Culture & Commerce December 2007

Rightsize Me

Why sending a man to the moon is easier than finding jeans that fit

In a tough apparel market, “better fit” has become the latest competitive weapon. Some garment makers are simply tweaking the proportions of their standard sizes to include more people, by, for example, enlarging waists or not automatically making legs and sleeves longer as torsos get wider. (The easiest way to fit more customers with the same number of garments is to make waists a bit larger, reducing the difference between waist and hip measurements.) Others have explicitly expanded their fit offerings, selling several different proportions in each size. Lane Bryant recently introduced three categories for each size of jeans: yellow, red, and blue, corresponding to different waist-hip ratios, with descriptions posted prominently in store windows. Many brands mingle sizing and style variations. In the Joe’s Jeans lineup of Chelsea, Cigarette, Honey, Lover, Muse, Provocateur, Rocker, Socialite, Starlet, and Twiggy styles, each features not only specific proportions but also a specific leg shape and rise.

By reducing standardization, all these approaches raise manufacturing and inventory-management costs. And, as the dizzying list of Joe’s styles suggests, more variety can confuse shoppers. Instead of the old conflict between mass production and individuality, we now face a new, postmodern problem: a conflict between choice, which accommodates human variation, and information overload. Proportions vary enough by brand and style to promise a good, or at least a better, fit for just about everyone, if you look hard enough. But looking takes time, effort, and mental energy.

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz uses shopping for jeans as his kickoff example of too much choice. When his old jeans wore out, Schwartz went to the Gap to pick up a new pair, only to confront five fit choices in every size: slim, easy, relaxed, baggy, and extra baggy. He agonized over which was right for him:

Finally, I chose the easy fit, because a “relaxed fit” implied that I was getting soft in the middle and needed to cover it up. The jeans I chose turned out just fine, but it occurred to me that buying a pair of pants should not be a daylong project … Before these options were available, a buyer like myself had to settle for an imperfect fit, but at least purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.

Not everyone, of course, will recognize the good old days when purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. (I certainly don’t.) For many customers, having explicit labels reduces trial and error. Instead of going from store to store and brand to brand trying on garments in search of one with proportions close to your own, you can narrow the search to those that at least claim to resemble your shape. And, unlike Schwartz, not everyone is satisfied with clothes that bag or pinch. Surely we can do better than forcing everyone back into the old ill-fitting molds. Schwartz’s social criticism suggests an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Why not scan shoppers and let them order clothes that fit perfectly? A London company called Bodymetrics offers just such a service, with scanning “pods” in Selfridges. But Bodymetrics jeans are pricey, £450, or about $900, a pair. No matter how high-tech the measurement process, custom clothes are extremely labor-intensive. There’s a reason mass customization hasn’t swept the jeans business. Pattern pieces aren’t as modular as Dell computer components. Changing a hem is relatively easy. Changing proportions, like the distance between the knee and the hip or the exact curve of the butt, is much trickier. Each piece has to be revised, and then the pieces have to go together smoothly. Designing and cutting a new pattern for every customer eliminates many of the economies of industrial production.

A more promising approach is to use scanner data to match a customer’s shape with a store’s inventory, a service Bodymetrics also offers. Fit experts envision a future in which you’d carry your body scan in your cell phone or on a thumb drive, using the data to order clothes online or find them in stores. But who’s going to pay for all those scanners, which cost about $35,000 each, and the staff to run them? Why would Bodymetrics or Macy’s give you information you might use to buy jeans at Nordstrom or the Gap? And who’s going to maintain the databases of garment measurements? Mall operators might conceivably install scanners to attract customers to their shopping centers, spreading the cost and benefits over all their tenants. But none has done so. Scanner technology is appealing—it’s really cool to see a 3-D model of yourself—but so far the business problems have limited scanners mostly to research and a small luxury market.

“Scanning was interesting 10 years ago,” scoffs Rob Holloway, who bought one of the first [TC]2 scanners when he was a Levi’s executive. “Now it’s like a dinosaur which is still lumbering around.” Holloway’s latest venture takes a different approach. Founded in 2005 and located in a converted bakery across from the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California, Zafu has hand-measured thousands of women as well as 10,000 individual garments, including 500 different styles of jeans and 150 styles of bras (another hard-to-fit garment). The company had the women try on garments and talk about what they liked in the fit. Combining those comments with information on the fit of the particular styles the women tried on, the company developed a simple list of online questions—such as whether your jeans tend to gap at the waist—that segment customers by shape, allowing the Zafu Web site to suggest specific popular styles and brands likely to fit. For my extreme hourglass figure, Zafu recommended styles that included Joe’s Jeans’ Honey, Baby Phat’s Signature Jean, DKNY’s Stretch So-Low-Lita, and Christopher Blue’s Lloyd’s Sister.

Unlike Lane Bryant and other clothing companies, Zafu doesn’t require customers to figure out for themselves which category they belong in. Its system can segment body shapes into many more categories than a shopper could remember or a single brand or retailer could fill—about 50 rather than the usual three, five, or seven. The more narrowly defined the categories, the more likely the system is to find styles that fit. The perfect system, after all, would give every customer her own unique category, tailored to her individual shape. “You have to be more granular in the way that you think about shape,” says Holloway. By narrowing thousands of jeans styles down to a manageable handful, Zafu gives shoppers a viable alternative to Schwartz’s backward-looking prescription. It preserves the advantages of choice but eliminates the information overload.

What Zafu doesn’t do is tell you which size to buy. Its system doesn’t ask for body measurements, which amateurs are notoriously bad at taking. Besides, some elements of fit are too subjective for a computer. Am I a 6 or an 8? That depends on how tight I like my clothes. It also depends on how obsequious I expect the vanity sizing to be. The only way to find the right size is to try on the clothes. But at least you know where to start.

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the new owner of a pair of Joe’s Jeans’ “booty fit” Honey jeans, recommended by Zafu. She is writing a book on glamour.
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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.

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