“Fit is the one reason, one important part of the message”

Wednesday, 07 May 2014
INTERVIEW_ Have you ever found the perfect shirt, pant or jacket that you absolutely adored – cut, style, color, even price – and still have not been able to buy it because it just didn’t fit right? Well, you’re not alone. This frustrating experience happens to customers around the world because fashion companies can’t get their sizing right. It is as frustrating for them though when merchandise gets left on the shelves. FashionUnited decided to find out just how common this phenomenon is and spoke to Ed Gribbin, president of Alvanon, the world’s leading size and apparel fit expert.

FashionUnited: Ed, for you, what is the right fit of a garment?
Ed Gribbin: One of the things I point out a lot is just the word ‘fit’. It has different meanings. One is the actual drape or intended fit; then, there’s the merchant’s point of view, the commercial fit, depending on trends and what customers are willing to buy. Then, there’s also the technical fit or how a garment is constructed.

The intended fit still has to be executed depending on where a garment is sold, like the US, China or India. Then, depending on the body, we start with that input to find a body that is democratic enough to fit a majority of people before we make actual mannequins and 3D models (see images). It's not so much about measurements; it's about the right shape to satisfy consumers. That's the only way to be really sure the designer gets it right.

In an interview with an Australian radio station (ABC Perth) in January, you said that "If the brands and retailers would take a look at what their real shoppers actually look like and look at some of the data that's available, they would modify their fits. They would modify the differences between the sizes and they would end up satisfying a lot more customers." How common is the misfit between the size of a garment and what people actually look like?
For a long time, there has been a difference between sizes, leading to differences in what a size 10 for example looks like from not only brand to brand but also collection to collection. In addition, standard rate rules have been around for a very long time and those tend to be linear because they are easier to manufacture. But people aren't linear. People tend to be in between sizes. In the US for example, grade rules tend to be too small. The body shape of a woman who is a size 14 or 16 is quite different from a woman who needs a size 10 but linear rate rules will not be able to address these differences.

Could you elaborate a bit about how fits have changed over the years and how fit mannequins have changed to reflect more realistic shapes and real life measures?
 Since 2001, we have been making mannequins that are based on real people and real body shapes. If you're fitting according to a real person's body, then you can be sure that your merchandise does not get left in the store.

Was it difficult to convince brands and retailers to pay attention to fit?
We've been around for 13 years and have thousands of customers today; people are getting the message. Even if your fit is not right, you have to find a way to make it consistent. Customers have to be able to trust a brand with a size that always fits. That's why people chose different brands and have their favorite brands in the first place.

Could you explain how some of the most successful global brands and retailers have adjusted and realigned their product development processes?
The Top 10 global brands certainly have done that and have executed new processes consistently. Some will also adapt for international differences, Asian versus western shapes and sizes for example, some won't. India and China are the largest growth markets today and the body shapes of consumers there are quite different from those of consumers in the US or Europe.

If you don't take that seriously, will you still be a big global brand? When catching someone’s eye in fashion, fit is the one reason, the one important part of the message.

So true. Could you elaborate on the process of adapting sizes to national markets, let’s say in India?
Sure. One interesting thing in India is that a brand or retailer will often connect with a licensee or a manufacturing partner that recreates the product for the Indian market. So if you go to a shop in India and compare it to a shop in Europe, the fit would be different. But the manufacturers are often guessing. Though engineering for most consumer products is very, very sophisticated (think of electronics or cars for example), this is not so in fashion. It should be though as the tools are available and the brands and retailers could really build their customer loyalty by prioritizing the right fit.

That’s the keyword - when do retailers and brands know that it is time to adapt their products in a way that keeps them competitive, maintains brand integrity, secures customer loyalty and engages with new local customers?
They all realize it's a problem if the fit's either not good or consistent or the factories don't get it right. In those cases, we have a basic roadmap, a 10-step-program that companies can follow. The first three steps are the most important: to define their target customers, to figure out what they look like and then to establish a core body. They should then make sure that their life models reflect that body and build patterns, bodies and grade rules around that. Once that is done, those need to be implemented in the factories, frequently checked, corrected if needed and then marketed accordingly. Companies like H&M and the Gap do a good job of that: Their factories are already checking the fit and the company at home is not waiting for the articles to reach them before doing the quality check.

As we’re nearing the end of our interview, we’re wondering if in times of fast fashion, perfect fit still matters?
Traditionally, there used to be two seasons a year that brands used to introduce new collections. Zara changes its collections every two weeks, leading to 26 mini collections a year, which has influenced the whole industry.

There's one fast fashion company (and I don’t want to name names) that does not take any time to fit their patterns. They have a library of patterns but they don't check the fit. Consumers know they could be an S, M, L or even XL because fits are not consistent. This appeals to a certain consumer - teenagers, young people - because they don't care what size they are.

However, in the long run, this is not a sustainable business model as quality tends to suffer. Plus, as their consumers get older and more sophisticated, the model doesn’t work anymore. Basically, the industry used to have a choice to make if it wanted to be fast, cheap or good. Though fashion companies couldn’t be all three, they had to be two at least. Nowadays, you have to be all three to remain on top. This is why we’re getting work from many traditional companies that want to become faster and use the right engineering and tools to get there. But getting the industry to change is tough because everyone is stuck in their ways.

Last but not least, is there anything you would like to add, any message or advice you would like to give our readers?
I just want to point to consumer products in general again. There's a lot of engineering around that goes into manufacturing them and the fashion industry can learn a lot from other industries. For example, how to better engage customers, be more consistent, use science and engineering in the process. I think the fashion companies that apply those lessons will be much more successful.

After all, you don't walk into an automobile store or an Apple iPad shop and head straight for the bin with new phones on sale or the section with cars on sale? We pay a fair price for value and that’s okay. Yet when we walk into a clothing store, everything's on sale. That means, as an industry we're selling ourselves short.