Wardrobe: Fit to Be Tried

Dr. Stephen Ellen slips out of his clothing and into a pair of flesh-colored underpants, which will disappear—virtually, that is—when he steps inside a 6-by-6-foot space that is equipped with special white lights. The lights flash for only six seconds, just long enough for a camera to record thousands of measuring points on Ellen’s body. Later, a suit maker will use the image, which appears as a three-dimensional line graph, to create a paper pattern that will serve as the guideline for fabricating Ellen’s custom-made suit.

Over the years, Ellen has purchased a wide variety of tailored clothing—from ready-made suits by Perry Ellis to bespoke clothing produced by H. Huntsman of Savile Row. Yet the Massachusetts psychiatrist says that no tailor ever has come close to crafting a suit that fits as well as those he buys from store owner Gary Drinkwater of Drinkwater’s in Cambridge, Mass., which utilizes 3-D body-scanning technology at its suit supplier, Southwick Clothing in suburban Boston.

“With other custom clothing, the waist didn’t feel right, the pleats didn’t lie flat, and the jacket never rested properly on my shoulders; it took multiple fittings to get it right,” says Ellen, who stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs about 250 pounds. “With these suits, I only needed one fitting, and even then, they fit better than those that required three or four.”

This might be the future of custom suitmaking, when machines will render tape measures obsolete. “A typical tailor will take 15 or 20 measurements, but this machine, which is essentially a white-light camera, measures every single inch of your body,” explains Joe Antista, chief operating officer at Southwick Clothing, the only U.S. clothing maker using the system.

Most fine tailors would balk at the concept, contesting that all measurements must be taken by hand and adjusted by sight. Antista agrees, noting that the machine is used only to calculate the numbers, not to produce the finished garment. Nevertheless, Southwick uses about 50 measurements to make a suit—nearly triple the amount that traditional production methods employ.

The 3-D body-scanning technology, originally named Apparel on Demand, was created in 1991 by [TC]² (Tailored Clothing Technology Corp.), a Cary, N.C., nonprofit group that researches and develops products for the apparel and other soft-goods industries. “Our initial prototype was about 200 square feet and sold for about $200,000—far too large and expensive for most stores to accommodate,” says Jud Early, the firm’s corporate vice president and chief technology officer. Over the past 15 years, [TC]² has developed three smaller, more affordable models. Still, apart from the scanner at the Southwick factory in Lawrence, Mass., only Brooks Brothers in New York City and in Short Hills, N.J., has installed one to service its customers. (Those measurements are forwarded to Southwick, which makes Brooks Brothers’ private-label clothing.)

However, other firms are developing their own white-light scanners. One company, Intellifit, already has introduced a scanner that measures customers through their clothing. But, claims Early, “that technology is not yet accurate enough to use with custom clothing.” The U.S. government’s Defense Logistics Agency also is working on a program that would rapidly measure thousands of soldiers for their uniforms. “Most scientific-minded guys who like gadgets are intrigued by this device and are anxious to try it,” says Drinkwater.

So far, Ellen has purchased three suits and five sport coats that were produced with 3-D technology. “They made me the suit, I put it on, and it was the perfect fit,” he says. “I’ll never buy a custom suit that is measured by a tailor again.”

Drinkwater’s, 617.547.2067, www.drinkwaterscambridge.com
Southwick Clothing, 978.686.3833, www.southwickclothing.com
[TC]², 919.380.2156, www.tc2.com

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