The future of the apparel industry is a 50-square-foot booth called Intellifit. No, it's not a changing room; it's a chamber that holds a body scanner, a first-of-its kind cylindrical holographic imaging technology capable of performing a 360-degree body scan in less than 10 seconds.
In response to hassles associated with shopping for clothes that are inconsistently sized and unrealistically fitted, the technology is quickly replacing tape measures and outdated sizing paradigms.
"A lot of companies are using these scans to create patterns for ready-to-wear garments, for mass customization," said Fabulous Fit author Judith Rasband, founder and CEO of Provo, Utah-based Conselle Institute of Image Management. "Some companies are using the raw data to create custom fitting, garments made specifically for an individual."
Experts acknowledge that a revolution in the apparel industry is taking place, reshaping how the fashion industry measures bodies and develops clothing patterns. Body scanning incorporates a digital imaging process that generates 3-D images detailing a person's precise measurements and proportions.
"It's changing the sizing system because we're getting better anthropometrics on sizing," said apparel product development specialist Lenda Jo Connell from Auburn University. "Before body scanners, you had to get data from a tape measure. That was very inaccurate, depending on where you began measuring, how much the tape was stretched, and so on. And at this point with this technology, we're just scratching the surface with how we can use it."
At the heart of the research is a scanner developed by TC2, a super-sized version of body scanners, now used extensively by the U.S. government for airport security. Utilizing TC2's 3-D scanner, a two-year SizeUSA National Sizing Survey found that the women's fashion industry was shifting from its hourglass-figure paradigm. The research – sponsored in part by J.C. Penney, Target and Jockey – showed that the hourglass figure is the least dominate shape of women, making up only 8.4 percent of the 6,318 women scanned. In fact, the hourglass figure almost doesn't exist in women above a size eight.
Lead researcher for the study was Dr. Cynthia Istook, a North Carolina State University textiles professor who teamed up with AlvaProducts, makers of customized mannequins that are used by some of the world's leading apparel manufacturers and retailers. The findings were of particular significance to mass-market retailers.
"Because the hourglass figure represents such a small percentage of American women, the larger the market share a retailer targets, the more likely it is to provide clothes based on the wrong body shape," said Janice Wang, CEO of Alvanon, parent of AlvaProducts.
Istook defined nine body shapes from the research, which were then cut down to four dominant types. AlvaProducts then produced mannequins to represent these main body shapes: rectangle, spoon, inverted triangle, and hourglass. Such findings have been used at the retail level for almost three years at Brooks Brothers on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Custom-tailored suits are fitted within seconds of stepping inside the chamber. The downside: customers must shed street clothes and don form-fit clothing during scanning.
"At the time that the Intellifit scanner was developed, I was helping a few retailers improve their size specifications," said Ed Gribbin, director of strategic services for AlvaProducts' global consulting division and co-inventor of Intellifit. "We tried to do a manual measurement survey using trained seamstresses, and we realized the limitations of taking 36 points of measure on a body manually. We looked to other body scan technologies as a first step, thinking that would be a way to automate the tailor. But all these technologies required the subject to get undressed, step into a booth, and basically get their picture taken. It was no faster than manually measuring someone."
It was also considered obtrusive to subjects in a store setting, according to Gribbin. Intellifit was thusly created as a consumer-friendly scanner, allowing users to be scanned fully clothed. Plus, downsizing the scanning chamber allows for a smaller footprint that retailers can accommodate.
"Consumers see the value proposition immediately," said Intellfit co-founder and CTO Albert Charpentier. "They understand what it can do for them. Most people are willing to give a couple of minutes of their time to get scanned, because their sizing information is then online and they can utilize it to get better-fitting clothes."
Another kiosk-sized scanner comes from Nova Scotia-based Unique Patterns, the world's largest custom-pattern company that recently opened its first Fit Place in Hudson, Ohio. Located inside a Jo-Ann Store, Fit Place is the first permanent installation of a Unique Patterns bodyskanner, which captures a person's measurements and uses them to custom draft sewing patterns for the user. Before Fit Place, the bodyskanner was seen in portable scanning booths at trade shows and retail locations.
Scanning of the fittest
Software that matches measurements with brands and styles has led the mass customization charge. Lands' End began offering customization in 1998. Today, users complete a questionnaire, and custom shirts, slacks and jeans can be ordered on its Web site at www.landsend.com/custom. MyShape (myShape.com), which debuted summer 2006, employs its ShapeMatch system that matches brands and styles to each user's measurements and style preferences.
By providing precise measurements, body scanners bridge the gap between the consumer and the software. Intellifit, with a 7-by-8-foot chamber, uses radio waves to scan the body. The radio waves bounce off water just under the person's skin, much like Dopplar radar that detects atmospheric moisture, according to Charpentier. A "wand" rotates around the individual, gathering 200,000 points of data of the body shape. This information is then processed against Intellifit's database, which compares a customer's measurements to a range of specifications given by retailers to determine the best-fitting sizes and apparel brands for the individual.
Users supply a username and e-mail address at the time of scanning to the retailer or to an Intellfit operator. To get the measurements, users log in at www.intellifit.com. Or, if a consumer wants to shop for the suggested clothes at the store or the mall in which the scanner is located, a printout is supplied with brand and size recommendations.
Intellifit installed its first scanners in Lane Bryant stores in April 2005. To date, more than 11,000 Lane Bryant customers have been scanned, providing information the retailer can use to do a better job of sizing clothes. The scanner was pilot-tested at mall locations across the country last year. It's also found in outlets that include Levi's, Fashion Bug, After Hours and David's Bridal.
"The apparel industry isn't quite ready to fully accept it yet," Charpentier said. "They recognize that there's an opportunity, but in order for the industry to actually reach the level of acceptance we've seen from consumers, there's needs to be a higher conscientiousness between the consumer and the industry. That may be up to five years from now."
Intellifit's scanning does translate into dollars. Testing the scanner in Levi's outlet stores, 60 percent of those scanned bought jeans recommended to them, noted Charpentier. But purchased individually, each Intellifit system costs $65,000, a high price tag for an item not yet embraced as a must have. Beginning in January 2007, more testing will take place with a number of retailers, including work with malls to track where scanned customers go with their printouts. Coupons and other "paper-based performance" strategies will be used.
Despite the hurdles, experts think body-scan kiosks will one day be commonplace in retail outlets.
"There's no doubt that these scanners will become a big part of the shopping experience," Rasband said. "It's a matter of how long it will take for retail owners to become acquainted with the technology and its application."