Big Data: Coming Soon to Your Bra?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because companies now want to measure your boobs, your pecs, your head size, your waistline and more…and soon, your doctor may be calling them up to chat about it.
By April Joyner
There’s no way around it. Tech doesn’t really get fashion. Neither hoodies nor glassholes are runway-worthy. But just like every other industry, fashion brands are racing to use the hot new thing in big biz: big data.
Big data is technology that enables companies to crunch billions of data points at a time, from your shoe size to your Social Security number, and it’s been a buzzword in the industry for some years now. Apparel companies once used big data mainly for marketing, but now they’re hoping to give consumers more precise sizing — and, slightly more creepily or excitingly, depending on your perspective, help you plug into a universe of personal data on your health, fitness and weight. What’s next could be a natural convergence of connected devices as wearables, smart gyms and more meet high-tech fashion.
“As the fashion industry adopts big data, it will find interesting patterns that correlate between clothing and people’s lifestyle,” says Kenneth Cukier, the co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.
There are signs that the tech-fashion segment is poised to boom.
Here’s how it’s going down.
Some savvy companies, like Bodymetrics and True Fit, use full-body scans and databases of millions of measurements to tell customers their “perfect size.” Others, like New York men’s T-shirt maker Threadmason, geek out on sizing by offering a constantly changing array of 24 different shirt sizes for different builds and torso heights. The company updates sizes based on data about its buyers. Another company, San Francisco’s True&Co., sells bras according to a system that takes into account breast shape as well as the traditional back and bust measurements. The company solicits feedback from customers to uncover new bust profiles.
Not that all applications of big data equal good applications of big data, of course. There are privacy concerns, naturally. And the typical buyers of goods from Threadmason or True&Co. live luxuriously, with plenty of income to spare. Threadmason, launched earlier this spring, has only a few thousand customers; True&Co., founded in 2012, has surveyed just over 500,000 women for its sizing model.
But there are signs that the tech-fashion segment is poised to boom. It’s whetted investors’ appetites, for starters: True&Co., Bodymetrics and True Fit have collectively secured more than $25 million in venture capital funding. When the $30 billion big data industry meets the trillion-dollar fashion industry, and when even Burberry and Nordstrom employ data scientists, a boom seems inevitable.
The information fashion brands are collecting could be valuable not just to designers, but also to doctors and public health officials.
Customization might tempt shoppers, but it comes with high costs. Custom manufacturing can get expensive. True&Co., for example, whose bras retail for $40 and up, had to create custom bra molds for its manufacturer in China in order to produce its current collection, which is designed for eight distinct bust shapes. As a result, engineering the ideal fit for those on the extreme ends of the size spectrum is still a challenge.
“It will take a while for the actual physical product to live up to the promise of the data,” admits Michelle Lam, CEO of True&Co.
But there’s another upshot to fashion’s new love for big data. Namely: Companies want to share your data with the wider information universe. For your own good.
Health and wellness industries have probably been among the most successful collectors of data, big and otherwise. And the information fashion brands are collecting could be valuable not just to designers, but also to doctors and public health officials, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who wrote Big Data with Cukier. For instance, sizing data could be used to track the likely incidence of obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes.
Doctors aren’t yet calling up designers for their info, but fitness companies are. Bodi.me, a London-based company that enables shoppers to find their proper size in 60 brands, has partnered with XBody, a Hungarian company that makes a futuristic workout suit. Wearers of XBody’s suit track their body measurements as they train; that data syncs to Bodi.me’s platform, which offers up sizing recommendations. (Remember when you thought Fitbits were creepy?)
The service, which will launch later this fall, is meant to be motivational: Users can see profiles of themselves with different measurements and virtually try on different fashion labels. And some trainers are sure to use the service to pump up their clients, says Lara Mazzoni, Bodi.me’s CEO.
The list goes on: Another company, OMsignal, has developed exercise shirts that capture data such as its wearer’s heart rate and depth of breath — similar to devices like Fitbit and Jawbone UP. In the future, says Stephane Marceau, the company’s CEO, the app could provide recommendations for specific exercises. And in return, the company uses the data to make better-fitting apparel.
Says Marceau: “It’s an infinite cycle.”