How do you try on clothing without touching it? Bold Metrics, a San Francisco-based tech company that uses AI and machine learning technologies proposes to help shoppers do just that with their latest product—Contactless Fit. It might sound like an oxymoron but with fitting rooms shuttered and customers hesitant to try on clothing due to the uncertainty created by COVID-19, being able to find your size without entering a fitting room, or even touch any clothing, is definitely an attractive, if intriguing, option.
Esquire speaks with Morgan Linton, the COO and co-founder of Bold Metrics to find out how they went from running a retail marketplace based on fit to helping some of the world’s biggest brands unlock the power of their customer body data to completely transform the way clothes are made, worn and sold.
ESQUIRE: I understand that you and your co-founder, Daina Burnes, actually started the company as a marketplace that connected customers to clothing in their size. How did you guys pivot the company from a consumer-facing brand to a SaaS (software-as-a-service) company specialising in body data?
MORGAN LINTON: It turned out to be a very natural evolution—we started with the mission to help online shoppers find the right size online using our own machine learning technology. As we continued to grow, we saw our return rates fall to under five percent sitewide—that’s when we realised our technology would be a valuable solution for apparel retailers looking to reduce returns and reduce their carbon footprint associated with high returns. With this motivation, we pivoted our company to focus on building best-in-class fit technology for apparel brands and retailers to leverage online and more recently, in-store.
ESQUIRE: What is body data and why is it so important for apparel retail, especially now?
MORGAN LINTON: Body data refers to the body measurements of a customer, which historically has been taken in-person by a tailor or with a body scanner. Bold Metrics algorithmically predicts body measurements at tailor-level accuracy, without ever requiring in-person measurements or selfies, outputting over 50 body measurements instantaneously.
Anytime a shopper interacts with the Bold Metrics technology, behind-the-scenes we are predicting their body measurements algorithmically. This means that over time, an apparel brand or retailer can build up a body data asset library of their consumers, to better understand the body shape and sizing of their target market. This body data can be used within the apparel design process to supplement fit models or body block data to evaluate sizing gradation and determine how well the garment specifications are fitting their consumers.
“The technology has built up tens of millions of data points that cycle into a feedback loop system to allow for continuous machine learning to generate ever-evolving AI and maintain our high level of accuracy.”
ESQUIRE: Bold Metrics recently launched Contactless Fit to help apparel stores reopening in a post-COVID world. What is it, and how will it impact shopping for clothes as we know it?
MORGAN LINTON: Apparel brands and retailers have been relying on our technology for years to help their customers find the right size online, where dressing rooms aren’t an option. Now, due to safety concerns around COVID-19, dressing rooms are definitely becoming a less suitable option for in-store shoppers. But even if customers aren’t comfortable using a dressing room, or if a retailer decides to close their dressing room altogether there is still the critical question of fit.
With Contactless Fit we are able to provide our same best-in-class solution that companies know and trust online but customised for the in-store shopping experience. This means that shoppers can still go to a store to see clothes in-person, find styles they like, put together outfits, and then leverage Bold Metrics to find the right size and understand how it will fit on their body. This makes it safer and easier, both for sales staff in-store, as well as their customers.
ESQUIRE: An AI-powered size recommendation tool that also takes into consideration a customer’s style and fit preferences when making size recommendations? It kinda sounds like magic, how exactly does this work?
MORGAN LINTON: The magic is in the eight years of data we’ve fed into the system to get the highly trained, accurate machine learning models we use today. When we first started Bold Metrics we built up a large data warehouse of body scanning data. Over the years we have supplemented this dataset by working with custom clothiers, as well as mid-to-large apparel brands and retailers.
Since our core technology predicts detailed body measurements, we can go beyond recommending a size and provide in-depth information about how a garment will fit across a shopper’s body, so they can pick the best size based on their unique fit preference. Our technology tracks purchase and return data for any shopper who uses our solution, providing an important feedback loop so our algorithms can continue to improve over time. The technology has built up tens of millions of data points that cycle into a feedback loop system to allow for continuous machine learning to generate ever-evolving AI and maintain our high level of accuracy. It sounds like magic, but it’s really just a great application of AI and Machine Learning that has the benefit of eight years of data behind it.
ESQUIRE: So you’re saying that customers will no longer need to puzzle over complicated size charts or guess their sizes? How accurate are the size predictions and what validates the accuracy?
MORGAN LINTON: That’s right, we think size charts already are a thing of the past. The reality is, nobody can actually use a size chart since it often requires measurements that you don’t know and requires a lot of guesswork from shoppers. This is one of the reasons why return rates are so high for apparel online. Bold Metrics measurements are considered comparable to a Master Tailor and we’ve proven this more times than I can count in studies with tailors who think it just sounds too good to be true.
