View Slideshow

Sure, the A-listers in the front row need not worry, but it’s a challenge for most women to find clothing they like at a price they can afford that also fits them well.

This story first appeared in the July 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Many retailers think the solution is mass customization — no, that’s not a contradiction. Instead, it’s a hybrid of custom dressmaking and mass production made possible by advanced computer technology that promises to offer women, at a reasonable price, two things that went out of fashion when the factory took over: a good fit and a measure of individuality.

After years during which the concept assumed something of a Holy Grail-like status, mass customization is taking hold among retailers. Different strategies have been tried: Measuring the customer the old-fashioned way, giving her sample components to try on, scanning her with lasers, and asking her questions over the Internet. Surprisingly, the electronic questionnaire appears to be having the most traction. Lands’ End was the first to try it in 2001, and custom orders are now a significant part of the company’s business. J.C. Penney launched its own Internet-based custom program a month ago, and experts say another major mass-market player will suit up in August. Sears owns Lands’ End.

Retailers say the programs enhance customer loyalty. At Lands’ End, clients who buy custom increase their annual spending by 39 percent, said Bert Kolz, Lands’ End e-commerce manager. They also have a 34 percent higher reorder rate than other Lands’ End Internet customers. “They’re buying more and they’re staying with us as customers longer,” Kolz said.

The company says that 27 percent of like-style product it sells is custom. So, for example, of all the chinos Lands’ End sells, 27 percent are custom. “That’s the biggest surprise,” Kolz said. The most popular category is men’s dress shirts. The second most popular is men’s and women’s jeans. The company also sells women’s shirts.

The Lands’ End custom client is also slightly younger, more educated and a bit more tech savvy than traditional Lands’ End customers, he said. Most are physically average, and 72 percent say they ordered custom clothing because they wanted a better fit, Kolz said.

Lands’ End has priced its custom shirts so its margins are the same as on its other products, he said. They are slightly more expensive than off-the-rack shirts, which start at $22 but are typically $35 or $38. Custom shirts are made of finer fabrics, and start at $49.

After a month, it’s too early for J.C. Penney to evaluate the success of its custom-clothing program. “We’ve been very pleased so far with what we’re finding,’’ said Rich Last, vice president of merchandising for jcpenney.com. “So far, all the signs are encouraging.” The retailer already offers “build your own” engagement rings online, and is known for its broad range of sizes in shoes and bras online and in its catalogues. Its custom clothing offerings include men’s shirts and men’s and women’s cotton twill pants, including a low-rise boot-cut style in six colors for women.

“We started with three items, but we’re already thinking about the fourth and the fifth,” Last said. So far, J.C. Penney’s custom buyers are mostly female, some of whom buy for their husbands. Depending on how the program fares, J.C. Penney might expand it by extending its scale of sizes, increasing the number of items, and broadening its channels, perhaps by offering custom fit in the store, he said.

Both retailers allow returns, which Lands’ End sells at its outlets. Lands’ End has set up its system so reordering is easy and customers can adjust the fit if it’s not right the first time or easily make changes if they gain or lose weight. The return rate for custom clothing is “in line” with Lands’ End regular return rate, he said.

“From everything you read about custom, the real measure of success will come in future orders from these customers,” Last said. “We think there are some interesting implications for loyalty retention and repeat business.”

The loyalty of some customers is reflected in the e-mails Kolz receives. They ask the company to add more features and colors. He gets at least two e-mails a week that are some variation on the theme of “This is the first time I’ve been able to wear jeans since high school,” he said.

Both companies use the same underlying technology, developed by Archetype Solutions Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., which was founded in 2000 by a former Levi Strauss executive, Robert Holloway, who briefly oversaw Levi’s custom business during his long tenure with the company.

Customers answer questions online that let Archetype predict their body shape, or how their weight is distributed. The predictions are based on formulas Archetype has developed, which are modeled on its statistical analysis of thousands of scanned bodies. Then the software checks its prediction against the experience and satisfaction of customers who answered the questions similarly and ordered the same garment, to see if they were satisfied with the fit and whether there are any recurring problems.

The system takes the base pattern and modifies it to fit the individual customer using Gerber Technology software. If two people were to answer all the questions identically, they would get the same pattern, but that’s rare, and most patterns are unique, Holloway said.

“I’ve been measuring people and doing questions for three years, and it’s very unusual that someone is exactly the same in every single way,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons this is successful, because at the end of the day people are different.”

The pattern is electronically sent to a factory, which cuts the cloth in one layer. The factories, located in the U.S., Latin America and Asia, use modular lines to assemble each item, meaning that the pieces for each garment are bundled together and move around the factory together, rather than being sorted into huge but separate piles of pockets, fronts, and other pieces. The factories pack and ship directly to the customer using Federal Express and UPS. The customer receives the order in two to three weeks.

The questions are different for men and women, and very few actual measurements are requested. Many of the questions concern clothing size and body type. Men are asked for their shirt size, height, waist measurement, and “Over the past five years, what have your exercise habits been?” Women are asked for their waist and hip measurements, bra size, shoe size, and “Do you ever fluctuate between sizes?” Diagrams illustrate various shapes and builds. Women can indicate whether their thighs are average or their “seats,” in Lands’ End parlance, flat or protruding.

