It all started with a half-dressed woman on a Hong Kong bus. Around 18 months ago, Laura Coppen, sustainable and circular business developer at Hennes & Mauritz, found herself partially clothed and undertaking a 3-D body scan in the mobile laboratory run by the start-up, Unspun.
The start-up, with offices in San Francisco and Hong Kong, has developed software that scans a human body, then converts that information into a paper pattern, which can then be used to make jeans that fit better. The company, which says it has the goal of reducing “global carbon emissions by at least 1 percent through automated, localized and intentional manufacturing” had already won one of H&M’s Global Change awards in 2017. In December that year, the Unspun team had converted a van into a pop-up fitting room and was driving it around some of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping areas to market the idea. Coppen was there to try it out.
“It was a strange thing at first, to be getting undressed in a bus in the middle of Hong Kong,” Coppen admitted — to do the 3-D scan, you need to be wearing fitting clothes like, for example, leggings and an undershirt. But almost immediately she saw the potential. “Even back then it didn’t feel abstract,” she told WWD. “This could really make a difference to the entire industry.”
Starting last September, The Laboratory — H&M’s innovation hub, where Coppen works — has been running the first tests of the software, with the help of 100 customers of the Swedish fashion giant’s Weekday denim brand.
“Our core objective was to solve the problem of size and fit with denim, by creating a size-free option. We also wanted to explore on-demand manufacturing which is required for custom-made products,” Coppen explained. The company is releasing the results of the pilot test on Friday. These exceeded expectations, she said. Customers were given the opportunity to customize aspects of two popular Weekday jeans styles — the trim, stitching and pockets on the Voyager and Friday models — and then, using their body scan, have the denim fitted for them.
H&M used its own suppliers, which normally make hundreds of pairs in different sizes but which were willing to set up a special production line to produce the one-off jeans. The resulting products were delivered ten days later. At that stage, the customers were surveyed as to how effective the personalization had been. Coppen’s team predicted that around 65 percent of the customers would be happy. Instead, 80 percent expressed themselves satisfied.
“This has the potential to be very disruptive. It’s about redefining the entire system,” Coppen boasted. “This disrupts every stage of the production cycle, from design to supply chains to how we offer the experience to the customer. On-demand production is a great opportunity to be both sustainable and profitable,” Coppen argued, noting that the process adds up to less waste and less overstock.
Next fall, the software and scanner will get their first real-life trial in a Weekday store, although the location has yet to be decided. Although returns, many due to wrong sizing, are a major problem for online fashion retailers and a lot of work is being done in measurement technology, H&M’s new process won’t immediately be available online. Coppen believes it will be best if staff can guide customers through the process.
Although H&M declined to disclose the costs of the research and development exercise, Coppen thought that the custom fit jeans may eventually retail for around 900 Swedish krona, or about $93, the price that customers in the trial said they would be happy to pay.
Next year, more options for customization will be added and so will further jeans styles. Garments have “better emotional durability” when they’ve been personalized in this way, Coppen pointed out, which also means they’re less likely to be thrown out.
But all this is going to take time, she continued, because one of the biggest digital challenges is adapting the software to ensure that, even as the jeans are resized and customized, the look stays true to the original style. “There are certain essential features that you can maintain, “ she explains. “Such as the length of the trouser, for example: That should drop at the same point on every single person’s body.”
Another big challenge is working out how to scale up at supply chain level. “We’ll need more suppliers who have the ability to make just a single product,” Coppen said. “And when we add more styles, we also need to make sure the algorithm is working correctly, maintaining the look even while changing the sizing.” But, as Coppen said, H&M is already working on that. “It’s an exciting challenge. We want to – no, we have to – be able to scale up,” she said. “After all, the mission of the Lab is to make a difference.”