I hate my thighs. Fashion designers must, too. They just don’t make trousers for people like me. Every time I walk into a changing room thinking this pair is going to be “the one”, I end up staring in the mirror, dejected. The waist might fit, but my thighs stress at the seams. Or the waist ends up a yard too big but the thighs feel right at home. Call me a Goldilocks of the trouser world, but chances are you also have a pain point like mine.
That is what made the Zozosuit, a gadget produced by a Japanese clothing retailer, Zozo, so appealing. The customer gets sent, free, a black skin-tight bodysuit with white dots all over it – a Zozosuit. You squeeze into it and pose for photos in front of your phone while it’s running the Zozo app, which will then determine “your unique fit”. Armed with your body measurements, Zozo will sell you “custom-fit clothing that feels tailor-made”. The prices seem very reasonable. A pair of women’s skinny jeans is 59 € ($67) and a men’s shirt is 49 € ($56). Zozo’s publicity material is full of pictures of people of all ages and shapes, beaming in jeans and T-shirt. As the Zozo credo goes, “we believe every body deserves to be celebrated, which is why we aim to fit everybody.”
The Zozosuit looks like a onesie but it actually comes in two parts – a top and bottom. I tried one on in my living room one morning before work and propped up my phone on the flimsy cardboard stand they had sent me. “Please do not move or make any adjustments to your suit from this point forward,” said the digital tailor in a stern American accent. “If the markers on the suit move, the measurement process may fail.” She needn’t have worried – the suit was so tight I could barely move a muscle. Then she told me to pivot. And pivot again. And pivot some more. It felt like I’d be doing my clockwork robot dance for ever.
Finally, I sent Zozo my measurements – having learnt that my right thigh is almost one centimetre bigger than my left – and picked out a capsule wardrobe from Zozo’s website: an Oxford shirt, a T-shirt, and two pairs of jeans – one slim-fitting and one straight-cut. When my Zozo box arrived, some weeks later, I was quite excited. But the Oxford shirt was missing and there was a handwritten letter from a PR. “Hi Charlie,” it said. “If the clothes do not fit at all it may be due to a mistake in the picking process, as your clothes have been chosen manually in our warehouse.”
Huh? I thought “chosen manually” was sort of the antithesis of the futuristic Zozo process. Had somebody just picked out my clothing in a warehouse somewhere? The waist fitted, but I never would have picked either pair of jeans for myself. The straight pair of jeans were far too loose for my taste. When I wore them around the office paired with the navy T-shirt, I got some funny looks. “You’re usually dressed so smart,” a colleague said to me. I switched out of the baggy jeans into the slim pair. I tend to wear slightly tighter trousers, so was hopeful these would suit my fancy. They didn’t. Although they were more in line with my usual style, the fabric still bunched up around my hips. If the measurements had been so precise, why the extra material? The Oxford shirt I requested arrived a few weeks later. The shirt was probably the best of the bunch. I am wearing it for the second time today. It’s thick enough to keep me warm and is smart enough to wear tucked-in to work. Even so, it’s not amazing. When I told a colleague that it was customised just for me, he looked perplexed. Zozo’s marketing had led me to expect perfection. What I ended up with were the kind of clothes you might buy in a hurry from Uniqlo or Gap if you go on holiday and your suitcase gets lost in transit.
Like most modern consumers, I start to worry about my personal data only after I’ve let technology have its way with me. Where were the awful pictures of me in my speckled bodysuit? Wallpapering the Zozo offices? Being passed around and sniggered at? I emailed the company and they told me that the pictures are “never seen by an employee or any other human” and that if I want, I can have my data deleted. They won’t miss me, it turns out. And Zozo’s CEO recently announced that the company is ditching the Zozosuit in March, having harvested all the body measurements it needs.
I felt used. As silly as I looked prancing around in a polka-dot suit, I thought I was doing it for me. But measurements like the ones I had taken of myself were being used to feed some sort of algorithm. I also felt confused. If the company can’t get your fit right when they have your complete body measurements, how will it manage with just your weight and height? What hope is there for people with unconventional body shapes? That would be most of us.
On Instagram, there are more than 20,000 pictures of mostly Japanese people wearing Zozosuits. The company has got acres of coverage, including in such esteemed publications as The Economist and its sister magazine. Was the Zozosuit an experiment that went wrong? Or was it an expensive publicity stunt? Zozo’s latest financial statement categorises the suit as “advertising” and says it was one of the “factors worsening profitability”. Clearly, the challenge of producing mass-market fashion tech that actually works was too great. For now, my poor thighs and I will have to carry on braving the humiliation of the high street.