With garments that are sold sight unseen, the fundamental feedback loop is a binary one... either a dress is kept, or it is sent back; either it fits or it does not

E-commerce fashion and the binary feedback loop

In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit, specifically with e-commerce. Emma hopes much more attention will be given to the reasons why apparel is being sent back as unsuitable in the near-future. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

The pandemic has turbocharged fashion e-commerce, with non-store like-for-like sales to the middle week of March 2021 up by 162.59% compared to the same week in 2020. This makes a stark contrast with in-store like-for-like sales,which fell 79.26% year-on-year that week. In an average season, these would be incredible figures. Clearly, this year of lockdown has been anything but an ordinary time, and many industry insiders are actually surprised that the numbers aren’t even more extreme. Yet these figures are merely an acceleration of a sharp trend towards online shopping that was already evident in the fashion industry: global e-commerce sales having grown from around one and a third billion dollars in 2014, to over four billion dollars in 2020. It’s highly likely that, post lockdown, rather than returning to a ‘baseline’, online fashion sales will shrink back somewhat (however, never falling back to the pre-Covid level), and continue to grow.



All this extra clothing being bought remotely is resulting in a mountain of product returns. In the UK, levels of e-commerce fashion sales that ended up being sent back reached £11.4bn in 2020. At least half of returns (and, in the growing plus size sector,possibly considerably more) are reported as being sent back due 'fit problems' (Bizrate Insights survey of 1,052 consumers in June 2019, for example, found 55% of consumers said size was the top reason why they returned an online purchase). So, looking to the future, it’s clear that e-commerce apparel size and fit is a huge, ongoing (and indeed, growing) problem.

With garments that are sold 'sight unseen', the fundamental feedback loop is a binary one. Either a dress is kept, or it is sent back. It fits or it does not. On or off. Unless the retailer puts some effort into obtaining a lot of extra information about either the consumer or the garment, very little is learned about fit each time a product is sent back. And even if the retailer does pursue feedback from their consumers, if it is not exhaustive enough, it’s all too possible to learn the wrong lesson altogether.

Back in the old 'analogue' days (when customers were fitted in bricks-and-mortar stores), it was easy to see with human eye the intricacy involved to fit for apparel the wide range of diverse female body shapes that are found in the population.

Take two women, both of whom have exactly the same height, waist,and hip measurements – although with differing body shapes...

Take two women, for example, both of whom have exactly the same height, waist,and hip measurements (although with differing body shapes), trying on identical dresses in the same size. Woman A says that the garment is too tight on the hip, yet B says that hers fits perfectly. How can this be, when both have exactly the same size hip? But A is pear shaped: she is very small on her top half. Larger parts of the body take more fabric to cover (not just widthways, but also lengthways), so this lady’s small top half has taken up less coverage, meaning that the narrowed waist of the dress has drooped down and is actually sitting on the wider part of her hip, causing it to be too tight in that area. If A were at home trying on this dress, she would send it back, and if she was asked, it’s fairly likely that she would tick the box indicating 'too small'. Actually, the dress is a little too large (on the top half). The data point about size gained from this transaction would be at best meaningless, and at worst counterproductive, if a simple 'tick-box' question was asked.

There is nothing 'wrong' with the size or cut of this dress: it is simply not the right shape for this consumer, which illustrates the inadequacy of relying on the measurement/size grids that are often the only resource that consumers are offered when deciding which size to order online. How would A be expected to choose which size of dress, when she is smaller on her top half? The best option for her would actually have been not to have bought this style at all, because it evidently does not fit a pear-shaped woman, but this information is too complex to be made clear. It is for this lack of clarity that many women who have diverse body shapes do not bother with the retailer’s sizing guides, choosing either to rely on brands that are familiar to them, styles that they have had previous success wearing, or customer reviews.

Here’s another instance: a lady returns a blouse and gives the reason for doing so as that it was 'too tight on the arms', which is bewildering, because it turns out the styling of the sleeves is extremely wide, meaning it would be almost impossible for them to be too tight on anybody’s arms. In fact, the raglan-style armhole is cut too deep, meaning that the sleeves are at an impractical angle to the body, restricting movement and making them feel tight. This is a manufacturing fault, but it is not being reported as such by the consumer, who, not surprisingly, doesn’t happen to be a pattern cutting expert. So again, the 'tick' ends up in the wrong box.

