Fashion's Imaginary Consumers / by Lana Grant

The fashion industry risks creating an inventory-and a set of fit tools-designed for a largely imaginary consumer base. If this sounds unlikely, it’s worth remembering that it is something that has happened before.

Fashion e-commerce is suffering from an unsustainable returns habit that damages profitability, ruins customer loyalty, upsets shoppers, is wasteful and extremely damaging to the environment. The majority of these returns are reported to be due to ‘fit issues’. It’s a no-brainer that the industry needs to find a way to send out clothing that can be relied upon to fit its consumers.

One flank of the battle is for the fashion industry to ensure that the apparel being manufactured is ‘fit’ for purpose. To do so, it’s necessary to understand exactly what clothing sizing and gradings should be produced in order to reflect society and satisfy demand.  This will entail a study of one of the most complex entities in the universe: the human consumer, both body and brain.   Due to the considerable variability of the population, this is going to result in a much broader range of sizing offers than has been produced up to this point.

The battle’s other flank involves tech companies developing the tools that solve the myriad technical issues involved in targeting customers with suitably sized and graded garments, a task made more difficult when involving the more comprehensive range of apparel that will be on offer.  For this to be achieved, it’s necessary not only to match the level of population metrics expertise of their fashion colleagues, but also to acquire their thorough technical knowledge about all garments being retailed-the matrix of measurements, fabric characteristics, relevant construction specs, usage information and designer preferences. 

When it comes to fit, the most challenging sector of fashion ecommerce is plus size womenswear, which is what I will be addressing in this piece.  Here, the rates of return can be swingeing: much higher even than in ‘mainstream’ fashion.

The legacy of plus-size fashion’s sizing (and the root cause of its inflated fit problem) is that the grading has been ‘extrapolated up’ from 'mainstream' sized women, where historically, sizing research tended to originate.  The idea that curve women are simply larger versions of smaller women may be true to a certain extent, but this is far too reductive: these larger consumers have much more exaggerated body shapes than their smaller equivalents, so, where they have been graded on a false premise of conformity, it's all too easy for garments to completely miss the essential fit points.  It would actually be more informative to create a range of diverse cuts based on the physiques of larger women, and shrink these down to their smaller counterparts, who would, in all likelihood, be delighted with the subsequent advances in the fit of their garments. 

Historically, the plus cohort has been underserved by the clothing industry, of which this lack of specific research is an example.   It was long assumed that larger people are not as valuable to fashion commerce as their ‘mainstream’ counterparts, partly as they have traditionally averaged a lower spend, but also because their association with a brand was considered negatively.  Putting it bluntly, many companies did not like the aesthetics associated with larger people. 

With the growth in the proportion of fuller sized individuals in the population, both these considerations are fading away: the younger generation no longer balks at seeing brand ambassadors who vary from the traditional models’ slender body shape, whilst it has come more widely accepted that any shortfall in the spend associated with plus size women is caused primarily by the poorer offer offered to them-which actually represents an opportunity for forward-looking companies.  

Now that these reservations are being removed, in order to develop this sector to its full potential, the industry will need to reduce fashion returns significantly, necessitating a specific and comprehensive study of female bodies -from the smallest to the largest -in the kind of depth that has never been achieved-or attempted- before.

There are two general methods of collecting consumer body metrics: those undertaken by professionals, or consumers self-reporting. Some enquiries have involved experts who have reached out into the population to weigh, measure, scan, take surveys and live test volunteers. In others, subjects have been asked to either measure themselves, fill out surveys-or allow their bodies to be scanned in some way. We already know that far fewer plus size women are willing to participate in such studies, yet we are relying on this work because we will not gain a complete understanding of the customer base without it. Is there a particular group of larger women that is more likely to step forward to provide data? Is this going to have an effect on the quality of the information collected?

When designing anything for larger people (be it tech or clothing), it is advisable to think about people holistically, and consider, not just their physiques, but also their preferences, personalities, emotions, experiences and thinking.  This is particularly relevant to the prickly subject of how to go about finding a realistic plus-size sample of the population to study.  Many larger people (with good reason) are resistant to having their bodies categorised, scanned, analysed, measured or observed. Putting aside the differences brought about by the vagaries of personality types (which varies across all women of every size and body shape), there are particular reasons why the body confidence of certain groups of larger women is more resilient than others.  

A clue can be seen when observing the shapes of larger women who are happy to exhibit themselves, and compare them to the rest of the population (who largely don’t).  ‘Curve’ fashion models are women who make a living out of the fact that they (and society) find their bodies aesthetically pleasing, and these women usually tend to have certain features in common.  They are young, with a balanced physique, tall with smooth lines, and usually have either ‘perfectly proportioned’ or ‘hourglass’ body shapes.  They usually tend to share a European physical type.  These women are not at all representative of the plus size population as a whole.

Larger women come in a range of highly distinct body shapes, the rarest types being the 'perfectly proportioned' and 'hourglass'.  This should come as no surprise to anyone: we don't really expect models to represent an ‘average’ woman.  What may come as a shock to the uninitiated is how resistant most plus size women (who do not share this ‘aspirational’ shape: indeed, they vary from it considerably) are to being accurately measured. When calling on the population to volunteer body metrics, it is necessary to be extremely careful not to end up with a highly self-selected, un-representational sample.

It could be that a survey of plus-size consumers finds that 90% of them have hourglass or well-proportioned body shapes, when in fact, only 10% of the general population shares this profile.  If this happens, the industry will be creating a fashion inventory-and a set of fit tools-for a largely imaginary consumer base. Leaving it in exactly the same highly unsatisfactory situation as it is now, in fact.

There is evidence that, possibly because they vary from the ideal to a more exaggerated degree than their smaller equivalents, those who are not ‘conventionally attractive’ or 'balanced', physically, are far less likely to come forward to be tested by a professional, nor can they be expected to enter correct measurements into any fit system, even in the privacy of their own home.  They may be slow to volunteer to be scanned, and extremely reluctant to want to know their own metrics.  They are likely to be very concerned about privacy, and many of them will not even possess the tools (a tape measure, or a weighing machine) with which to gather their data, choosing to enter invented measurements if pushed to.

This is a situation that may be carried forward into the new generation of e-commerce retail fit tools and scanning devices, causing a diminution of effectiveness, if developers are not careful.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Forewarned is forearmed, and, with anticipation of these issues, strategies can-and will- be put in place to collect an accurate, representative sample of fashion consumers, and the development of effective fit tools.  In order to do this, it is necessary to abandon the wishful thinking, the 'common sense' (that is not backed up by empirical knowledge), the prejudice, myths, or the incorrect extrapolation that has plagued the plus size fashion sector for too long.

Most of all, we should see the end to imaginary plus size standardised female consumers, and replace them with the rich diversity of real women.