A new Oregon startup is promising relief from the wriggling horrors of retail fitting rooms.
Qcut is advertising a line of blue jeans in 400 sizes.
I zipped up in the fitting room of the company’s pop-up storefront in downtown Portland this spring.
I came in and spent two minutes on a tablet with company founder Crystal Beasley answering some basic questions: height, weight, shoe size, bra size. I hit send, and Qcut’s website whisked away the info.
“Our fit clerk, Kate, is going to see you pop up on her iPad,” Beasley told me. “The system is going to choose the first jean you try on based on the algorithm we’ve been working on.”
Kate disappeared for a minute and returned with one of the 50 or so pairs of Qcut try-on jeans.
This is where it got spooky. They fit — at least, they fit in the waist and the seat. The inseam was too long, and the crotch wasn’t quite right. I ended up trying on two more pairs. But it was pretty close.
“I fall in love with problems that users really care about,” said Beasley, a former Mozilla software developer with no prior experience in the apparel business. “If I could just give other women this catharsis of knowing it wasn’t them, it wasn’t their fault that clothes don’t fit, that I knew I’d have something that resonated with people.”
Custom jeans are not a new concept. What’s fresh here is how Qcut does its fits — body scan data.
Beasley’s Kickstarter campaign generated $90,000 from 729 backers.
“We used some of those funds to purchase a data set of body scans,” she said.
Qcut crunched the measurements of thousands of people to develop an algorithm for how jeans could fit different bodies.
Scientists developed body scanning technology in the post-9/11 age. You’ve seen it in airport security systems. Now body scanning is becoming a consumer tool. Some retail chains have used scanners as a special in-store feature to steer customers to the right size. But there are also brands, such as Qcut, using scans at a much earlier stage in the design process.
“If customer can tell us height weight, age, and shoe size, for women we can predict 50 different body measurements,” said Morgan Linton, co-founded of the Austin-based firm Fashion Metric.
Like Qcut, Linton’s company also buys body scan data, harvested off scanners in malls across the country. Fashion Metric develops algorithms derived from the data sets. Linton says they’re in demand among some brands — especially those that sell online.
“Right now when a brand makes a shirt or pants, they’re using a fit model,” he said. The model is intended to reflect a generalized form for what brands think their average shoppers look like.
“The challenge is …. as you get further away from that mean, you get things that don’t fit people the way they would like,” he said.
Professor Susan Ashdown takes this a step further: “I’ve got a surprise for you: the average does not exist.”
Ashdown runs a body scan project at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. She says the sizing system most of the apparel industry uses is a product of the industrial age.
“The concept,” she said, “is that the population will fit into a discreet number of sizes. That’s actually not true. There’s so much variation in body size, shape, you can only fit 50% of the population into standard sizing.”
Ashdown believes body scans represent a huge step forward in fit technology and a chance to redeem the ills of industrialized fast fashion.
But re-visioning sizes is only the first step. Qcut still faced a huge problem getting very small batches of jeans made.
“Everybody was very excited about what we were doing,” Beasley said. “But manufacturing a jean one at a time for a specific customer is a completely different means of manufacturing then the way that everything else you see on the shelves is made.”
After months of travel and trial, Beasley found the right fabric in Italy and a willing factory in Los Angeles. The test will be whether Qcut’s price point can support the jeans of the future:
They’re are on sale now for $235 a pair, hemmed on demand.