The Problem With Fit: Standard Sizing Hasn’t Changed Since WWII

by Tara Donaldson

Fit has been top of mind for most retailers as they battle to reduce return rates from online buys, but many companies still aren’t getting sizing right.

And the reason for this, according to the co-founders of RFM, a men’s fashion line dedicated to creating clothes that fit, is because the standard for sizing garments hasn’t changed in more than 70 years.

“Sizing is a failed system,” John Reynolds, RFM co-founder and CEO said during a keynote at NRF’s Big Show Wednesday titled, “Retail’s BIG Fast Track 2016: The Need for Speed—Accelerating Retail Today.”

By the standards of retail, men falling anywhere beyond average in terms of size simply don’t exist.

“Linear grading is the industry standard, but people don’t increase or decrease in size this way,” Reynolds said.

Linear grading starts from a fit model that’s roughly 5’11, 175 pounds with a 40-inch chest for men, makes that size a medium and then sizes up and down evenly to make a range of sizes from there—essentially assuming that people grow outward as they grow upward.

For women, that standard size is 5’8, size 8, though the average American woman is closer to 5’4, 140 pounds and size 12-14.

The size medium set by the fit model’s measurements sets the tone for a plethora of ill-fitting apparel for humans of any other size.

“We’re so focused on this middle of the bell curve that we have no concept of what people [men] look like above 6 feet and below 5’8,” Reynolds said.

Based on linear grading, brands are assuming any man that is 6’5 has a 54-inch chest and weighs 300 pounds. And in most instances, that isn’t the case at all.

Standard U.S. apparel size charts say a size medium man should have a 15 to 15.5-inch neck, a 38 to 40-inch chest and a 33.5 to 34-inch sleeve length. But after scanning more than 15,000 men to take a composite of their body measurements and create anatomically correct sizes, RFM found that true normal for taller, more athletic men is closer to a 15 to 15.5-inch neck, a 42 to 44-inch chest and 36 to 36.5-inch sleeve length.

That’s why Reynolds and co-founder and president Kevin Flammia use non-linear grading for RFM clothing, which will begin deliveries in 6 weeks. Men buying the brand choose their RFM ready-to-wear based on their height and chest size.

“You go up in height and you’ve got multiple chest sizes,” Reynolds explained.

RFM uses scientific principles of measurement and true human body proportions to perfect its fit.

“Our sizing series are based on a proprietary system of body scans that trace, aggregate and analyze the distribution of real measurements,” the company notes on its website. “This data ensures our cuts are proportioned, fitted and ready-to-wear. All of which is to say: we know the true measure of a man.”

The company has had the benefit of tapping Alvanon, the fashion industry’s leading fit solutions provider, for insight—Ed Gribbin, Alvanon’s president, sits on RFM’s advisory board.

“Alvanon has been a tremendous resource for us and has really helped us understand and really appreciate how broken it [fit] is, and so we are building our brand on this idea that we can try to fix sizing,” Reynolds said.

Net global apparel e-commerce sales totaled $72 billion last year, 30 percent of which were returns, according to Reynolds, meaning returns costs retailers at least $21.6 billion, though likely more since gross apparel e-commerce sales were closer to $102 billion.

“What if big data could solve returns? What if we actually did our sizing differently and actually built it to the sizes people actually look like?” Reynolds posed. “We need to quit using 75 years of flawed logic and start to think about sizing differently.”