Sense of Deception



Body Scanner Replaces The Tailor’s Tape Measure

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By Barbara Rosen

Published: August 10, 1999

LONDON— In John le Carré’s 1996 novel, “The Tailor of Panama,” the protagonist Harry Pendel’s painstaking fitting sessions are as much about confessions and gossip as they are about tucking waists. In Woody Allen’s futuristic 1973 film “Sleeper,” the measuring is done by robots.

To whom does the future belong?

At No. 1 Savile Row, in the epicenter of London’s bespoke menswear world, Gieves & Hawkes is ready to take a leap forward. The company, like other retailers, is looking into installing a 3-D body scanner, basically a changing booth fitted with two to eight cameras.

“We are very interested in it,” says Mark Henderson, managing director of the firm that made Admiral Nelson’s uniforms. “At the moment, it’s a very expensive tape measure.”

So far, the still-evolving technology has been used mostly in surveys to update sizing for large retailers, says Stephen Gray, a professor who heads the Computer Clothing Research Center at Nottingham Trent University. Marks & Spencer, Britain’s biggest clothing retailer, for example, is using a scanner in a women’s sizing survey.

Gray’s center has measured more than 10,000 women and 400 men since 1995, using the best technology available to collect data that can be analyzed to help make clothes that fit.

There are currently 12 3-D body scanners in use around the world, Gray says, all made by one of four companies: Hammamatsu of Japan, [TC]2 in the United States, Tecmath of Germany and Telmat of France. Scanners help Japanese women to select lingerie, German men to buy made-to-measure suits and the French military to select and deliver uniforms, Gray says.

Gieves & Hawkes sees the scanner as fitting into its personal tailoring, or made-to-measure, department, where suits start at £595 ($945), as opposed to the ready-to-wear’s £450 and the bespoke’s £2,250. A small office is ready for conversion to a scanner booth. But the company is waiting for the technology to develop further, Henderson says. He noted that the scanner does not allow for how a suit must give at the knee.

Gray confirms that the technology is just starting to be able to measure a bent elbow, for example. For the next three or four years, he says, scanners will continue to be better at showing overall body shape than at interpreting that shape’s detailed measurements.

In time, however, the scanner will be able to give the tailor, or whoever makes the garment, all the information needed to “disguise the bad and emphasize the good,” as a good suit should, Gray says. The customer, measurer and suit-maker can even be in different countries.

“It’s not to replace the tailor,” Gray says. “It’s to replace the informed tailor’s assistant in the store.” The latter is becoming scarce, he said, because fewer people apprentice to become tailors.

Even at their best, says Gieves & Hawkes’s merchandise director, James Whishaw, scanners could never replace real hands-on fitters. Whether in made-to-measure, where an existing pattern is selected and then adjusted to the customer’s size and specifications, or in the completely customized, from start to finish bespoke, there is a certain pleasure in being measured by human hands.

“The main difference is the cuddly, feely, touchy thing, the aesthetics of having a suit made for you,” Whishaw says. The scanner is “an MDF box and it’s got two little cameras looking at you,” he says. “It’s rather clinical.”

AT No. 39 Savile Row, a scanner is also being discussed for Alexandre’s ready-to-wear and made-to-measure menswear. Alexandre is part of William Baird PLC, the dominant made-to-measure suit manufacturer in Britain, which also sells its own brands through concessions in major retailers.

At Alexandre, “the majority of our work is done by machine,” says Anthony Hendley, brands director for Baird Menswear. Measurements, though, are still taken by hand.

Hendley seems less concerned about the “cuddly feely” stuff, and says his ambition is for the Alexandre customer to step into a scanner booth. “Then the whole process would be computer-mechanically driven, right through to the end product,” he says.

It would increase efficiency, eliminate human error, cut costs and be a great customer pull, he says. Whereas Gieves & Hawkes speaks genteely about a scanner “amusing” its clients, Hendley makes no bones about aiming for a big, loud and very publicity-minded splash.

“We’re obviously after the younger, affluent guy who is interested in the new ways of the world,” he says.

Barbara Rosen is a free-lance journalist based in London.

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