When Brands go bad, fit goes you know where

Before we were so rudely interrupted, my sense of unease and dismay over inconsistent sizing within identical SKUs (as explained by our career tech designer) was growing. A consumer’s expectations are not unreasonable if they try on Style #12345 and -if finding it to their liking decide to buy two or more of them- have every reason to expect that the ones they didn’t try on will fit as well as the first. It is unreasonable to expect consumers to try on every single item of the same exact size, style and color. Size and fit consistency among styles of a given brand is something consumers should take for granted –if only because we ask them to.

Follow me: For better or worse, brands are a cognitive shortcut. In an overwhelming and cluttered marketplace, a brand’s reputation makes purchasing decisions easier and faster. If that is where you want to be, meeting expectations becomes an implied contract with the customer. On one hand you expect the customer to trust you to buy your stuff instead of someone else. To me, a minimal part of brand value is consistent sizing; if consumers take you at your word and trust you, they shouldn’t have to check up on you if they buy X quantities of an identical item. If you bought a set of tires and one of them didn’t fit, your trust in that brand would (should) be seriously eroded. I don’t see how this is any different when it comes to clothes. Sure you can say there are minute differences to be factored in with clothes because we are somehow more special than other classes of manufacturing (not) but this is also true of tires. Rarely are items identical to each other but performance tolerances are established, measured and met.

Flagship brands with inconsistent output used to be rare so people quickly learned which brands they needed to verify. Levi’s was an obvious example -variation was the norm owing to their operation and processes. For example, Levi’s hires contractors across the globe to produce a 501 jean. Each contractor made their own pattern and sourced their own denim for a package price. Consumers learned they couldn’t buy however many pairs of their size at the store because the fit between one pair and the next varied, sometimes substantively, because stores stocked 501s from a variety of Levi’s contractors. Few consumers knew they could shorten the buying process by examining the lot number of a tag to pick out other pairs on the same shelf. However, in light of what our tech designer had to say, it is increasingly less likely that strategy would even work these days assuming people knew to do it. This is very troubling because fit inconsistency owing to operational processes seems to have become the norm.

Today we have all manner of certifications that brands use on their websites and hang tags to instill consumer confidence. I don’t wish to sound cynical but being sustainable and sweat shop free is a matter of integrity; one shouldn’t need pat themselves on the back for doing what they should even if nobody is looking. I suppose it is still a relative rarity but I wonder if we need another? That of operational consistency to convey to customers the path by which their goods travel though the process to get to market. It’s probably a silly idea if only because consumers would then have to learn more about manufacturing complexity when they have enough to do as it is. When I buy a watch, I don’t want to have to learn how to build one. Again, goods brands are a cognitive short cut so you don’t have to think about stuff like that.

If something like that came about, I would be favorably predisposed to companies that set forth formal policies and practices. Nothing earth shattering really, the basics of manufacturing the way we used to. Most of this is in my book but amounts to:

  • Pre-product development fabric testing,
  • block patterns,
  • fit testing on the midpoint size of the size range,
  • establishing standards for seams and construction,
  • established construction (based on specs) and construction order,
  • etc ad nauseum. You know, how we used to do things.

It’s pretty basic stuff. I close with these words of caution:
1. Some folks go full bore and start inspecting everything. That’s usually a bad sign. It means one doesn’t understand where their controls lie.
2. Everyone should do things my way.

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5 comments

  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Well, I’m glad you put in the caveat about Levis. I remember a conversation with my brother who wore at the time a hard to find Levi size (35W/36 inseam). When he would find a stock of 35W36L he would buy whatever stock they had. He said if he bought three pair, one would end up being his favorite. We always chalked that up to the vagaries of the denim. It had not occurred to me that it was the difference in the contractor. Thank you for the enlightenment. He’s now in 36Ws and no longer has to search for his size but he does try on every pair before he buys.

  2. Alizah says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, for this illuminating post. I had never thought about this issue and why fit might be so often inconsistent. Am I the only one who finds buying jeans -actually pants in general- one of my most dreaded activities? Partly for the reason you mention, and partly because the fit is so often poor. The first time I went to Italy it struck how women’s derrières all seemed so much shapelier than our American form…while part of this may be attributed to diet and the general fact that most people in the world walk more than we do, climb more stairs, etc., I am also convinced that fits are better there. I read in the NYT recently that many Asian seeing contractors prefer working with American clothing designers because our patterns are generally simpler – I.e. they can make the same money for less work…

    But more specifically to your post, have you -or other blog readers- seen Patagonia’s “Footprint Chronicles?” If I remember correctly, I think that’s what it’s called anyway. They reveal for each and every product in what factory it’s made, how many miles it travels before it reaches stores, etc. It was astonishing to me to see how open they are with their information – sharing the name and location and sometimes detailed information about their contractors all over the world! If anyone is, they’re helping to create an educated consumer…

  3. Maripat says:

    Thanks, Kathleen. I love the term cognitive shortcut. In this world of information overload, it’s something we use all the time without realizing it. It has a basis in trust, though, which, as you point out, is being abused by these clothing manufacturers. Great thoughts.

  4. Kathleen says:

    I would be reluctant to describe it as abuse altho I get what you’re driving it. It is more a situation where we have a loose but implied contract with the customer only we have changed the terms of the transaction without notifying our partner.

    It would be highly inappropriate if one were to have the impression that it is only big brands who do this. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    There are a LOT of start ups today who copy what the big brands have done to the dot. They copy the obvious and miss the nuances. They just outsource everything and never learn the intangibles of traditional manufacturing models. In short, it’s not just big vs small; it’s the new model vs old school. New isn’t always better.

  5. June says:

    I really love this post! I order almost all my clothes online so size consistency is very important for me. I’ve found that I prefer small companies that make their clothes locally and have great customer service because then it significantly cuts down on returns (BiuBiu is my current favorite being that they make clothes by both waist and bust size). As a consumer, I try to find brands that have easily accessible reviews on their websites or bloggers who write reviews about their clothes in order to get an idea of the fit. Most of the larger companies, who outsource their production lines can never seem to manage consistent sizing, which makes online ordering impossible. It’s insane how much works needs to be done just to find clothes that fit well!

    Whenever I do try to go in-store to try anything on, it’s normally a stressful experience. I have to take many arms loads into the dressing room just to find one thing that actually fits. Awhile back I bought a three pairs of used Calvin Klein pants in the exact same style and size but just different colors. There was a good inch+ difference in the waist sizes between them! It’s extremely hard to find any major brands anymore with consistent sizing, unfortunately.

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