In the first-ever episode of the Gordon Podcast, we speak to Colin Hunter, consulting refugee turned CEO/Founder of tech-driven custom tailor Alton Lane. Colin saw the opportunity to apply bodyscan technology to turn around a custom-tailoring experience that was inefficient by design and, like so many non-retailers entering the space, a customer experience that didn’t totally suck.
This interview is the first of two with Colin, where he discusses how bodyscan makes custom tailors (such as the namesake of this magazine) all but obsolete – seemingly a bit rude under the circumstances. Still, he makes a good case that this technology might just keep custom tailoring alive for when the sartorially challenged Millennials come to their senses. (Check out the podcast above, or read the edited transcript, which follows, below.)
David Zweifler, Gordon Magazine (DZ): Thanks for joining us today Colin so what are the major areas of technology that Alton Lane is using to augment the in-store customer experience right now?
Colin Hunter, Alton Lane (CH): Technology has been central to our brand identity really from the very beginning, and our philosophy is that technology should always be a means to providing a better experience and a better service for the customer and not an end in and of itself. I think companies can get into trouble when you try to focus on really cool tech and stay so hyper-focused on it that you stop and say does this actually benefit the customer or is it something that we’re just putting in there so we’ve been very disciplined from day one about any tech that we incorporate ideally if it’s customer-facing. It’s great if there’s a cool element to it and just because that’s fun and that enhances the experience, but it really should drive efficiency for the business and it should drive convenience for the customer. So there are a few different ways that manifest itself in our showroom experience and then in our supply chain.
In the showroom, probably the most visible the most talked about is our bodyscan. Bodyscan has been around for a while. I think we were pretty early on in incorporating it so heavily into the experience. When customers see it in the store we get reactions that look like a rocket ship has landed in the room. It is it is really cool technology.
“I think companies can get into trouble when they focus on really cool tech and don’t stop and say does this actually benefit the customer or is it something that we’re just putting in there to impress people?”
Bodyscan: Sonar With Light
Bodyscan effectively creates a digital avatar of every customer’s body. The easiest way to think about the technology is kind of like sonar but with light. So the light will hit your body and hit the receiver and then will measure the distance, and generate the data point based on that distance. Those thousands of data points create this digital avatar of your body and then, by connecting the dots, we’re able to extract certain measurements.
It’s about driving greater precision and greater convenience. So the precision part is obvious. If we have a body scan in every one of our showrooms I don’t have to worry about different tailors or different techniques. I mean I could go to New York City I could go to ten different tailors to get my measurements done and I would probably end up with ten slightly different results. So for us, there’s that there’s a certain amount of precision and consistency that we get with it.
The other benefit is just time. I mean it takes us seconds to generate hundreds of measurements using bodyscan where if you were to and also have a visual shape of your body and if you were to go to very skilled tailor on Saville Row you would probably take about 60 or so hand measurements and would do sketches of your posture and body shape etc and that takes a certain amount of time. Then you would also have to come back for multiple iterations on that garment so multiple alterations to get it just right.
There’s a certain kind of historic romanticism to that experience but our philosophy and something we feel deeply personally is that time is the most precious commodity. For our target customer who is a busy professional, who has the time for five fittings to get something that is just right? And so our goal from the beginnings we view body scanning as a way to deliver more accurate and precise measurements and to do it faster. That not only saves the customer that time in the actual appointment upfront but it significantly reduces the alterations required to get to that perfect fit on the back end.
DZ: Wow – so it’s a custom made suit in a single fitting? One and done?
CH: We track this by garment type and so, with something like shirts, we have about a two to three percent alteration rate using bodyscan. That statistic gives us the confidence to ship shirts directly to the customer and know that it’s going to fit them well. For something like a trouser I would say 80% of the time we are that customer tries on the trouser and has zero alterations. And the 20% where we do have alterations most of those would be letting out the waist a little bit adjusting the break — pretty standard alterations post fitting. And then the most complicated garment is the jacket and four jackets which needs no alterations about 70 percent of the time. And about 30% of the time we’re adjusting the sleeve length a bit we’re changing something here or there, bringing in the tape or something that they didn’t notice at first right out of the gate.
