology might be developed: there are many others, but they will be nearly all of equal or greater complexity.  Clearly, this is problematic, and goes a long way to explaining why, as yet, this has been a nettle that the fashion industry has not been overly keen to grasp.

Suggestions as to how exactly to take such a grip will probably be as varied as is the industry itself.  Larger companies may choose to stock an inventory with a full range of fits (I suggest calling them 'fits' rather than sizes) and medium-sized concerns may select a number of whichever lines of body shape customisation they believe suit their consumers best.  Luxury brands might develop individual customisation or even bespoke manufacture.  Tiny brands will possibly choose one (or perhaps two) body shapes to specialise in (much like the mutations in fit that happen today;  indeed, it will probably be possible to simply impose the new fit denomination on much existing inventory by simply analysing what is already there).  The difference will be that all consumers will know the exact measurements of apparel before they buy.

Complicated as it sounds, the cure need not be worse than the illness.  Technology is rapidly being developed to obtain fit details from customers at the point of sale, and new digital manufacturing processes are capable of producing the smaller runs of diverse fits that the inventory would require in order to supply a far more complex system. 

New procedures will also be able to analyse how styling alters the measurements of garments which in turn feeds into the individual consumer fit profile.  For the first time, apparel could be constructed to extremely precise measurements in a clear and sane manner, standardised across all brands.  The consumer would buy online with a high degree of confidence in fit.

There is no need for the fashion industry to be hidebound by outdated systems, struggling eternally with an unsustainable level of garment returns and a heavy carbon footprint.  The slow creeping towards a better, more efficient system has begun, but is likely to become a jostling, highly competitive stampede as the third decade of the millennium gets into full swing.


Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers

Fashion's broken mirror

In her last exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issues in our current sizing landscape. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 10 December 2019.



It's very nearly the end of the second decade into the millennium, and this is what today's average UK womenswear consumer looks like: she's 5'6" tall, with a bust measuring 36", waist 29", and hip 38.5".  She's twenty-two years old, white, with size-5 feet, perfect hair, skin and teeth.  She wears her clothing in exactly the way that the designers intended (in other words, she has predictable preferences) and she aspires to wear new clothing in a selection of the latest mainstream styles.  She works full-time in a job with above average pay, and she is free from insecurities about her body.  She has no physical blemishes, no disability, no religious or cultural sensitivities or other special requirements that might affect her choice of apparel, nor does she have any interest in where her clothing comes from or how its ecological footprint affects her environment.  Oh, and she rides a unicorn to and from work.

Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers.  Over the course of the last century, if this reflection were to be believed, the 'typical' woman has gone through repeated re-modelling.

Take one of the most instant and drastic changes, which happened in 1947, as an example.  That was the year that Christian Dior's 'New Look' appeared out of nowhere and thundered into the fashion scene, crashing and burning the somewhat masculine, natural and militaristic physique of the 'typical' 1940s woman.  In this new post-war epoch, if you didn't have the tiny 'wasp' waist or the wherewithal to have a skirt made out of 25 yards of fabric (not the easiest thing to do when it was still on wartime ration), as far as the fashion world was concerned you didn't exist.  Back then the physical, financial and lifestyle standards a woman had to live up to if she stood any chance of being taken seriously as a fashionable person were extremely onerous.  But then again, the fashion industry as it existed then had a tiny customer base and didn't need to cater to anyone else.

It certainly didn't need to know what all the fashion 'rejects' were doing at that time.  As it didn't sell apparel to just anybody, there was no need even to acknowledge the existence of, for example, women on lower incomes, or taller, larger or older women.  Nor need it concern itself, generally, with women of diverse ethnicities, or those who had jobs that did not allow them to wear these fashionably restrictive outfits.  These groups, alongside women with disabilities or 'non-standard' bodies, were airbrushed out of fashion history.  In apparel design terms, we know little about them.

But, surely, all this has no relevance to what is happening today?

A new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity, but are these images not an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

It's easy to say that things now are very different.  The present generation of women do not have to sign up to any particular style: indeed, differing stylistic looks are indulged and celebrated by a fashion industry that (in theory at least) is open to all.  A woman can opt for a sport-influenced or a goth-inspired persona, cover herself in bling, or decide to join any of a hundred other fashion 'tribes'.

And it would appear that women are 'allowed' to have different body shapes now, too.  They are to be seen advertisements and editorials for plus-size clothes, modelled by larger women, and there are increasing (yet still tiny) numbers of brands and designers who show their apparel on models with disabilities.  At long last, it's also slowly becoming unacceptable for a brand to restrict its images only to one race: a new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity.

