As trade barriers continue to diminish, clothing brands are becoming more global. However it is not as easy for the sizes of their goods to be quite as worldly. International players need to adapt their fits for different target markets but that level of adaptation varies by country.

"The question we're always asked is 'can we have a global fit'?" explains Ed Gribbin, president of Alvainsight, a division of size and fit specialist Alvanon. "And the answer is unless you're selling a one-size-fits-all snuggie, there's no such thing as a global fit."

"Most western brands survive the first couple of years in new markets just based on novelty and newness, especially if they have cutting edge design," he tells just-style.

"But they're going to hit a wall at some point. When we do our data analysis we explain there's going to be a percentage of people that fit into your product everywhere in the world."

The diversity of the human race means most brands can expect to fit about 30-40% of the population in their home market really well. But there are always going to be people who are bigger or smaller or shorter or taller who are just not going to fit into any particular high street retailer's product.

And this problem is exacerbated when western brands expand into new markets like Asia. "If you take that fit and move it into China without changing it, you've now dropped from 30-40% of the population to maybe 10%, even if it's a bigger population," Gribbin says.

"The US industry largely views sizing and fit as an opportunity to develop a competitive advantage," adds Kerry King, manager of product development and sustainability initiatives at [TC]2, a not-for-profit corporation that serves the US apparel industry through research, education, and technology dissemination.

"On that note, most retailers/brand owners are not really interested in following a size standard. The primary focus tends to be developing a sizing strategy and fit aesthetic that works best for their target customer and demographic.

"This is one of the reasons why there is such diversity in how clothing fits among brand owners and retailers," she notes.

Size initiatives
A growing need to find the best size model for each target population has led to a number of initiatives by companies that support the clothing industry.

[TC]2 bases its work on its SizeUSA survey, a comprehensive sizing study in which the company used 3D body scanning technology to scan over 10,000 individuals at 10 different locations across the United States.

The scans that make up the SizeUSA database are accompanied by demographic information related to a variety of factors including age, income level, and ethnicity," explains King. "Using this data as a resource, we are able to assist companies with investigation of current sizing strategies and/or provide them with support in the development of new size offerings."

3D body scanning studies have also been completed (or are being completed at present) in a number of countries such as the UK, France, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, and Mexico by a variety of research organisations, most called Size plus the country name, for instance Size Thailand.

Two years ago Alvanon also carried out China's largest ever body measurement study, scanning over 28,000 people across the country. Its data is now used by retailers and brands to help construct their sizing strategies when expanding into markets in Asia.

Some limited information from all this research is publicly available, but to gain access to all the data (for each survey),  or tools to manipulate the data for a particular target population, a company would need to purchase it from the respective agency.

British size experts Sizemic, the London-based fashion technology company, also helps businesses refine their sizes based on 3D body data (from 3D body scanning).

Andrew Crawford, Sizemic's director, points out that sizing is not really standardised locally or internationally, mirroring King's thoughts that a size is determined more by the population clothing is aimed at rather than an official set of measurements.

"In the UK we have different designation systems (eg 8, 10, 12...) of which the definition for each are different [for each retailer] along with S, M, L..., which cover a band of sizes rather than a specific size."

The more ambiguous sizes of S, M, L are useful when exporting overseas.

"There are obviously great differences between a Japanese woman and the average American woman," says Elena Galli of knitwear brand Annapurna, which sells clothing into Europe, America, and Asia.

"We do get requests from Japanese buyers to make sleeves or lengths shorter, but by not using numeric sizes (38, 40, 42...) and using sizes like S, M, L we find that buyers will adapt those to the needs of their different markets,"

Size is not a linear issue
Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing chain that operates stores in Japan, UK, US, France, Russia, Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore needs to adapt its goods to a rather broad range of sizes.

Because of this the company has chosen to undertake fitting sessions in each country every season to determine whether the size range meets the needs of the local market, although of course not all companies have the time, money, and resources to follow this example.

But sizing is not a simple linear issue, Gribbin stresses; you can't just take the core standard and make it shorter.

"If it's a high end tailored product, making it shorter doesn't put all of the other style details in the right position on the body," he explains. "You have a height difference of 10cm on average between Europe and most Asian countries, so that 10cm difference becomes pretty unmanageable from a design standpoint: the lapels, buttonholes, princess seams, darts, pocketing etc aren't in the same place.

"There are all these design issues that are relative to stature that the designers don't think about."

It's at this frustration point that many brands and retailers call for help. "We point out that sizing needs to be proportional to the size of the body in the market," Gribbin says.

And of course if they can maintain their design integrity but adapt to fit more people well in these new target markets, they're in a winning position.

Balancing the benefits
But while clothing companies should adapt sizes for export, they should they also balance the cost of doing all that with the benefit, Crawford believes.

"In some cases you can use the existing size range," he said. "It all depends on the nature of the product, for example casual clothing (which is more forgiving in fit terms) versus a more high-end tailored brand where fit is very important.

Crawford cites Boden, an online and mail order clothing store, which sells casual wear, as an example of how variations by country are less specific when the fit is more forgiving.

Also when exporting to a number of countries in a particular region companies find they have to make fewer adjustments.

Regional differences
"I think that the difference of fits is more visible among the regions rather than particular countries," states Ms Phuong Nguyen, director of a Vietnam-based garment export company PTA Company.

She explains: "People in Asia have different fits: Indians (south Asia) have a very different fit than Vietnamese (south east Asia). Indians have more of a European fit of broad shoulders...and the belly is more heavy, they have the same fit as Sri Lankans, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Maldivian while Vietnamese have the same fit as Chinese, Thai, Taiwanese etc."

That said, Gribbin notes that "Asia's a particularly challenging area because people think you can have one 'Asia fit', yet the Japanese population is radically different from the Chinese population."

This is an important point, because arguably these are the two fastest growing markets for most western brands.

"Only four sizes are required for most companies going into Japan, and with four sizes you can accommodate 85% of the population. In China those same four sizes wouldn't accommodate 25% of the population. There's a lot more diversity."

Labelling requirements
Labelling however is something specific and countries must meet the requirements laid out by each respective country.

The European Union (EU) has undertaken initiatives in this arena through introducing a voluntary standard, known as EN 13402, to be used on garment labels. The code has been developed by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) as an attempt to standardise size labels across all members of the EU.

It is basically a code for labels that uses body dimensions in centimetres to show size. This year the EU also proposed making origin labels compulsory for clothing, a practice that is already strictly regulated in the USA, Canada, and Japan.

The European Parliament backed the idea in June, although further votes by MEPs and the European Union Council of Ministers must be staged.

Although there have been some initiatives to standardise labelling (such as EN 13402) sizes still vary widely, however, even within the same country.

How much a company varies their sizing for each country really does depend on the retailer and the type of clothing they sell.

By Karryn Miller.

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