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“Growing” Population is Harder to Size, Say UK and U.S. Retailers

By 2025, 40% of the U.S. and 35% of the UK is likely to be obese–a startling statistic that will affect not only our health, but the size of our clothes. The fashion industry has struggled to ensure sizing consistency since the 1940s, when tailored clothing was largely replaced by ready-to-wear, but the rapidly growing size of the population has thrown yet another wrench in the works.

Ed Gribbin, president of fit specialist Alvanon, told a conference of UK suppliers that the industry is aiming for a moving target–a target, he says, that is “moving faster than ever.” Weight gain affects not only size, but proportions, he explained, which makes pattern cutting, sizing and fit a “particular challenge.”

Of course, retail sizing has always been inconsistent–some stores flatter their customers by sizing down, others, like upscale women’s retailer Michael Stars, eschew traditional sizing altogether. American Apparel, on its wholesale website, explains that while “most contemporary T-shirts are sized for the Boomer Generation (former hippies who are now in the ‘relaxed mode’),” their T-shirts are sized for “men of all ages who desire a youthful fit” and women who “refuse to wear the oversized, unshapely T-shirts of other leading brands.”

But as e-commerce gains traction on bricks-and-mortar retail, the cost of inconsistency is borne by the online sellers–in dissatisfied customers, and in the shipping costs of returns. Savvy shoppers, jaded by inaccurate sizing, order items in several sizes and return those that don’t fit; the cost of return is often double the price of the item.

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Some brands now struggle even to keep their own internal sizes consistent. Many retailers have added centimeters to their sizing charts, but it’s hard to ensure that suppliers–who may work with several retailers at once–are using the new measurements. The vast majority of U.S. and UK clothing is produced overseas, so mistranslations (say, from English into Cantonese) are yet another hazard.

So what’s the solution? New technologies, including programs which produce patterns virtually, can solve accuracy issues between designers and suppliers; online tools can help customers calculate their measurements and cut down on returns. But the most important conversation will be among designers–as e-commerce becomes more fluid, a global sizing standard will become absolutely crucial.

As Jayne Pye, technical manager of women’s wear at Matalan, told conference attendees, companies must collaborate. “Let’s be friends and work together and decide what is a size 12,” she said. “This alliance will not affect our competition.”