Bespoke tailoring used to be all about the relationship between the customer and his tailor, with the measurement and fitting processes being personal and intimate.
But now, all that could potentially change with the invention of the Bodymetrics pod, a futuristic-looking pod which produces a three-dimensional image of the client's body through a scanning process.
A London-based fashion technology company, Bodymetrics first launched its high-tech pod at London's high-street departmental store, Selfridges and more recently, the upmarket Harrods.
The Bodymetrics pod uses an optical scan to register up to hundreds of points on the client's body. The client first steps into the pod and stands in position according to the fluorescent marks on the floor. Light is projected and smoothed over the client's body before body contour data is gleaned in a matter of seconds to produce the body's exact measurements. This data would then be used to make a pair of made-to-measure jeans. Two weeks later – presto! – the made-to-measure garment is ready for a couple of hundred pounds.
Suran Goonatilake, co-founder of Bodymetrics says the idea of the pod came about from research studies in which 'national sizing' surveys in the UK were carried out to check if people were larger now compared to 50 years ago. "The original technology for Bodymetrics came out of the University College London (UCL) where researchers were using 3D body-scanners to gauge the size and shape of the UK population," she says.
Using the body-scanning technology, she then applied then it to a luxury retail context. "We started at Selfridges, Oxford Street, in May 2003, by offering a service where we would scan a person and then allow them to 'virtually see themselves' wearing different designer jeans. This was done by combining body-scanning with virtual-reality technologies and where the result was as close to a person going into a changing room and trying jeans on for real; if the jeans were too tight you could see on a screen that they wouldn't fit, or if they were loose, or just right."
Goonatilake foresees that the pod would have great prospects as an online retail platform as up to 30 percent of garments sold online are returned because e-customers are unable to properly gauge the correct fit of clothes they buy. "For about 80 percent of the cases [clients], we get it right without any fittings."
After Selfridges, Goonatilake launched the world's first designer jeans using the body scanner at the 2004 London Fashion Week with a campaign fronted by English supermodel Jodie Kidd. In 2006, Bodymetrics was launched in Harrods and it extended its product range to include custom-made suits for women, which proved to be quite popular. Today, the Bodymetrics pod at Harrods can also be used for labels such as Vivienne Westwood and Nick Holland.
The reason for starting Bodymetrics was to find the perfect fit for jeans, says Goonatilake. "From the body scan, we can determine the exact size and shape of a customer – we get over 150 accurate measurements in a few seconds. Then, we make a 'pattern' for that individual person, just as a Savile Row tailor would do."
Besides the obvious, which is its use of technology, the pod also allows for the benefits of globalization. "A person can be scanned in London and the garment can be made in Italy, Los Angeles or in Asia," she explains. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense, as sizing systems vary from country to country, even amongst brands." Goonatilake adds that there are labels whose practices add confusion to sizing. "Some brands practice 'vanity sizing' where they would deliberately label garments with a smaller size, to make the customers feel better."
But she is quick to admit that there are still teething issues over the use of the pod. "The technology is still at an early stage, so we need fairly technically qualified people as sales staff. I think over time, the technology will become much easier to use, and we will be able to employ less technically trained staff," she comments.
Technology and Savile Row - An Oxymoron?
Although only used for women's tailoring at the moment, the advent of the body scanning technique is sure to have repercussions on the traditional bespoke industries such as Savile Row. Giorgio Armani has notoriously commented in an interview with The Times newspaper last year that Savile Row is "a bad English comedy", an outright challenge to bespoke tailors that they must embrace modernity in order to survive.
Indeed, Savile Row suffers from a reputation of being musty and backward – at one point in time, Savile Row tailors were averse to the use of the sewing machine but all of its tailors now own at least one. Savile Row tailor William Westmancott does not disagree. "Savile Row is full of old generation tailors, some of exceptional talent, some of limited talent who frankly do untidy, poorly sewn, messy and amateurish work. Their work are sold because they really look handmade. There are a good proportion of customers who believe and understand that handmade clothing will never look as crisp and clean as machine constructed garments and this is true, but many a tailor, not just on Savile Row, have sold suits that really are not up to standard on the precept that 'it's handmade, that's how it should look'," he concurs.
Goonatilake believes that the problem with traditional bespoke tailoring is that measuring by hand will not allow all of the body's contours to be perfectly taken in terms of accuracy. "After all, tailors are unable to record all of the shape information of a person," she says.
She foresees that some bespoke tailors will adopt the body-scanning technology. At the same time, she expresses her concern for the Savile Row legacy. "Savile Row is much about the 'experience' of meeting the tailor, hand-tailoring and coming for the fitting sessions in a special environment. But the traditional Savile Row business model is becoming very difficult to sustain because labor in London is so expensive – it is increasingly becoming a luxury only for the super rich," she says.
But Westmancott demurs that the Bodymetrics' partnerships with couturiers such as Vivienne Westwood are not quite ideal – he believes that the results can only be as good as the interpretation of these measures. "I think this is a great marketing ploy and it will definitely be the clothing of the future for a huge number of people, but it won't replace the craftspeople of Savile Row," he says. "It could, if used wisely, enhance the range of services available and the services from a Savile Row tailor, but accurate measuring is only half the battle. Even the most advanced computer technology is still many years behind the human."
Andrew Ramroop of Maurice Sedwell Tailors is a traditionalist who believes that the introduction of technology into bespoke is a contradiction. "It is a contradiction in terms of handcraft tailoring skills, which is what Savile Row is known for. Technology cannot benefit trade, if tailors choose to use technology to do 'speed tailoring', that would be dishonest to your customer, it is not what he expects in a traditional tailor," he says.
To Ramroop, the Bodymetrics pod is nothing less than a chintzy gimmick. "Bodymetrics cannot achieve a better fit; what tailors do that machines are incapable of doing is to give a superior fit allied with soft structured hand-made tailoring for comfort and elegance."
But Goonatilake is more conciliatory, and even foresees a symbiotic relationship between the pod and Savile Row. "What we see over time is Bodymetrics Pods being installed in all the major cities in the world, where people can get scanned, and they can order a Savile Row suit, if they desire, without having the need to go to London," she says.