By  on May 19, 1994

JUNO BEACH, Fla. -- Oh, those hips! Summer is coming, and the annual chorus of sighs is already issuing from fitting rooms as women search out swimsuits that make the most of their assets. But an innovative Florida company is using a computerized imaging system to take the pain out of that search and the guesswork out of the result.Second Skin Swimwear, here, is making custom suits that both fit and flatter. At a competitive $75 to $180 per suit, Second Skin owner Michelle Deziel has had a lot of takers."Women tell me what they like about their bodies and what they hate about their bodies," a very frank Deziel said. "The classic request is 'I want the leg higher but I don't want my butt to hang out."'The computerized system generates custom patterns from those very personal requests. After talking with a Second Skin sales rep, a shopper is presented with several prototype swimsuit styles. "Usually, there are three or four suits that are possibilities," Deziel said.When the customer decides on one, she puts it on in a private room where a Canon Xap Shot camera mounted on a tripod records images from the front and side. Each image takes only five seconds to record onto a video disk. The disks can store 50 such images. The cameras are usually wired to a personal computer -- immediately relating that information to the computer or the disk can be inserted into the computer later.The process saves time for the retailer and embarrassment for the shopper, according to Deziel."We could measure the body with measuring tape to create custom suits, but people really don't want to know that their hips have grown to over 40 inches," she said. "Measuring tapes don't push shoppers' 'buy' buttons."After the images are shot, the customer discusses how to alter the basic design with the salesperson. Deziel said numerous areas can be customized on a basic tank suit, for example. The leg openings can be moved higher or lower, as can the bust line, and the straps can be made thinner or wider along with many other adjustments. Even small changes, she said, can dramatically affect how the wearer will look in the finished suit. The most enjoyable part of the process is choosing fabric swatches, according to Deziel.After the adjustments are agreed to, the shopper leaves. Her suit will be ready in about a week, and she never actually sees her own image on the computer screen. Doing so would likely not be an enjoyable experience for the shopper, Deziel said.Deziel described the actual design process as "a custom grading of a standard swimwear pattern." The customer's dimensions are never actually measured. The photo images and custom instructions are figured by mathematical formulas as deviations from the prototype suit in whatever standard size the customer tried on."The computer creates a three-dimensional image from the two-dimensional photo images recorded of the actual shopper," Deziel said. "The fit of the basic suit is adjusted in nine different places, including the bust, the waist, the abdomen and the ribs. Once the dimensions are recorded, the system has to turn that information into pattern measurements." With a fit-adjusted, size five tank suit on the screen, for example, the patternmaker will then input "subjective" information about the height of the leg openings or other consumer specifications. Second Skin can even add "tummy-control panels" and "hard-cup bras" for women who desire them. Once all the information is in the system, the pattern is then created, and a seamstress sews a custom suit.Hardware requirements are minimal. Deziel uses a 386 personal computer, a black-and-white laser printer and the cameras, which she said retail for about $500 apiece. Once the computer figures the customer's dimensions from the video image, that image is usually discarded."We take all the dimensions necessary from the video images and store just that data," Deziel said. "We dump the physical image from the computer because it takes up a full megabyte of disk space."She said the images are maintained on the disk itself at least until the product is delivered to the customer. The disks are then reused.Second Skin produces between 100 and 200 customized suits a week at the small factory adjacent to its Juno Beach store. The factory fulfills orders from the company-owned store and three franchised outlets. "We can turn an order around in anywhere between two days and two weeks," she said. "We ship twice a week to our franchised stores, but can air-express a suit to a store for an extra $10 or so if a customer has to have it before she leaves on a vacation."Vacationers have brought a great deal of business to the Florida store. "We can see someone once on vacation in Florida, record their specifications and work with them through the mail in the future," Deziel said.Deziel has also negotiated the rights to use the system to 20 independent boutiques. Those outlets produce their own suits using her system. Many of the stores are in the Northeast and Midwest, where people planning cruises and winter vacations bring in business in the off-season.Second Skin sold the complete system, including hardware, its patented "Vidigit" software and training to the independent retailers for about $40,000 each. Now the company will only part with the technology as part of franchise agreements. The upfront costs for the system in those arrangements is roughly $10,000, depending on the terms of the franchise agreements, Deziel said.The fully custom approach to swimwear retailing and manufacturing has had a huge side benefit for Second Skin's own retail store and its franchises: the company has no inventory."We are inventory free," Deziel said. "The biggest inefficiencies in the apparel industry are created when companies produce in huge volumes and then try to push those products on consumers. Retailers end up marking those products down. That's something we never have to do."Second Skin doesn't limit its clientele to women. "We also do men's bikinis," she said. "But we have to set aside a separate area of the store though, so women shoppers won't feel uncomfortable."

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