Century-old Hanesbrands makes many of the best-known and best-selling brands of active wear, casual wear and underwear in North America — in fact, its products are found in eight of 10 American households. No brands could achieve such universal acceptance unless they consistently fit well and offered comfort and freedom of motion. Yet the U.S. population has an enormous variation in body types. How does Hanesbrands do it?
The company has a secret weapon, and it’s called Alvanon — a New York-based company that provides integrated fit solutions for the apparel industry. Alvanon has worked for a decade to collect information about the sizes and shapes of today’s consumers and help the apparel industry apply that research cost-effectively.
Sizing up active wear
Hanesbrands began working with Alvanon eight years ago in connection with its C9 by Champion product line for Target stores, an offshoot of its Champion active wear brand. Target, which was particularly concerned about fit, recommended that Hanesbrands consult Alvanon to learn more about athletes’ body shapes and improve the fit of C9 garments.
According to David Thomas, Hanesbrands’ director of product development, the initial C9 project was based on thousands of measurements of athletes’ bodies. The data revealed that athletes’ muscles — not too surprisingly — are distributed differently from those of non-athletes. For examples, athletes’ backs, thighs and hips are better muscled than those of the average person. Based on this review of athletic body shapes, Alvanon created forms, or mannequins, that Hanesbrands could use to develop men’s and women’s athletic apparel.
Alvanon can develop highly accurate forms because it has amassed a database based on several-hundred-thousand-millimeter-wave body scans similar to those used in airport security checks, according to Ralph Ehinger, the company’s senior regional director for the Americas. Though compulsory airport scanning has generated traveler outrage and even lawsuits, Ehinger says consumers happily line up in malls for voluntary scans in return for small discounts or recommendations about what clothing to buy. Ehinger adds that another reason for the popularity of the scanners is that they don’t produce any image of the body, they are totally safe, and they operate at only a fraction of the power level of airport scanners.
Alvanon also uses sizing data that the governments of several countries have collected in national health research projects. After analyzing its database, Alvanon creates forms using computer-aided design, which replaces the traditional manual process of form creation and enables multiple identical copies of the same form to be created.
Reducing fit iteration
Hanesbrands found that having accurate, consistent forms in all its offices — merchandising in Minneapolis, design in New York, and product development in Winston-Salem and Hong Kong — helped members of the different teams collaborate better and get products to market more quickly. In the past, Thomas says, “as we saw how something fit on a model in New York, we’d try to find someone in Winston-Salem who looked like that, but it was very difficult.” With the forms, however, “it’s easier to talk about how it fits.”
When Hanesbrands added forms for children’s sizes, the impact was even greater. “Trying to find a kid [in] what we feel is an average body shape is impossible,” Thomas says, “and they grow so doggone fast, you can’t get through a season with a model. If you don’t have a good form to depend on, it’s difficult.”
Use of the Alvanon forms reduced fitting-related travel by half, Thomas says. “We used to put a designer on a plane to Winston-Salem or go to New York City to have a fitting. Now there’s one trip to New York at the beginning of the season to get the design aesthetics signed off, and the balance of the technical fit is managed here in Winston-Salem. We get agreement with design on changes, we come back and request updates from the supplier, and every other fit is done here in Winston-Salem.”
After the Winston-Salem team signs off on the base-size fit, the Hong Kong technical design team makes sure larger and smaller sizes vary in agreed-upon ways from the base size. “They have Alvanon forms in Hong Kong, so when they fit a garment, they’re seeing the same thing we would see,” Thomas says. One tricky issue for athletic gear involves ensuring that special parts, such as inserts, remain proportional to the garment’s size.
The forms have reduced Hanesbrands’ use of live models. Product developers can achieve fit and shape consistency by using forms, and they can ensure that garments sit on the body in a balanced fashion. Live models now mainly test a garment’s behavior during movement —whether it rides up or down when a person runs, or reveals too much when the wearer bends over.
The number of fit iterations has been reduced from an average of three to less than two, despite the fact that athletic products have become more complex over the years. Thomas says, “That’s something we really track closely … and try to bring down. I’d absolutely say the lower number of fit iterations could be attributed in part to the use of the forms.” With fewer fit iterations, the cost of shipping samples internationally has also been greatly reduced.
Customers, too, seem happy with the results — Thomas says complaints to HBI’s customer service center about the fit of C9 garments in the past several years have been minimal.
After its success using Alvanon forms for C9 by Champion products, Hanesbrands introduced them in its Hanes products and in the JMS women’s plus-size line it makes for Walmart. Like C9 customers, JMS customers are shaped differently from average customers, but the database showed that their shapes are less consistent than those of athletes. Plus-sized women may be pear-shaped, or they may be large all over. By using the Alvanon data, Hanesbrands is able to design clothes that are comfortable and attractive for women of several different body shapes.
Hanesbrands tracks trends in the body-measurement database to find out how body shapes are changing over time. Because the company aims for stability and predictability in sizing, it doesn’t change its forms in response to short-term fluctuations, but it has revised the sizing once for the C9 line. Interestingly, while the population at large has been getting fatter, athletes have become more muscular. The database showed increasing definition in leg muscles and changes in back and hip shapes. “If you look at the two forms, it’s almost like someone that had been exercising continued to exercise for another three years,” Thomas says. Eventually, athletes’ measurements had changed enough that Hanesbrands got Target’s approval to make subtle alterations to the C9 forms.
Alvanon and Hanesbrands are also working together on an international sizing project for the products that Hanesbrands sells in Asia. Though Asian body shapes vary a great deal among themselves — even between northern and southern China, according to Thomas — they differ from typical North American body shapes in fairly consistent ways. Hanesbrands hopes to create a fit that can be used successfully all across Asia to drive consistencies in manufacturing.
There’s one caveat, though: Thomas anticipates that Asian sizing may have to be re-evaluated more frequently than North American sizing because the rapid growth of the urban middle class is changing average body sizes more quickly.
Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and technology.