Like so many women, Meghan Litchfield dreaded shopping for jeans. There were the garden-variety complaints: inconsistent sizing between brands, the way back pockets stretched or sagged, the humiliation of walking into a dressing room with half a dozen options only to walk out empty-handed. Even the best candidates were ill-fitting. Most of the time, she’d buy jeans one size up to fit her hips, then ask a tailor take them in at the waist.
Litchfield, formerly a vice president at GoPro, figured there must be a way to shop that wasn't so demoralizing. Instead of taking off-the-rack clothes to the tailor, what if she could buy her clothes tailor-made? And what if she could make that happen for other women, too?
A solution arrived late last year with Redthread, the startup Litchfield created to make bespoke clothing for anyone with a smartphone. Customers choose an item from Redthread’s website, fill out a “fit quiz,” and capture a series of full-body photos with their phone. Redthread pulls 3D measurement data from those photos and, combined with a customer's fit preferences, creates a made-to-order item.
The result, Litchfield hopes, will go beyond simply outfitting a more diverse set of body types. It will upend the way clothes are bought, sold, and designed in the future.
Digital technology has given rise to an age of ultra-personalization. The radio, once the arbiter of musical tastes, has been replaced by Spotify's custom playlists. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds deliver news stories based on what we've read and liked in the past. Amazon's Kindle surfaces book recommendations you're actually likely to read. But our closets—filled with standard-issue, rank-and-file clothing—still reflect a mass-consumer mindset.
A number of new startups hope to change that. Isabella Wren, a Hong Kong–based fashion brand, sells tailor-made jackets, dresses, and trousers with a proprietary body-scanning technology that lifts a woman's exact measurements from a few photos. Proper Cloth, a menswear brand, uses a similar technology to create custom dress shirts. Soma, a lingerie-maker, now sells a “smart bra” designed to find a woman's perfect bra size. A customer wears the garment—a sports bra with sensors and a Bluetooth chip sewn in—and the exact size and shape of her body is translated into a custom bra that fits perfectly.
Size Me Up
Standard sizing, as we know it today, didn’t exist before the 20th century. People wore clothes they made themselves or commissioned from a tailor or dressmaker. But during the Civil War, both armies needed a better way to mass-produce uniforms. “They came up with what now is basically the algorithm,” says Beth Dincuff, a fashion historian at the Parsons School of Design. “So, for soldiers with a 32-inch waist and a 40-inch shoulder span, what’s the average sleeve length they need? They had such a large amount of measurements that they could start cutting uniforms in the same way.”
The formula then carried over into the consumer market, where clothing-makers began using “size models” to estimate measurements. Dressmakers began with items like shawls or capes, which didn’t need to fit closely, and later began mass-producing items like corsets or hoop skirts, which did. “Standard sizing was driven by commercial interests,” says Dincuff.
Today, we find ourselves in a sizing shorthand crisis. It's hard to know what constitutes a "small" or a "medium" in exact terms, and varying proportions can make standard sizes feel off for most people. Dincuff points to the rise of "vanity sizing," where brands inflate the measurements on clothes to make customers feel better about squeezing into a smaller size. That can make the clothes-buying process more emotionally satisfying, but also more confusing. One investigation found that the actual waistband measurement for a pair of size 6 jeans could vary by more than five inches across brands.
“We have this system that’s broken,” says Litchfield. “It assumes women’s bodies are standard, it’s become completely arbitrary, and at the end of the day, it makes women feel really bad about ourselves.”
Redthread licenses its photographic measurement technology from a company called Cala, which lifts 15 exact measurements from the pictures the customer sends in. The company then uses those measurements to tailor a garment in a dozen or so places before shipping it out. Other companies, like Isabella Wren, also let women customize certain aspects of the garment—like changing the neckline or adding pockets.
This kind of customization represents "a huge shift in the industry," says Sophie Marchessou, a partner at McKinsey who consults on retail brands. A McKinsey report on "The State of Fashion in 2019" pointed to personalization as a key trend, especially among younger customers. "They have a desire to individualize products, and they’re often willing to pay a premium for it."
Litchfield agrees. Redthread sells four items: a T-shirt ($78), a jacket ($168), ankle-length pants, and wide-leg pants (each $148).
While custom-made clothing might save retailers money on returns and overstock, Marchessou says it's not yet sustainable for most brands to ship out custom-produced single orders. Technologies like automated sewing and 3D printing for clothes could make it easier to scale up a bespoke garment business (and also drive down costs), but those technologies aren't widely accessible yet.
On a smaller scale, though, some designers have experimented with 3D printing as a means to find better fit and give consumers more personalization. Israeli fashion designer Danit Peleg believes that in the future we’ll be able to “download” our clothes and fabricate them at home using 3D printers that can spin soft materials. Peleg already sells a custom-made 3D-printed bomber jacket for $1,500 and hopes more people will print their own clothes one day.
Litchfield, for her part, imagines a world "where stacks of apparel inventory and sizes are eliminated, everyone has their measurements in a digital wallet, and all clothing is created on-demand, personalized to each person." She thinks we'll get there, eventually—one pair of made-to-measure pants at a time.