But are these images not evidence of an enlightened era of diversity, but actually an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

My area of expertise, for example, size inclusive apparel, is still exceptionally poorly represented in advertising and fashion journalism.  Although it would no longer be true to say that larger women are invisible, their appearance is substantially shrouded.  The sheer number of plus-size women in the population is woefully underrepresented by fashion's visual output.

Worse still: the very character of the larger female cohort is distorted by the images we see.  'Curvy' women have far more diverse body shapes than their smaller-sized counterparts.  Due to the nature of women's bodies, any extra weight is not usually spread evenly over the entire physique but concentrated on those areas where the woman is inclined to store it.  This means that differing body shapes become more exaggerated as women grow larger.  There are at least six or seven main body types in the population – not that we would ever guess this by looking at plus size women in the media.

Does it matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women? After all, isn't fashion about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty?

The two basic body shapes that are 'acceptable' to the fashion industry are Perfectly Proportioned and Hourglass, and images of these are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are rather rare types.  I would challenge anyone, for instance, to find an image of larger size fashion that is being advertised on a model who has an Apple-shape body.  It would be unheard of to use a model of this body shape in a national campaign, despite her figure being far more numerous than an Hourglass shape, for example.  In the plus-size world, incredibly, there has been a return of the 'wasp' waist.

Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to find images being provided by the fashion industry that include four out of six of the most common body shapes of real 'curvy' women.  As we are living in an era where a much higher proportion of the population are larger sized with diverse body types, this means that our fashion industry still 'disappears' a huge proportion of the population.

But does it really matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women?  After all, fashion is about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty, which by definition, are not the perquisite of the average person, and there can be no surprise that fashion images are more about the ideal than the actual.  These are promotional images, directed towards the public, and not the industry, yet I would argue that whereas they are not an accurate representation of the female population, they are an all too accurate representation of how the fashion industry sees its customers.

Just as it always has, the apparel world peers into its broken mirror and the fanciful image of the consumer that it sees is extremely telling. The evidence is there to see.

It's extremely difficult to obtain accurate figures for the exact proportion of UK women that are size 16 and over (due to the way that everything to do with size is complex), but it is likely to be about half the female population.  Yet, from a financial standpoint, the 'Curve' sector is about half the size of its 'mainstream' counterpart, and is thus extremely poorly served, with restricted design, price-point and quality, and a severe fit problem (evinced by a horrendous garment return rate).  Larger women are almost never seen as the muse for top designers; the entire sector is underdeveloped and ripe with untapped opportunity.

Any objective observer would, judging solely by what our fashion industry is sending out (both in terms of product and image), conclude that the average size woman in the UK is a size 12.  They would certainly not guess that women in the UK have such a high proportion of larger sizes with diverse shapes, any more than they would guess the range of ethnicities, ages, fit preferences and physical, political and social differences that exist in our population.  In many ways, it is still working on principles and methods developed in the last century, and the apparel business is (quite literally) the poorer for that.

In the third decade of the second millennium, for the first time, technology is being developed to gather accurate information about today's consumer cohort on a range of issues. The fashion industry is on the cusp of huge change, and there's not a unicorn in sight.


In this post (first written for WhichPLM) At Last founder, Emma Hayes, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector

Fashion fit and the returns covenant

Following on from her last exclusive for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 20 September 2019.



It's no secret that online fashion is today grappling with a huge product returns problem: a conservatively estimated 25% of all clothing being sent back to the retailer. This rate of failed sales is causing a host of problems – from disruption to the inventory, through customer dissatisfaction to damage to the environment.  And it is also a heavy financial burden to the industry: last year, customers in the US alone returned about $351 billion worth of items, according to estimates by National Retail Federation.  The vast majority of these refunds are reported by disappointed customers as being caused by poor fit, and, as with every business inefficiency, it is ultimately customers who foot the bill.

For e-commerce, selling stretchy, baggy and loose-fitting items is fairly easy, but obtaining the more specific fit required by the variety of fashion styles being retailed today is a complex undertaking.  Even a cursory glance at a random group of people offers an illustration of the magnitude of the fit problem faced by fashion e-tailers.  Human beings are extremely diverse when it comes to size and body shape.  How can the correct items reliably be selected by consumers when they buy online?

Clearly, it is necessary to find out everything possible about a consumer's fit requirements before stock is sent out to them, but the solution to the e-commerce fashion returns problem doesn't begin and end with an individual customer at the point of sale.  It starts with recognising the wide range of appropriately sized and shaped apparel that needs to be manufactured to suit the cohort of consumers in each distinct market worldwide.  Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer.  It's clear that, such is the pressing need, e-commerce fashion should be gathering and deploying customer information wherever and whenever possible, but as yet this seems to be occurring only sporadically.