In its first year, Archetype made hundreds of free garments for people to find out what questions would work. The company discovered that men tend to be optimistic about their bodies and women pessimistic about theirs. “Men tend to have an optimistically large view of their inseam and an optimistically small view of their stomachs,” said Holloway, Archetype’s chief executive officer. Women, on the other hand, are hard on themselves when asked to describe the shape of their rears, he said. The company asks women about shoe size because it has found a correlation between it and other measurements.

Women have a harder time than men finding clothes that fit because of their waist-to-hip differential, Holloway said. If men are like cylinders, then women are like cylinders with lumps on them. The size of the lumps varies, as does their placement (high or low). So a woman with a large bust, for example, cannot wear a regular woven shirt because it’s designed for a b-cup. Going up a size will only make the shirt too big everywhere else. A woman who is otherwise a perfect size 8 but whose hips and bust are close or far apart may have difficulty buying dresses because the waists will be either too long or too short.

“If you line up 20 women and put them in bikinis, you’ll see different shapes” even if they all fit into a size 8, Holloway said. “They tend to have more variable body shapes than men in general, and that translates into problems in the apparel industry.”

As with other examples of mass customization, Archetype’s approach is not technically true custom but rather an automated form of made to measure. Traditionally, true custom means painstakingly draping and fitting a toile or garment to a body, whereas made to measure begins with a premade pattern of some kind and alters it using the flat-pattern method at certain key points to fit a particular customer. The number of adjustments in made to measure vary, but true custom allows for an infinite number of refinements, such as altering the depth and width of a neckline just enough to achieve a perfect and flattering fit without changing the style.

Mass custom fit is progressing rapidly. TC2, the nonprofit firm that conducted the SizeUSA survey of contemporary body shapes and sizes using 3D laser scanners, is working on software that will automatically create a 2D flat pattern from a 3D body scan. The software starts with a basic pattern for a shirt, pants, or skirt, then creates a skin that wraps around an individual’s 3D body scan form. The skin is unwrapped into a flat, 2D pattern by the addition of darts. A patternmaker or designer then picks a style, puts in the appropriate easements, then adds enhancements such as pockets and trims.

The software, which doesn’t yet have an official name, is being beta tested by customers, and will probably be ready in about six months, said Jim Lovejoy, director of supply chain analysis for TC2. The method would allow more points of adjustment and therefore a better fit than the process used by Archetype, Lovejoy said. The software can start with a 3D scan of the actual customer, a 3D body scan of someone whose body is believed to be close to a particular customer’s, or a 3D scan of a company’s fit model with, say, five pounds added if the customer is five pounds heavier. It can also be used by apparel manufacturers to develop patterns more quickly, since it automates much of the pattern making process, he added.

Brooks Brothers has started using a 3D scanner at its New York City flagship, where made-to-measure customers have the option of being measured by the scanner. The traditional method takes about 25 minutes, and the scan takes three to five minutes, said Rich Honiball, manager of the store’s special-order division. The scan is interpreted into 47 measurements, which are automatically entered into a spec sheet. A salesperson also fills out an order sheet with the customer’s name, item desired, and fit preferences, and both of these forms are electronically sent to the factory. Otherwise, the system is the same as traditional made to measure, he said.

Customers can request styles Brooks Brothers has in its archives and special options. Shirts start at $90, and suits start at $798. Digital Tailoring is available only for men, but the company is working on the logic to translate measurements into patterns for women, Honiball said.

Levi Strauss was the first company to offer mass customization with its Personal Pair jeans in 1995. A salesperson would measure the customer, then enter the measurements into a computer kiosk, which would send the order via modem to a Levi Strauss factory. At first, few adjustments were possible: inseam, leg opening, waist, and rise. In 1998, the program was expanded and renamed Original Spin. It offered a broader range of styles, colors, and fabrics, including twills. For instance, the customer could choose the zipper, pockets or no pockets, and a wider variety of leg openings.

The fitting method also changed and was based on a system of combining components of existing patterns. The customer would come into a Levi’s store and try on “dummy” pants to determine their preferred fit and style. At one point, the Levi’s flagship in San Francisco also had a body scanner, but this was used only to determine which of Levi’s existing pants would best fit the customer, not to measure clients for custom pants. Last October, Levi’s put Original Spin on hiatus after tests proved the company was already meeting people’s fit needs with its broad range of jeans, a spokeswoman said. The company is retooling the program and will probably reintroduce it in the future, she said.

It took Lands’ End a year to get its custom program up and running. Because Archetype now has everything already set up, J.C. Penney did it in only about three months. So far, both companies are offering only custom basics, not fashion items. But Archetype says it would be possible to offer a “shirt of the month” with different features and fabrics. Over the next year, Archetype’s customers will be able to offer their custom clients a wider variety of style options, Holloway said.

“We believe this is going to be a very big deal over the next five years,” he said. “We’ll work in multiple different product categories and multiple sectors of the industry. You’ll see us in fashion brands, and wherever people have style, usage and fit requirements, we’ll be able to bring in our technology and systems to help.”