Since the standardization of sizes in the 1940s, women have been forcing their bodies into the so-called average mold. But, with the help of new technology, apparel designers like Durham's Reid Miller (reidmillerapparel.com) want to provide affordable, custom-made clothing for the modern woman.
The idea took root when Miller was a bike commuter pursuing a public health degree in California and realizing how restrictive professional womenswear can be.
"Professional apparel for women is super antiquated and basically assumes we're standing around with little glasses of champagne, in stilettos, blinking our eyelashes, when the modern woman is doing all these things and maybe wants to use her hands," she says with a laugh..
Miller always wanted to be a fashion designer, but she didn't think it was realistic until she met one who encouraged her to start by designing her own wardrobe. She drew some sketches of a tweed blazer, a pair of jeans, and a merino sweater: the kind of outfit she'd always wanted, adaptable for the fluid lifestyle of getting on your bike, going to a coffee shop, giving a presentation, and meeting friends for a drink. She handed them to a production manager who brought them to life.
Her tweed blazer is inspired by equestrian jackets, she says, so the overall design is classic. The fun part was updating it and thinking about how to make it more moveable. She added an action pleat in back for movement and lots of pockets, a design feature often curiously missing from women's clothing. She launched a Kickstarter campaign to try to realize her vision of producing a line of apparel for female bike commuters. But when she fell short of her goal and started meeting with women, she realized her target market was way too small and the issue to address was much larger.
"I don't think there was one woman I met who did not bring up fit as an issue, and it's really interesting, because you realize that even women who seem to have the average body have a problem," Miller says. "Because standard sizing doesn't really make sense. Standard for what? Bodies are so varied, and it doesn't really work for people."
Until now, Miller has been following a typical production model, which involves sending off patterns and materials and getting back an order of standard sizes. She's been selling her ready-to-wear riding denim online over the past year and more recently at Liberation Threads, but when she had a few prototype jackets made last year, she realized this model would not work with her vision.
"I fortuitously got a jacket back, and it was just a teeny bit off and it looked totally different," she says. "I realized I can't sell this in standard sizing with this fancy material and all the waste that's going to happen there. And what's happening with apparel anyway? It's dying to have an update."
Last summer, over coffee, her father told her something she took to heart: "You know, my dentist takes this little wand and puts it in your mouth and takes a scan and makes a molar to measure. You think you can do that with apparel?"
When Miller started researching apparel technology, she discovered the existence of tools like digital pattern makers, computerized cutters, and 3-D body scanners that could make custom apparel more adaptable and affordable. She was also surprised by the dearth of made-to-order womenswear options online. When she typed in "custom-made clothing," she found plenty of options for men, but next to nothing for women.
"None of these technologies that we're working with are novel or right-off-the-press new," she says. "It's all quite logical. Why aren't we doing this for womenswear?"
She posits that a big part of the problem is that the industry doesn't think there's a desire for custom-made womenswear, or maybe women think the idea is neat but aren't willing to invest in it. Miller is out to prove that idea wrong.
On September 26, Miller tried crowdfunding again, this time using iFundWomen to raise money to test a made-to-measure production model for women, creating custom-made riding jackets for five local women of varying sizes.
The process has four steps. First, tailor Nighisti Selby takes measurements. Then, South Carolina's Apparel Prototyping & Design Solutions creates a digital pattern. In Tennessee, Omega Apparel provides computerized cutting, and the final garment is hand-sewn by Sew Co. in Hendersonville.
"I can't wait for made-to-measure," says Crystal Dreisbach, one of the women in the test run, in a campaign video. "I really want to simplify my wardrobe and have just amazing, classic pieces that fit me really well and are well-made and beautiful and will last me a long time."
Miller met her goal of $15,000 on October 25 and is now in the process of testing out the model. If all goes well, Miller will start making her custom riding jackets for women across the country. To start, she'll connect women with a nearby tailor to get precise measurements, but the long-term plan is to incorporate 3-D body scanners to take exact measurements of women who order from her, once the technology becomes cheap, portable, and accurate enough. According to Miller, industry experts predict an accurate phone app could be available in as soon as two years.
Locals in the apparel industry are excited to see more custom-made clothing options added to the Triangle's fashion scene.
"We're a boutique, and we specialize in ready-to-wear apparel, but, as we all know, 'ready to wear' doesn't always literally mean ready to wear right off the rack," says Rebecca Kuhns, owner of Liberation Threads in Durham, which stocks Miller's (currently) ready-to-wear Riding Denim. "Even though I have a fairly average-size body, a personal frustration is that, often, pants aren't made for the curves of the standard African-American body, and that's something I have to navigate."
Miller says another aim of her campaign is to prove that women can and should tackle the big problems.
"I feel like if women can own their power, we would live in a much better world," she says.