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These Companies Have a Revolutionary Idea: Clothes That Actually Fit

By Wall Street Journal

Two decades ago, fashion-technology company Alvanon set out to help online shoppers find the perfect fit. Now its vision is approaching reality.

Alvanon is developing a consumer app for people to create virtual body avatars from their measurements or photos. The app, built using Alvanon’s precise fit standards that it creates for fashion brands and designers, aims to allow customers to see how clothing will fall on their body, eliminating the guesswork that often comes with online shopping. By sharing garment specifications with Alvanon, brands would in turn glean fit data to help them better serve their consumer base.

“Traditionally speaking, the brand would never have this information. They wouldn’t understand that all of a sudden there’s some proportion of the customers that are losing weight quickly,” said Alvanon chief operating officer Jason Wang, referring to the popularity of new drugs for weight loss. “Apparel retailers have been so slow to react to changes in the customer demographics,” he said.

But first, brands have to get on board. Alvanon’s consumer app, called MyAlva, is still in development and is slated to begin beta testing in the coming months. The company declined to disclose which brands are among its initial partners.

Alvanon, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and has offices in New York, London and Shanghai, is one of several companies that are looking beyond flawed ranges and vanity sizing in the hopes of solving a puzzle that has long perplexed clothing retailers and their customers.

In addition to sharpening size-assessment software, companies are using body-scan technology to more efficiently produce custom-sized garments. Others are throwing out sizes entirely, opting for fabrics and designs that can stretch to fit a wide range of body types.

For customers, these developments could mean less buyers’ remorse and more flexibility at a time when new drugs for weight loss are causing sizes to fluctuate at a rapid pace. There are also potential benefits for brands, including less inventory guesswork and fewer carbon-producing returns.

So-called vanity sizing—labeling clothes with sizes that are smaller than their actual fit—has obfuscated what it means to be size 2 or a size 16, contributing to the high volume of returns and a lot of frustration. For retailers, improperly anticipating demand can leave excess inventory, as the push into extended sizing has underscored for some companies. The equation has only gotten more complicated amid rising obesity rates in certain populations and the cultural craze over Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro.

“Sizing has always been an issue in the industry because bodies don’t fit into any one package or any average size,” said Lynn Boorady, a professor and head of the design and merchandising department at Oklahoma State University, who specializes in sizing and fit.

Boorady said that while the industry has made strides with virtual fit avatars since the onset of the pandemic, efforts to make related technology available to consumers have proven challenging.

“In order to fit the avatar, you need to know the measurements of the garment. If companies won’t share those measurements, then that’s a useless tool,” she said.

Alvanon, founded in 2001, has spent years developing global fit standards based on a database of nearly two million 3-D body scans from more than 30 countries. The company said it has developed more than 2,100 fit standards for hundreds of brands and retailers to date.

Four-year-old startup Balodana, based in a Chicago suburb, is using similar information to help designers create made-to-order women’s clothing. Like an Etsy for custom garments, the clothing marketplace can use AI to extrapolate measurements based on shoppers’ photos. It also allows customers to disclose their own body measurements to guide designers as they create bespoke items that are guaranteed to fit well.

“If you can fit more people, you can significantly reduce the waste, the returns, the economic and planetary damage that is occurring because of crappy fits,” said founder Dana Todd.

Balodana has assisted in the creation of several thousands of garments, which run from $60 to $2,500. It plans to soon announce a manufacturing spinoff called Custom Fashion Lab to work with brands that already have a direct-to-consumer presence but want to add the option to have an item in a custom-made size. Balodana would manage the process and would work with one of its partners that has a smart microfactory in India to produce the garment.

“It’s not gonna be easy for them,” Todd said of brands wanting to explore this option, citing difficulties including access to their own patterns which are oftentimes outsourced. “That’s why we’ve tried to sweeten the pot as much as we can by just making this fully turnkey.”

A San Francisco-based startup called Unspun, which has raised more than $25 million to date, is leveraging 3D body scans of customers to spin up made-to-fit jeans. Its jeans, which can be selected from 14 preset styles, run about $200 and have a three-week turnaround time for customers. At New York Fashion Week, Unspun showcased the first collection made using its 3-D weaving machine, Vega, with the fashion label Eckhaus Latta. The collection of pants, as well as some partially 3-D weaved tops, is sized and will be available for consumers to purchase online next year. While the company sees itself as a manufacturer rather than a retailer, it is planning to launch other types of pants, followed by personalized accessories, then outerwear and tops, according to Unspun cofounder Beth Esponnette.

Katherine Schildmeyer, a 3-D fit consultant who is involved with researching and developing standards around 3-D body scanning for the industry, said there’s still resistance to the technology. “We’re finding most people don’t want to do it,” she said. “It is like a chore to some degree and they really don’t understand how it works.”

Schildmeyer, who is an adviser to Balodana, said education about how to position the body in front of the phone camera or scanner is key to getting more consumers on board and producing body scans that yield better fits. She and others are currently working on developing standards along these lines as a guide. She also said the scanning technology used to glean measurements from photos also needs improvement.

Others see opportunities in clothing items that expand and contract with the body’s fluctuations. Bond-Eye, an Australian company that makes trendy crinkle-fabric swimwear, sells one-size-fits-many suits that can stretch from 0 to 12 in most of its styles.

“A beautiful example of how the fabric morphs to changing body shapes is the way the same swimsuit can be worn the whole way through pregnancy,” said Steve Philpott, the founder and chief executive of Bond-Eye Australia, which is behind a trio of swimwear brands including Bond-Eye and the plus-size focused swimwear brand Artesands. While Artesands is sized up to 24, its tags indicate wiggle room with a plus sign. Philpott said it worked with the designer of the 40-year-old crinkle-fabric used by Bond-Eye to knit a wider tube to incorporate into the Artesands menu of suits. Its current Artesands crinkle-style suits fit sizes 10 to 18; it plans to soon release a crinkle swimsuit that will fit size 18 to 24.

“We are always looking to innovate and drive our sustainability platform as far as we can,” he said. “The high quality and stretch characteristic of the fabric and the swimsuit also means less waste as they last longer, adjust to changing body shapes and aren’t disposable fast fashion.”

This article was published in Wall Street Journal September 9, 2023. Alvanon is a member of SPESA.

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