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Why This Denim Veteran Says 3-D Body Scanners are “Vintage Tech”

3-D body scanning has had its fits and starts over the years. It’s been proclaimed by some as the salvation for apparel but has yet to make a significant customer-facing impact. Still, though, the technology shows promise for elevating certain areas of the clothing business—and other industries.

Denim veteran Christine Rucci, who has worked for brands including Tommy Jeans, Diesel, Adriano Goldschmied and ran the denim business for Ralph Lauren, sees body scanners as “vintage tech—what’s old is new again.” It’s a return to the tailoring, made-to-measure mentality that fell by the wayside as mass production and sizing standardization became the new normal around the beginning of the 20th century. But more than that, some heritage brands now need to adjust to a new, younger customer after decades of serving an older clientele, and must update their fit and grading accordingly, Rucci said.

Showing off a TG3D body scanner at NYC Factory, a technology-driven one-stop-shop in the heart of the Garment District, Rucci shared how body scanning first saw applications in the body building industry, where musclebound competitors relentlessly obsess over even the minutest fluctuations in their measurements. Then body scanners made a natural transition into suiting, which relies on precise body data to deliver an accurate fit.

Now, according to Rucci, body scanning could transform the denim business, which is rebounding after taking a bit of a backseat to yoga and similarly, stretchy pants, as athleisure derailed the dominance of jeans as the must-have wardrobe staple.

With the rich data set it generates, 3-D body scanning has implications for brands, retailers and consumers. Estimates vary, but about 40 percent of apparel purchased online is returned due to fit or sizing issues, according to industry sources, and the problem is growing in significance as e-commerce continues grabbing consumers’ share of wallet at the expense of brick and mortar.

Could 3-D body scanners’ accuracy lure shoppers back to in-store shopping experiences? Yes, according to Rucci, but the reality is a bit more complicated.

How it works

Not dissimilar to the infrared body scanners American travelers encounter at domestic airport security checkpoints, TG3D body scanners feature an open, walk-in design with multiple beams targeting different points on the body. Individuals getting scanned wear little to nothing to ensure the machine is capturing the most accurate measurements (and of course, few among us want to add bulk to our frames) and hold onto a pair of handles so that the arms are at an approximate 45-degree angle. Three seconds later, the scan is finished.

There’s an Android and iOS app called Cloudzet that syncs up with the scanner to display the user’s resulting 3-D avatar, and also contains a useful, step-by-step guide through the scanning process. It instructs users to tie up their hair to ensure it’s not touching their neck and shoulders, for example, and to remove shoes and any loose-fitting garments (even baggy underwear). Users are encouraged to double-check the 3-D avatar on their smartphone to be sure the complete scan was captured. If not, back into the scanner they go.

One wonders at the circumstances under which consumers would happily strip off to have such intimate data recorded. Even Rucci admits that when she was scanned she was aghast at how her avatar turned out—“I looked like Shrek,” she said—but then discovered that fluorescent lighting distorts how the infrared scanner captures the user’s image. For best results, the TG3D scanner works under LED lighting.

And then there’s the disconnect between how people, and women in particular, see themselves and how their bodies really look without the modern trappings and literal shape-shifting trickery employed to give the illusion of a smaller waist, a perkier bustline or a toned, uplifted posterior, perhaps. But Rucci thinks people will accept the truth about their bodies simply because it solves an ongoing problem: knowing their true measurements, which will help them shop and buy smarter.

Though consumers get basic points of measure on their 3-D avatar, enterprise customers receive 120, which can easily help to create a customized pattern. The avatar can be seen as a starting point and users can adjust accordingly if they prefer pants with a low rise in the front, for example, Rucci said.

Why body scanning could revive denim

Fashion is cyclical; styles come and go and give away to an endless parade of “new,” but give it a decade or two, and a bygone fad is suddenly hot again. RE/DONE is cashing in on retro fever, with a sustainable angle to boot, repurposing and reinventing original old-school Levi’s with a modern but still referential fit. The rise of RE/DONE denim, which is carried at the likes of Revolve and Moda Operandi for price points than can run north of $300, should have been a wake-up call for the industry than younger consumers prefer throwback denim to the stretch-heavy jeans that dominate the market today, Rucci said.

Though RE/DONE is perhaps a sign of where premium denim is heading, Rucci thinks 3-D body scanners can deliver a new reality for the industry: truly custom-made jeans tailored in every way to the customer’s taste. She likened it to the 16 Handles experience, where customers can create their own dessert concoctions from a wall of frozen yogurt and ice cream flavors and myriad toppings. In a custom denim shop, perhaps there would be separate walls featuring stretch and non-stretch fabric, each in an array of colorways, washes and finishes, and maybe even a lasering option so that customers—with their 3-D avatars in hand, of course—could “brand” their finished pair of jeans, Rucci explained.

Today, made-to-measure denim can run well over $1,000, out of reach of the average consumers, but mass scanning and mass customization could drive those exorbitant price points down to the realm of affordability for the average middle-class consumer.

Scanning for brands

Apparel brands seem to change up their fit and sizing every so often. Just when you’re getting into a nice groove with a great-fitting pair of jeans, suddenly you discover on a trip to the store that your regular size doesn’t fit anymore—and you haven’t changed. That musical chairs approach to fit—not to mention vanity sizing—can erode customer loyalty and turn off some shoppers for good.

Body scanning could help some denim brands steer shoppers to the best-fitting products and eliminate much of the guesswork from clothes shopping. “For a brand, this is the new modern-day dressing room,” Rucci said. And for multi-brand denim companies, the benefit multiplied: scan yourself, scan your kids, scan the whole family and find the right jeans for everyone.

Body scanning could work as a pop-up retailing concept and an attraction at a shopping mall, Rucci said, which would offer the benefit of enabling shoppers to find many different denim brands under one roof. Ideally, when customers know what fits and are truly happy with a garment instead of just finding it to be “good enough,” they’ll create less waste by reducing the number and frequency of garments they discard or donate. According to a 2016 estimate, Americans throw away 13 million tons of textiles, about 85 percent of their wardrobes, each year. Body scanning, and the return of made-to-measure could go a long way toward reversing the eco-unfriendly throwaway clothing trend.

Body scanning: will consumer apps win out?

With companies like 3D Look and Nettelo offering consumer-friendly body-scanning mobile apps, it’s easy to speculate on who will win in the 3-D-scanning arena: customer-facing low tech smartphone solutions, or costlier—but more accurate—enterprise-quality scanners? There are pros and cons to each: consumers can use a smartphone app to do the scan in the privacy of their own homes. But business-grade 3-D scanners offer greater confidence in a truly accurate scan.

Regardless, Rucci sees the potential that body scanning holds as ultimately a positive move for apparel. Brands and designers that use body scanners are the “factory and tailor shop of the future,” she said.

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