There are thousands of other examples of the complexity surrounding the issue of customer fit, which not only show how insufficient the crude on/off binary of 'keep-or-return' is, but also go on to illustrate how a cursory survey undertaken into the fit of returns is in itself likely to be insufficient,especially as the customer herself doesn’t always know what the problem is.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a binary system: provide enough little squares containing either a one or a zero, for example, and it’s famously possible to arrange them in such a way that they depict a fairly convincing black and white image of Marilyn Monroe. But the more complex and detailed the picture, the more data points it is necessary to obtain. And apparel fit is incredibly complex. Clothes are not like other consumer products: one cannot compare, for example, the return of a set of curtains (which happen to be too small) with that of a blouse, which could be said to be 'too small'. There can be no doubt that, using the blunt tools usual in the sector at the moment, it would be completely impractical to expect a customer to give the quality and quantity of information necessary to enable the retailer to reliably understand the reason for the return of the blouse, in the same way as they can, with confidence, simply explain why the curtains were sent back.

It’s easy to conclude, then, that it is pointless trying to obtain any information from consumers about apparel returns, yet I would argue that there is a need to gain information in any and every way possible. It all goes back to the pixelated image of Marilyn: in order to create a detailed picture, it is necessary to obtain as many data points as possible, so it would be unwise to ignore this potential resource.

There can be no doubt that garment fit is something that should be tackled primarily at the 'business end' of the transaction between retailer and consumer: the point of sale, rather than when it is being returned, when it is apparently too late. Before anything is sent out, there should be a thoroughgoing investigation as to the shape of the human being towards whom the garment is being directed. I would argue that, in the future, much (if not all), of sizing and fit information, pre-purchase, will be obtained using some kind of technological imaging of the consumer. Such is the complexity of the human body; it would be unrealistic to expect to gain enough detail any other way. And this automatic analysis of people is not a one-off: in order to cope with the ever-changing body shapes and sizes of people as they move through their lifetimes, this will need to be a continuous process. But the detailed knowledge of the body shapes of consumers would be of limited usefulness if it is not matched, both with a perfect understanding of the measurements, fits and shape of the garments being retailed, but also with a much wider choice of sizing and grading of online brands to offer each consumer.

Before any clothing is sent out, there should be a thoroughgoing investigation as to the shape of the human being towards whom the garment is being directed

It would therefore be wasteful to ignore the stream of information that can be gained from the return of garments, particularly when developing an appropriate inventory. When approached with a subtle and thorough system to understand the reason why an item is being sent back, a return survey can be a useful tool to identify faulty pattern cutting or wrongly graded items in general, as well as suggesting body shapes that are being poorly served by the brand. Also, it is one 'extra level' of information about fitting the individual concerned.

Human beings are not just bodies: they are minds and personalities as well. Each subject has a set of 'fit preferences' that govern how they prefer to wear their apparel. Perhaps an individual likes to wear tight clothing all the time. Or only when they are exercising. Maybe this person prefers baggy attire when working out, but close-fitting outfits when they are socialising. These are highly personal preferences that make up a 'fit ID', which can be borne in mind when trading to them in the future.

Some retailers have the luxury of a huge number of sales, creating statistics from which general predictions and trends can be extrapolated. Perhaps certain preferences turn out to be universal, such as, for instance, a ubiquitous choice to prefer a certain style of dress in a smaller size in black and a larger one in white. Consumers should be heavily incentivised (with free postage, gift vouchers, points and special offers) to provide much more detailed information to help retailers understand if some fit choices work, and others don’t, across as wide a spread of the population as possible.

Arguably, the return information presently being obtained by fashion e-commerce is fairly half-hearted: considering the waste involved (both financially and ecologically), much more attention needs to be given to the reasons why apparel is being sent back as unsuitable. Motivating the co-operation of consumers, asking the subtle, incisive questions – and expertly analysing the answers – is a form of art (and should be a profession in its own right) that can offer a meaningful picture as to why some garment sales end up in our growing mountain of returns.

