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.
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.