Take plus-size womenswear, for example, which represents about half the womenswear market (the half, in fact, that suffers from the most profound fit problems).  My research found something of an 'all or nothing' gulf opening up between websites in this sector.  On one hand, there are many fashion websites that still employ the 'tried and failed' sizing grid which abandons users to their own judgement, doing nothing more than outlining the size constraints of the brand in question and not harvesting any useful customer data.  At the other extreme, e-commerce retailers dash headlong into an interrogation: presenting the customer with questions about height, weight, age, bra size, body measurements and the customer's 'usual' apparel size.  These enquiries can show a breathtaking naivete, not only with regard to the sensitivity of the issues in question, but seemingly also with the accuracy of the responses.

Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer

Most plus-size women do not wear just one dress size: rather, they wear a bewildering range of sizes according to different clothing brands (or even the same brand), and many – if not most – plus-size women are presently wearing the wrong size bra.  A considerable proportion of larger people spend years avoiding a weighing scale, and report finding it traumatic when required to face one, even in the enforced privacy of a doctor's surgery.  Nor is it at all unusual for plus-size women to experience harsh criticism and social prejudice about their size and measurements, which can result in a strong dislike of being monitored.  And this intimate questioning is taking place against a background of recent online data misuse, such as the recent Facebook scandal, which hardly reassures them about the confidentiality of their inputs.

Even when a consumer is willing to co-operate with all of this, some of the information gathering needs skill and basic equipment she may not have to hand (many larger people do not possess a tape measure or set of scales, for example).  The quality of the metrics can also be in question, as a customer may find there is an emotional toll for facing up to the reality of her ever-changing body, ending up with her inputting 'tweaked' or 'aspirational' metrics.  This then is a list of inputs which can cause discomfort, distrust, embarrassment, inaccuracy, practical difficulty, inconvenience and confusion – all at the delicate point of making a sale!

This is a big ask, when all that is being offered in return is the ability to buy an item of clothing that fits properly, in a market where any number of garments can be sent (and, if necessary, returned) for free. It's hard to see what, exactly, is being offered to make it worthwhile.

So far, fit data that the fashion industry keeps on individuals has been a covert business: what happens from now on is going to matter more as we start to gather body metrics in the quantity and quality necessary for the purpose of making a serious dent on the returns problem.  As a society, we are used to dealing with personal data, and most countries have laws that necessarily require confidentiality when storing information such as birth dates, addresses, bank details etc., but body metrics have to be different.  In order to prevent the damage done by a mountain of stock returns, there has to be an entirely different way to deal with consumers' physical measurements which will, by necessity, always have to accompany them when shopping online, well before they have even clicked onto a website.  The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size.

The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size

As yet, the population is not being kept informed about (or allowed to benefit from) the advantages of preventing unnecessary returns.  It's clear that this situation is unsustainable, so at a time when the fashion industry needs to be restructured, it is necessary to have a more advanced, open and mature relationship with people about their physical data and provide genuine incentives to give the fashion industry what it needs.  There should be no problem in sharing with consumers the financial riches gained from returns prevention – nor should there be any secrecy in what is occurring in order to facilitate this: rather, it is necessary to do both in order to incentivise the consumers' co-operation.  In the near future, we may see a covenant between the fashion industry and its customers that puts the latter at the centre of the fit process.

The customer's contribution:
  • Provide body metrics
  • Allow purchase/return history to be monitored
  • Participate with return reduction strategies
  • Undertake conscious measuring systems
  • Allow ongoing passive measuring
  • Respect genuine data
  • Tolerate social media access
  • Contribute photographs
  • Allow in-store data gathering
  • Allow body metrics to be shared

The industry:
  • Be clear and upfront about everything at all times
  • Inform the consumer as to the real price of returns (including the ecological damage)
  • Share rewards with participating consumers according to their contributions
  • Never take information without permission
  • Educate/provide consumers with different input methods
  • Give consumers a choice of which body metrics they are happy to reveal
  • Provide all body data held on file easily and promptly when requested
  • Do not feed-back data to the consumer unless asked
  • Allow the customer complete control over who has access to the information
  • Keep information completely secure
  • Keep body data quarantined from all other data
  • Do not allow use of metrics for any purpose other than that intended by the consumer
  • Remove data/allow customer accounts to be closed when requested

Bodyshape and sizing information is a valuable commodity.  It is needed to transform the fashion industry, and, in doing so, it will help solve one of its most intractable and damaging problems: that of product returns.

It should be controlled, understood and traded by its rightful owner: the consumer.



 

Now there's a solution to buying fashion online... At Last!

Please contact me on emma@AtLastLimited.com or via social media...



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