Can this AI-powered online fit program make custom clothing more accessible?

From excess inventory to sky-high return rates, the off-the-rack apparel industry faces big barriers. Sene hopes to overcome them with custom clothing.
article cover


· 4 min read

Custom clothing is one attempt to overcome the lack of size standardization in fashion, which contributes to the massive numbers of returns e-retailers face today—but attempts to scale and cut costs on the strategy have been largely unsuccessful.

Enter Los Angeles-based Sene (pronounced “seen,”), a brand with limited SKUs that makes custom clothing in the City of Angels, which thinks it has found the key to accessible fits and can defy the stereotypes of long turnaround times and sky-high prices for custom wear.

Automating the measurement and patterning process via an AI-powered online sizing program allows Sene to skip many of the traditional costs associated with custom clothing, said co-founder and CEO Ray Li. It also decreases the brand’s footprint and ensures it’s never stuck with unsold inventory.

The custom fit dream

“The only thing we hold inventory [in] is raw fabric,” Li explained. With only about 50 denim SKUs, for example, Sene buys into just three types of denim.

“For us to launch a style, we just have to shoot models in it and list it online. We don’t have to pre-manufacture anything. So it’s better for us from a business standpoint, but it’s also better for the environment, better for the consumer,” he said.

Sene isn’t the first company to try and take custom clothing mainstream with the help of technology. Take Zozotown, one of Japan’s largest e-commerce retailers, which attempted to achieve the perfect fit by sending customers a tech-adorned bodysuit that created a 3D model of their body. The Zozo suit faced an onslaught of negative reviews and sizing issues, and the company made headlines in 2019, when it canceled operations for its custom-fit clothing brand.

Claire Tasin, retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult, said she herself tried out the original Zozo bodysuit several years back, and the clothes took weeks to arrive and, rather than fitting like a glove, were comically large for her.

“There’s so much potential, there’s so much possibility in the promise of custom apparel at scale,” Tasin said. “It is extraordinarily hard to produce.”

Enter Sene: Sene’s LA manufacturing process appears similar to that of other apparel and is about the same amount of work as creating off-the-rack items, Li said: A pulley system brings fabrics in to be laser cut, pieces are hand-assembled, reviewed, washed, and pre-shrunk. A few days later, a $49 custom t-shirt arrives at your door.

  • According to Sene, most fit quizzes match people to their closest standard size, while Sene’s SmartFit generates a unique fit.
  • Sene’s SmartFit quiz includes questions about shoulder slope and thigh fit in addition to height, weight, and usual clothing size. Inputs are compared against a database of ~200,000 other users, Li said.

Li also believes custom apparel holds huge potential for reducing return rates, which plague the fashion industry at between 25% and 30%.

  • Meanwhile, Li reports that Sene’s current return rate is 12%, half that of the industry average.
  • Most returns aren’t about fit, but rather about someone not liking the material, Li said.
Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Our free retail newsletter delivers insights to keep retail leaders and decision-makers up to date.

Zero inventory challenges: Brian Kilcourse, managing partner at Retail Systems Research, said that while zero inventory strategies like Sene’s aren’t new, he’s skeptical it will catch on in the wider retail industry, in part due to scalability challenges.

“Theoretically, it makes great sense, but there are reasons that you have excess in the supply chain, and that’s so you can deal with anomalies,” Kilcourse said. Ultimately, the success of this model depends on a brand’s desire to scale, and how deep the pockets of their shoppers reach, he said. “A customer always pays for lack of scale.”

That increased cost may hinder the potential custom clothing could have to cut back on waste created by the apparel industry, Tasin added.

“For the niche shopper who can afford more custom clothing, then yes, this can be a great solution to avoid waste,” she said. “But it’s not a solution that, in our current state, scales well.”

But Li says others who have tried and failed to bring custom clothing to the mainstream may have had the wrong approach. Shoppers want a buying experience that feels familiar, which body-scanning technologies don’t provide, Li said.

“Most people don’t want to get scanned; it has to be something where you can see an ad…and you can create a custom fit and check out all in the same transaction.”

It’s that simplicity that Li believes will make custom clothing the future of fashion. “We think that apparel will ultimately be sizeless,” he added. “The future we see is that you will log on to Nordstrom, and you load your smart fit…any time you shop.”—MA

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Our free retail newsletter delivers insights to keep retail leaders and decision-makers up to date.