Ever since Woody Allen dreamed up a pair of robotic tailors for his 1973 classic, Sleeper, the idea of using technology to create custom-made clothing has been just around the corner. In the 1990s, Levi Strauss and Land's End both invested in body scanners that would automatically take measurements for a perfectly fitted pair of jeans or khakis at a fraction of the cost of custom tailoring.
It seemed like a good idea at the time and TC2, a Cary, N.C.-based company that makes the scanning technology, says it still is. In fact, the company says it is working on a system for shopping centers that would feed measurements to different apparel makers.
But for now, the news about body scanning is that few apparel makers have invested in the technology and the high-profile pioneers have shelved the idea: Lands' End, which in 2000 toured the country with body scanning kiosks and recorded some 3,000 customers measurements, has opted for an online process that lets shoppers enter their measurements for custom-fit pants. “It's easy to do and can be done from the home or office with a few clicks of the computer mouse, says a Land's End spokeswoman of it's online customization policy. Levi's personalizes jeans the tape-measure way. “The scanner was inconvenient for many consumers because it required changing into lycra body suits,” a spokesman says.
That leaves Brooks Brothers, the bastion of conservative men's clothing, as the cutting-edge retailer in this field. The company, in late 2001, became the first apparel maker to permanently install a body scanner — in its flagship Madison Avenue store. “Everyone's watching us to see how it goes,” says Michel Holland, Brooks Brothers' digital tailoring product manager. Expansion to other Brooks Brothers stores is “under consideration,” he says. But he adds that the success at the Madison Avenue store is “proof of concept.”
Brooks' body scanning machine, made by TC2, was installed in the made-to-measure custom suit department. (The scanner hardware is $35,000 and the measurement extraction software is $15,000.) Each week, some 15 white-collared men come to the store for a digital fitting. That's about 1,100 annually, figures Holland. “We've definitely seen an increase in business,” he says. “We've gotten a lot of new business — those who are first-time [custom tailoring] customers.” He wouldn't comment on the profitability of the business or whether the concept would be expanded to other stores in the chain.
Using white light technology, the scanner records thousands of data points from the body. Brooks Brothers will store a client's data, some 47 measurements in all, for up to one year. This info, along with one of the store's tailors, is used to make suits that cost between $798 to $3,100, about the same price as custom-tailored suits created the old-fashioned way. Shirts cost $90 and up.
These days TC2 researchers are trying to make the scanners, which are now about 65-square feet in size, more portable. Eventually, they could be installed at the center of the mall and all the mall's stores would have size specifications loaded into a central system, says Karen Davis, marketing communications specialist at TC2. That way a shopper could get a scan and see which retailer's clothes fit him or her best.