“I think where the tailor still really matters is the construction tailor at the factory and that’s where it’s really important. But in terms of inputs and getting the right pattern built yeah we’ve effectively made that obsolete.”
Alterations are a normal part of the custom process because there’s no objective perfect fit. The customers’ opinions can change based on times of the year. If you order something around November there’s a decent chance through the holidays there’s a decent chance that you’ll have gained some weight.
Custom Tailoring: One and Done
I think but what it when you compare that to a Savile Row where they’ve built in a 500% alteration rate with a typical five fittings – we’re able to dramatically cut that down and from what we’ve seen. We’ve got the lowest alteration rate in the industry.
DZ: Back in the old days the tailor was a pretty integral part of the custom tailor experience and not just for taking the measurements. My recollection was that the tailor could take a look at you and your skin tone and your gait and changes in your weight and make assessments about whether you wanted to go for different colors or fabrics or cuts. Is the tailor still an integral part of the custom tailoring experience and what do they do?
“For our target customer who is a busy professional, who has the time for five fittings to get something that is just right? And so our goal from the beginnings we view body scanning as a way to deliver more accurate and precise measurements and to do it faster. That not only saves the customer that time in the actual appointment upfront but it significantly reduces the alterations required to get to that perfect fit on the back end.”
CH: We looked at the industry and we saw that this class of master tailors like your grandfather was literally dying off and it wasn’t being replaced with these young tailors who wanted to learn the craft, and that that presented a huge risk to our ability to scale. This was still even in kind of business concept formation before leaving at my old job, and made me wonder how I was going to do this.
You can drive down most streets and any dry cleaner is going to say includes tailoring and alterations, but there’s a difference between fixing a hem and like really knowing how to tailor something. I think when we looked at competitors and did tests out there people that would say oh yeah download this measurement form and take it to your local tailor. We tested that and you could see such a spectrum of measurements from different techniques and different qualities of skill. and then all of that. We wanted to take a lot of the need for that expertise on the measurement side out of the equation.
We looked at the industry and we saw that this class of master tailors like your grandfather was literally dying off and it wasn’t being replaced with these young tailors who wanted to learn the craft, and that that presented a huge risk to our ability to scale.
The Industrial Revolution Reaches Bespoke Menswear
I think when you step back and look more broadly at human progression, every industry has this Industrial Revolution-type moment where technology comes in and just dramatically changes things. I saw this world of bespoke clothing where that hadn’t happened. The more I researched it and it just happened to be that I was a consultant that taking three flights a week, a light bulb went off. (I knew that) this technology must exist, right? You can bodyscan in an airport you’ve got to be able to use that for capturing measurements. Then it’s extremely precise.
Now what I have to do is how do I triangulate bodyscan, which is a great foundation with select hand measurements that are easy to learn. Our body scan will tell might say that my neck is fifteen point six five inches but if you made a shirt exactly fifteen point six five inches in the neck I’d feel like I was strangled I couldn’t swallow. So the preference is really important.
We call our approach modern bespoke and we triangulate that bodyscan for precision and accuracy and efficiency with select hand measurements and then provide a few sample garments that say okay this clearly isn’t made for you but when you talk about you want a tailored look you want something that’s super European are we talking about the same thing? So we use some sample garments as a common reference point to really understand what the customer is looking for and then we triangulate all of those data points and create a unique pattern for every customer.
It’s fully digital we can send those to any of our factories and then it’s saved indefinitely until we need to update it — until the customers’ measurements change. And so yeah I think we largely have taken away the need for the tailor up front.
I think where the tailor still really matters is the construction tailor at the factory and that’s where it’s really important. But in terms of inputs and getting the right pattern built yeah we’ve effectively made that obsolete.
This was part one of a two-part interview with Collin Hunter. In part two, we discuss the impact of body scanning technology not just at Alton Lane but also its potential impact on the rest of the retail industry, and where body scanning technologies work well and where it’s worked not so well. We also discuss other ways that Alton Lane is creating customer engagement in its retail settings — to be sure, a much more human endeavor. Click the link to learn more.