How do we learn to understand consumers’ sizing requirements so as to prevent fashion returns?

Getting down to size

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 – and offers a promising way out. 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 published in WhichPLM  on 23 February 2021.



How do we learn to understand consumers’ sizing requirements to prevent fashion returns?
In bricks-and-mortar fashion retail (and, indeed, in most face-to-face selling environments) salespeople sometimes have the mortifying experience of judging a customer by what they look like, only to discover later on, that they’ve made a complete misjudgement.  When a person walks into a classy boutique wearing a threadbare £50 coat, for example, it’s all too easy for the assistant to dismiss the idea that they will walk out with that £500 replacement.  Yet this can and does happen, frequently: people can surprise you.  This is why an experienced retailer will warn that, when directing a consumer towards a product, it is very dangerous to make judgements about that person’s needs, just by looking at what they have previously purchased.

With online fashion, even completing a sale is not everything.  Were the retailer to close a deal with a consumer for their dream product, perfectly suited to their personal style and pocketbook, the company’s relationship with that particular transaction is often far from over.  Indeed, with this industry, post-purchase, the problems are sometimes just about to begin, and that hard-won sale may morph into an expensive refund. Between 20% and 40% of all online fashion sales are returned, and for around 46% of these returns, the cause is reported as being due to fit problems.

My work is all about womenswear fit, and here we’ve seen that relying on the consumer to judge her own size has proved of questionable wisdom. Instore, it’s possible to witness the denial, insufficient knowledge and bewilderment about sizing that many customers exhibit, but any confusion rarely survives trying the garment on in a fitting room.  The shopper for apparel online, however, opens up a panoply of problems for the retailer.  Does she, for example, know her measurements day-to-day (or indeed, does she know how to measure herself, and have the equipment to do so)? Is she willing to throw aside delusion and confront the reality of her body? Does she have the time, knowledge and attention-span to navigate the sizing boxes that are often the only thing to go on with many fashion websites (even for a sizing expert, these simple-looking charts can disguise a labyrinth of complexity)?  Even where 'fit tools' are employed on a website, what efficacy can they achieve in what, by necessity, is such a brief encounter with the customer? And who, if anyone, can adequately understand the particular sizing and grading she is looking at, when there is such a lack of standardisation in the industry?

Is it wise to assume that anyone can be relied on to identify their correct size when shopping remotely?

Is it wise to assume that anyone can be relied on to identify their correct size when shopping remotely?  Judging by the prevailing number of returns, the answer is a resounding no.

Fit is about so much more than just accurate sizing and measurements.  Fashion itself is preference (and fit preference – the way someone prefers to wear their clothes – is a vital aspect with apparel).  A consumer is likely to return an item which, although a conventional 'good fit', does not interact with her body in the way that makes her feel comfortable. In this area, yet again, it’s all too easy to look at what is in front of you and mistakenly predict a consumer’s desires.  A person’s fit preference changes from one garment type to another, between differing fabrics, from time to time and – even more confusingly – from one part of her body to another.

It’s likely, for example, that someone would like their party dress to fit in a different way to their gym attire, which may, again, need to fit differently to their work outfit (that’s to say, if 'workwear' still exists by the end of the pandemic). Very often, people have personal sensitivities and look for extra 'ease' of fabric on one particular part of their body (the “Does my bum look big in this?” syndrome).  Nor is it possible to extrapolate one person’s tastes from what has been observed in other people.  For example, one consumer might choose her workwear to be inexpensive, loose-fitting, practical and long-lasting, where with another it’s all about the 'corporate look': tailored to within a millimetre, comfort and economy be damned.

It’s simply not practical to expect a consumer to make all the subtle judgements and wide range of choices necessary to achieve the fit she needs when she purchases online.  That’s largely what’s happening at the moment, and we can see how this fails by the rate of returns.  Even were the industry able to offer a consumer the highly technical fit knowledge about each product (information that retailers – large and small – do not necessarily possess), she is unlikely to have the time, motivation or judgement necessary to do the complex calculations that result in a well-fitting garment.

