Fashion retailers, brands and manufacturers are facing a "moving target" when it comes to garment sizing and fit. A focus on changing consumer shapes, communication with both offshore factories and customerspattern blocks and fit forms, as well as processes and training are all needed now if the industry is to prevent problems in the future, say leading executives.

Clothing brands and retailers are "facing a moving target" when it comes to sizing and fit, and that target "is moving faster than ever," according to Ed Gribbin, president of fit specialist Alvanon.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) last week, he explained part of the problem is due to the fact that consumers are constantly changing shape.

Around 40% of the US population is likely to be obese by 2025, according to Gribbin, and the UK is not far behind at 35%.

"As we tend to gain weight, we tend to morph our body shape, making pattern cutting, sizing and fit a particular challenge for the retailers and brands today," he said.

Other issues compounding the problem include high number of stock-keeping units (SKUs), seasonal innovation, the need for shorter time to market - and the fact "there is no one definition of fit."

While the creative and commercial teams focus on how garments are supposed to look on their core customer and what pieces will sell, they do not focus on how the product will fit their target audience.

"The real fit happens at the technical level. That's how you build product to consistently and accurately fit the body. That's really where fit comes from," Gribbin explained.

At the shop floor level, fit has to be democratic, he stressed, with one garment able to fit the multitude of body types that wear a particular size. "But when you're inside your headquarters, fit has to be autocratic. Someone has to be in charge."

He also notes that the implementation of new technology like product lifecycle management (PLM) systems also needs to be accompanied by new business processes.

"The process that you have today can't be the process you had yesterday. The future is now. If we're not changing now, we're going to be in trouble," he added.

The cost to retail
Sizing and fit problems are not just a "quick fix" but a "continuous journey that you need to keep revisiting", agrees Jayne Pye, ladies' wear technical manager at retailer Matalan.

She explained that the cost of processing a return on a GBP4 (US$6) T-shirt can be nearly double the price of the item, especially if it was purchased online. On top of this, frustrated and disappointed customers may never return.

To tackle its fit issues, Matalan worked with Alvanon to define its target market, establish its core customer size and shape, and develop fit forms based on this data.

Redefining the Matalan size 12 and 18 required small modifications to its fit stands, increasing the bust, waist and hip measurements by 1cm, 3cm and 2cm respectively.

The retailer has also insisted all of its suppliers work from the new stands so they can understand exactly what the core customer looks like and make sure the garment fits correctly.

It is also redeveloping its basic pattern blocks to help achieve "consistency of fit" as well as reducing the cost and time of the sampling process.

Alan Cannon-Jones, fashion design technology consultant at the London College of Fashion also believes additional problems have arisen as production moved offshore.

"If the grading is done in UK there's a better hold on it, but if it's done somewhere else in the world, people are not used to working to imperial measurements. That's where the confusion comes in. It's happening all the time."

The solution? He suggests setting out parameters from the outset, including the target customer, as well as the smallest and biggest size in the range. "Once you've decided that, then you can decide actually what the range is and how many sizes you need within that range."

Optimising fit
The cutting room is a source of a lot of the fit issues faced by retailers, believes Maggie Stott, senior pattern cutter at fashion brand Warehouse.

The dilemma is that: "Some designers may not know how to produce a specification for a pattern cutter, while someone producing a garment from a specification may not be trained to cut patterns correctly.

"So we've got two issues here. One is a designer who's not competent at speccing... and the other is where a pattern cutter who's given the specification but hasn't really been trained in how to cut."

The result of miscommunication - which might also include an instruction being translated from English into Cantonese - is seen in poor samples, according to Stott, with garments that might meet the specified measurements but won't necessarily look or fit like the desired design.

One of the solutions highlighted by Lectra UK marketing manager Jenni Murphy is to use 3D technology in product development - with tools including Lectra's Modaris solution for pattern-making, grading and 3D prototyping.

Mannequins can be created on-screen in 3D, and patterns and fabrics "stitched" onto this virtual model to visualise a garment. Alterations can be made to the length, fabric and colour, while a "heat map" gives an indication of fit by showing where a garment is tight or loose to the body. Any changes to the garment are automatically applied to the patterns.

The benefit, of course, is seen in fewer errors and wasted time, as well as more accurate information and a reduction in sampling thanks to earlier decision-making.

"The aim is to really get different teams to collaborate better, to get the visual impact, and to share the data," Murphy explains. "You can make early decisions [on samples], you can control the cost of sampling, you can collaborate better between departments and with suppliers as well - and therefore really share the information and expertise within the supply chain starting from the pattern cutters to the suppliers."

Customer collaboration
UK retailer Marks & Spencer has tried to reduce returns of its shapewear products by introducing online tools to help customers choose the right items. 

As Julia Mercer, the retailer's technical manager for lingerie, explains, returns can be costly for the retailer - especially as savvy customers will buy two sizes if they are not sure of the right one, or buy several products to reach the free post threshold, knowing they will return at least one of them.

The retailer's shapewear finder tool asks the customer six questions about their body shape, and brings up five or six recommended products in response. The result: improved conversion rates and more satisfied customers.

Market research carried out by fibre producer Invista, whose brands include Lycra, highlights the disconnect between the attributes consumers are seeking from shapewear and the properties actually being delivered.

While 95% of women aged between 18 and 49 said it is important their shapewear fits well, only 59% were satisfied with what was on offer, explained Pierluigi Beradi, Invista's global marketing director.

Consumers want more comfort, better fit, improved shaping performance and more emotional satisfaction from the garment category, he stressed.

Size solutions
All speakers were unanimous on the need to offer solutions to address apparel size and fit challenges - with insight into the customer, pattern blocks and fit forms, as well as processes and training, among the suggestions.

Companies need to change their business processes if they want to make the most of new technologies, stressed Gribbin. "We've got to be prepared to be open-minded and flexible - open to new technologies but also looking at how we're going integrate our processes to take advantage of those new technologies. The long-term success of our industry really depends on it.

Education is also key when it comes to changing company strategies, he added.

"The world is changing faster than we know and if we're not changing our people and educating our people and bringing them up to speed and having them lead us into the future, we're missing the boat."

While Pye called on companies to collaborate. "Should we not work together?" she asked delegates. "Let's be friends and work together and decide what is a size 12. This alliance will not affect our competition. We will still be competing on design, quality, fabric and price."

With additional reporting by Katie Smith.