ESQUIRE: What about the other size recommendations tools currently in use? Do AI and machine learning-based technologies have an edge? I’m thinking of the Zozosuit, which used camera-based technology and a specially-developed bodysuit with image sensitive ‘dots’ to create a biometric profile of each customer.
MORGAN LINTON: Great question, and it’s one that we certainly get a lot. When it comes to predicting body measurements photo-based solutions have been around for a long time, and we considered this approach and did quite a bit of R&D initially before deciding to focus on an AI-based solution. The biggest challenge photo-based measurement solutions have is that you’re relying on people to wear tight-fitted clothing and orient their camera/smartphone correctly, have a good background… and the list goes on. The reality is, just like people can’t measure themselves accurately, in countless studies we’ve seen they also can’t get into truly tight-fitted clothes and set up their camera just right in order to get accurate body measurement predictions.
We’ve talked to a lot of apparel brands over the years that have tested photo-based solutions and found their customers aren’t comfortable changing into tight-fitted clothing and taking pictures of themselves, they’re asking for a question-based approach and appreciate this has been our focus. Additionally, our size recommendations are per style rather than per-category which means consumers can get very granular about what size and style to buy and get confidence that it will fit just the way they want.
ESQUIRE: With COVID-19 creating an unprecedented disruption to traditional clothing store retail models, how can your technology help brands adjust and thrive?
MORGAN LINTON: We’ve seen an overall trend of apparel brands and retailers moving to “contactless” everything. Contactless payment and contactless pickup are a big trend we’re seeing accelerate and in April we announced Contactless Fit, a first-to-market solution for helping shoppers find the right size in-store, without a dressing room. Consumers are concerned about going into a dressing room, 49% of millennials and 71 percent of baby boomers said they wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a dressing room. With Contactless Fit shoppers are able to leverage our same technology that brands around the world have been using online for almost a decade, in-store, to find the right size without ever needing to try the clothes on.
ESQUIRE: So contactless shopping for an industry traditionally based on tactile experiences? Will customers bite?
MORGAN LINTON: That’s a good question and we know there’s a lot of changes that people are still trying to wrap their heads around as we move into this new normal. What makes our approach unique is that we don’t just recommend a size to a shopper, we can also show exactly how a particular size fits, where it’s loose and tight on their body, and how that changes as they go up or down a size. By simulating the dressing room experience we think that customers will find our approach will give them something they’re already familiar with, while avoiding dressing rooms and try-ons that now are a lot less appealing to shoppers.
ESQUIRE: Will this change the way fashion and apparel stores are run in the future, post-COVID?
MORGAN LINTON: We think that Contactless Fit will become a new standard and in many ways change the in-store experience in a very positive way. One of the key areas we see Contactless Fit making an impact is enabling consumers to shop for, and try, a wider array of options than they normally would in-store. The old model of carrying a small selection of clothes into a fitting room, trying on different sizes, and picking one or two items can be greatly expanded when you’re not limited by what you can physically carry. We see a future where apparel retailers will be able to offer customers a much more customised and experiential journey in-store while continuing to provide the confidence around fit that customers need to make an informed purchase decision.
ESQUIRE: How will individual customer body data be collected or used? What about privacy issues?
MORGAN LINTON: We’ve taken a very deliberate approach when it comes to protecting shoppers’ data. Rather than collecting PII (Personally Identifiable Information) we only receive anonymised data which means at no point are we sent or do we store private information about a shopper. This means that consumers can continue to shop with brands they trust knowing that their personal information isn’t shared with us.
ESQUIRE: Bold Metrics technology also enables brands to use 3D design virtualisation and virtual fitting room capabilities. What do you think VR’s role in fashion will be like moving forward?
MORGAN LINTON: One of the things brands love about Bold Metrics is our ability to leverage our body measurement prediction technology to generate 3D avatars. With think that both AR and VR are going to play larger roles in the apparel shopping experience in the near future, from virtual try-ons to simulating how clothes behave based on movement and different fabric properties. We’re excited to be a core part of delivering these next-generation experiences. For brands that already use Bold Metrics, transitioning into AR/VR solutions is a completely seamless process which means we’re helping futureproof companies as we move forward together.
ESQUIRE: Finally, how do you imagine the future of fashion to be like?
MORGAN LINTON: The fundamental shift we’ll see in the near-future is a move to on-demand manufacturing enabled by instant access to customer body data. The concept of “standard sizing” has been around since the 1800s and the idea of segmenting people into the right size based on a small selection of options like Small, Medium, Large, is changing.
In the short-term, we see our body measurement data used to help refine sizing standards and adding additional sizes to fill in gaps in the range. In the long-term, we see Bold Metrics operating a lot like Intel does with an “Intel Inside” approach—Bold Metrics enables on-demand manufacturing within software and hardware solutions to fundamentally change the way clothes are made. The most exciting thing for us in this future is the impact we can have on sustainability, and the opportunity we have to play a role in dramatically lessening the detrimental effect the apparel industry has on the environment.