How can digital fashion and technology help brands to be more size-inclusive

Small, Medium, Large or Extra Large? Why does the industry continue to
define plural body types in such a small range of sizes? If fashion is
about expressing identities, why do we keep being reduced to
improbable standards?

The issue of sizing in the fashion industry is not a new theme and
yet, one could argue, it has not been addressed with due attention.
For decades, consumers have complained about not being able to find
their sizes in stores, or being shamed by inaccurate sizes. Stories
about traumatic shopping experiences are endless.

If you think online shopping can solve this problem, I’m sorry to say
that’s not true. Traditional shops selling the same clothes online are
still making the same mistakes, and people are returning their clothes
like never before. In the US, the average rate of returns for online
purchases was 20.8% in 2021, a 15% increase from 2020. This represents
US$ 218 billion of online purchases returned, according to the
National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail.

People are not finding their sizes, are not enjoying their shopping
experience, and are not feeling represented by an industry essentially
created for self expression. So what’s to be done?

We asked three experts in the field of digital fashion and
size-inclusion how they see the issue and what the future may bring.

ABOUT

This article is a collaboration between
The Digital Fashion
Group Academy and FashionUnited, written by Dr Lívia Pinent, Digital
Professor for Research at The Digital Fashion Group Academy.

Do you know your plus-size customer?

For Virgie Tovar, Body Positive activist, author and contributor at
Forbes, it all starts with recognition and acknowledgement of how
badly body diversity is represented in fashion sizing: “We need to
start with recognizing that, in the United States, 70 percent of women
are plus size. It’s really hard to actually accept this when we think
about how structures, not just fashion, are really created. And
they’re really created to sort of serve what is in fact, the minority
body size.”

Tovar brings us an example of how GAP Inc began to explore the
plus-size market through the brands Old Navy and Athleta, doing market
research on what they’re plus-size consumers wanted: “Brands say they
don’t have market data and say these women won’t buy clothing, they
won’t come back. The problem is the feedback loop. This is not
considered a desirable or a legitimate consumer. For example, a brand
might launch an extended line or, might launch a Plus-Size brand, not
tell anyone and then it doesn’t do well. That becomes data.”

What can we do to change this scenario? “We fundamentally need to
change how we think of plus-size customers. The prevailing belief in
fashion is that ‘she does not want to be a plus-size, she does not
want to invest in a wardrobe, she will not do any of this because she
is always trying to become thin’. We’re looking at a cultural shift,”
said the activist. And completes, “as a higher weight person, there is
no research on a grand scale that you’re going to become a smaller
sized person. Instead of trying that, we’ve got body positivity, the
idea that you can live an amazing life exactly at your size.”

The editor of FashNerd, Muchaneta Kapfunde, asserts “the worst kept
secret has been that fashion brands are guilty of shifting their
metrics to make shoppers feel skinnier. This is effectively the rise
of so-called vanity sizing,” and exemplifies with a personal
experience: “I was shopping in French Connection, I was wearing a size
10 and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m a size 10’. And then I went to
Topshop and I was a 12 to 14. I didn’t know my size anymore because it
was so different.” Kapfunde understands that a few brands use this as
a strategy, changing sizing standards to make women feel better about
themselves and drive them to buy more. Sizing is quite an emotional
issue for this target market, in general.

Technology can help, but at what cost?

Covering Fashion and Technology for years, Muchaneta has seen many
exciting projects arise to help the consumer with this sizing battle,
but she also recognizes the challenges the industry faces: “There are
technologies to help shoppers buy the correct size. But there is the
issue of privacy because they collect data. Even though these
innovations help an industry, especially with return problems, it
actually creates another problem which is about privacy.” And Kapfunde
raises the question: “how comfortable are we as women to give all the
information about the actual size of our bra? This is the information
that we like to, kind of, keep to ourselves. It is the kind of
innovation that is fixing a problem, but also bringing one to the
forefront”.

“The clients own the data,” points out Nicole Reader, CEO and founder
of Modern Mirror, a fitting system utilising 3D scanning and body
motion capture to improve the shopping experience. “The client says
with whom, when, where, and how the data gets shared, when it gets
deleted, that it’s not being collected on servers or being sold
afterwards. But then how can we take that data and share aggregated
data, not people’s personal data. But what are we able to share with
brands so they can start making clothing that will better fit our
consumers?” And completes, “we have to be very careful how that data
is shared, who owns that data and how we can also empower our
consumers.”

For Reader and her company, privacy is a key issue not only in terms
of data collection, but because fitting is a delicate moment for the
customer: “I have had clients that didn’t want to go into the fitting
room and I understand that. I don’t feel comfortable going into the
fitting room and seeing myself either. We weren’t taught to embrace
the way we look.” This is why Reader understands that this issue goes
beyond sizing: “We have to get past the sizing issue. It’s about how
our clothing fits on us, it doesn’t matter what size we are, as long
as we’ve got the right outfit and it looks good, we feel good in it
and it fits our bodies, that’s what really matters.”

Returns as modus operandi

For the fashion industry, in general, returns are generating not only
loss of profits but there is also significant pollution in each
transaction. But why do the consumers return so many items? Reader
explains “Over 30, to 40 percent of people have admitted that they
will purchase the same style of garment, in three different sizes,
knowing they will return two out of three garments. In 2019, even
prior to the pandemic, Revolve was making revenues of over 450
million, but their losses were over 500 million due to returns and
exchanges. Never mind the loss of profit, from a sustainability
standpoint, this is a considerable carbon footprint in the
transportation back and forth?”

Muchaneta Kapfunde adds: “a company called Precise said that 2% of
online fashion shoppers are the only ones that actually find those
perfectly sized garments. The number really shocked me. You think
maybe 30, 40 percent, but 2%? ” And what is the solution? For the
editor of FashNerd the solution involves a strategic collaboration
between the fashion industry and technology companies: “The industry
still has no clue about innovation. It’s something that’s very new,
very scary to them. This is where collaborations come into play. Why
not collaborate with one of the startups that are bringing these
solutions to the table and figure out how you can create better
numbers than that 2 percent?”

“The power should not be left to the retailers,” said Kapfunde. “I
would love for consumers to take that power back and create. Imagine
creating your own avatar through an app with your exact measurement
that you have access to, not the retailer. So when you’re shopping
online, you use that app to find as close to your size as possible.
That takes away the retailer having your information, you have it. At
the moment, a lot of consumers don’t trust brands. They need to earn
back our trust.”

Since the first Industrial Revolution, the fashion industry has owned
the system: sizing, colors, fabrics, in a top down structure. It is
difficult for these companies to realize that we infact own our own
bodies, our sizes and our ideas. We might finally be seeing some
change empowered by digital fashion with the consumer acting as
co-creator. But is the fashion industry ready? We hope so.

This article is based on the webinar “Digital Design &
Sustainable Futures: The Sizing” hosted by The Digital Fashion Group
Academy. You can watch a sneak peak of the discussion below and the
full webinar at TDFGA’s website.

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