Ultimately, if there is to be a solution for online fit-related returns (and there has to be), it will by necessity be provided by technology.

But this can't be achieved by solely judging people on what they have bought in the past. Some fit tools analyse a customer's needs by asking her to report the sizes and brands of previous purchases. Even if AI was capable of automatically looking at the history of every one of the sizes and types of apparel she had previously purchased online, at best, it would still only be able to offer crude advice on the issue of sizing and fit.  This is due to countless issues.  For example, a consumer may change size or shape through diet and exercise: may have altered her style, recently had a baby or gone through the menopause, modified her confidence level, been influenced by a new partner’s taste, be purchasing for someone else, or gained a new job that demanded different professional attire. She may, in short, be living a life.

If there is to be a solution for online fit-related returns (and there has to be), it will by necessity be provided by technology

Further, due to the lack of sizing standardisation, the person in question may simply have had to settle for different sizes to achieve an acceptable fit across divergent brands too countless to analyse.  Add this to the mysteries presented by her various personal fit preferences, her history would look quite complex and inexplicable.  So even if the technology miraculously had access to a mountain of information about the consumer’s buying, almost instantly, much of it would be out-of-date, irrelevant or misleading.

Ultimately, if there is going to be an exhaustive solution to the garment returns issue, it will be necessary for governments to licence secure, independent commercial agencies that – armed with thoroughgoing consumer authorisation and cooperation – will gather every piece of available information that can be known about the consumer’s physique and fit preferences and collate them in one space. Technology presently being developed in a number of start-ups will need to be brought into the scheme, which will utilise a diverse range of techniques.  It will keep a record of regular body scans (no doubt undertaken by an app on the consumer’s phone, backed up with occasional visits to 3D scanning pods): actual body measurements to go alongside purchase and returns history, weight, or any other metrics.  Most importantly, the consumer will voluntarily input further relevant personal information to fill in data points, such as fit preference.  Working along similar lines to credit card agencies, these entities will create a 'fit ID' of individuals, which the organisation will present securely at the point of sale, so that the participant can enjoy rewards of free postage and returns, discounts, special offers, priority shopping, enhanced ease of purchase, tax breaks and safeguards against the loss of data security.

There may even be, in the future, something along the lines of 'carbon vouchers', putting the enthusiastic participant into a 'carbon credit' situation.  Additionally, the member will retain the ability to delete or transfer the account at any time.  Every effort possible should go into making it a body that is worthwhile for members of the public to join voluntarily: the legal compulsion for participation being directed solely towards the companies concerned.  Initially, this may not suit every consumer’s taste, but such a system need only attract a percentage of the population to be highly effective.  And, in time, social pressure would encourage it to become the norm.

Globally, internet-based fashion retail is looking down the barrel of a trillion dollars of apparel returns annually

So does this scenario – this elaborate system adopted by governments – look like something that’s about to happen anytime soon?  Or does it appear to be nothing more than an idealistic pipedream? I believe that, actually, this kind of solution, although radical, is not unrealistic.  In the interests of preventing further damage to the planet, the public has started to become accustomed to technological advances that initially looked unlikely.  For example, had it been suggested ten years ago that by 2020 the UK would produce 20% of its electricity from wind farms, this would have seemed fanciful.  Yet it is now the case.  From solar panels to electric cars, human beings are seeing a cause for carbon-friendly solutions.

Fashion retail’s damaging returns problem is another example of an area ripe for change: Forbes reports that apparel returns contribute 4.7 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually: this is not an insignificant problem, any more than it than it is one that is likely to go away on its own.  And there is no shortage of finance for such a scheme: globally, internet-based fashion retail is presently looking down the barrel of a trillion dollars of apparel returns annually, so any system that effectively addresses this will not only be self-funding, it will prove to be extremely lucrative.

The fashion industry itself should be lobbying for this to happen.

Solutions to online fashion’s sizing and returns problem should be seen as essential eco-friendly technology; it cannot happen soon enough for consumers to recognise that these developments can prevent millions of tons of carbon being pumped annually into the Earth’s atmosphere.


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.



 

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