I’m standing inside a dark booth located somewhere in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan, facing a stark array of lights and sensors. It’s a little chilly, which makes sense as I’m not wearing pants or a shirt; both are crumpled on a nearby chair. In the background I can hear voices chatting over an incomprehensible news report on CNN. To my right is a small handle jutting out from wall, featuring a bright red button. I’m supposed to press it.
On the other side of an opaque curtain, I’m beginning to sense that Alton Lane cofounder Peyton Jenkins—a tall and lanky former finance guy with an immaculate side part—is wondering what’s taking so long. I can hear his dress shoes clacking against the wood floors outside. "You can go whenever you’re ready," he calls out.
I press the button.
Immediately bright white lights begin to swirl around me in a sequence, firing off in a synchronized clockwise pattern around my body. A soothing piano concerto begins flowing from the booth’s speakers. It feels like I’m having my mind wiped by one those Men In Black memory zappers. Or maybe I'm being beamed up by a UFO.
Although the scene felt like a bizarre science experiment, I was simply having my measurements taken by a 3-D body scanner. Alton Lane is just one of a handful of new, bespoke menswear startups competing for the lucrative right to provide well-to-do office workers with custom-fitted suits.
This particular showroom is one of six sprinkled in major cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. It feels as if it were ripped from the pages of Esquire, a modern-day approximation of an old boy’s club with all the hyper-masculine trappings: booze, big screen TVs, Persian rugs, and big cushy leather chairs. "The typical retail experience isn’t great," says CEO Colin Hunter, who cofounded Alton Lane in 2009 with Jenkins after a career in the finance industry. "Our thinking was: Let’s make shopping for clothes much more comfortable. Let’s put on what you’d watch at the bar, let’s put the game on. Let’s give customers a beer or a scotch so that they can actually be comfortable."
Appealing to the Don Draper sensibilities of the id can be fun, but it does have its limitations, especially for the average schlub who couldn’t tell you the difference between a notch lapel and a peak lapel without Googling. (And I couldn’t.) Indeed, the perk war shows just how competitive the relatively new made-to-measure suiting market has become. In addition to Alton Lane, there is (in no particular order): Indochino, Combat Gent, Suit Supply, Proper Suit, Black Lapel, Bello Verde, all of which revolve in the same custom clothing orbit. You can practically take any two of those words and arrange them in any order you choose and name your own bespoke menswear startup for rich guys.
And as for the 3-D scanner? Unlike the free scotch and the big-screen television, the dark booth isn’t just another way to win over guys with expendable incomes. It has real economic value and is an essential part of Alton Lane's process. You have to step into the scanner to get a suit.
"I remember reading about 3-D scanners in college," says Jenkins. "Brooks Brothers had bought the first one that came to market in ‘99, and I was always fascinated by it. By the time we started Alton Lane we knew technology had certainly gotten better, but it needed to provide a tangible benefit other than just being a cool technology."
Each $15,000 body scanner used is engineered by a small technology house called Size Stream. Although the technology doesn’t take all of a customer’s measurements—Jenkins still had to use a tape measure to get an exact read on my arm lengths—it does feed important and intricate sizing information into a database, so that the company’s overseas tailors can stitch together a suit that takes into account all the wondrous nuances of your body. "If you have one shoulder that’s more sloped than another or one arm that’s longer than another, it allows us to get that customer into the well-fitted garment quicker than going through the standard process," adds Jenkins.
Here's how it works. Each scanner is equipped with 14 sensors at various heights to take over 400 measurements around the body, including height, circumferences volume, lengths, surface area, and more. The infrared scanning technology used isn’t so unlike what you'd find in Microsoft’s Kinect. Size Sense utilizes an open API that allows clients to build a layer of custom software, depending on their needs. In Alton Lane's case, it allows them to feed customer sizing information into a profile that can be called up whenever a client wants to place an order. The whole scanning process takes about 30 seconds.
It also delivers a level consistency that's difficult to replicate over and over again. "The technology is becoming more and more common," says David Bruner, vice president of technology development at Size Stream. "When you've got the experienced tailor guy who has been doing it for 30 to 40 years, they do a great job. But there’s a lot of turnover in retail. And training people to do it consistently is a problem."
With a machine, he adds, "you get a consistent measure every time."
Of course there are limitations to using 3-D scanners to provide customers with custom fits. Part of their emergence in the menswear market is because suits don’t really differ all that much. An Internet-connected scanner can be slipped into the existing supply chain infrastructure with little trouble, beaming relevant contextual body information to whoever can use it.
In the sprawling womenswear market it's a different story. While there are startups utilizing 3-D scanners to design products like custom-fit bras, the demand for a closet staple like a two-piece suit just isn't the same.
Suits, on the other hand, are fairly predictable. And as costs continue to drive down and the technology continues to improve—Bruner says Size Stream plans on releasing its next scanning model in 2015—we’ll likely see scanners seep more into the mainstream. One suiting startup called Arden Reed already enlists a traveling tailor truck outfitted with a 3-D scanner in the back. And over in Australia, a fitness company called Mport is placing 3-D scanners in malls to provide curious shoppers with custom fits exercise clothes.
What we're likely witnessing is the nascent beginnings of 3-D mapping in the clothing industry. "One of our demo sites for the scanner is at the Fashion Institute of Technology," adds Bruner. "At the London College of Fashion we’re using it. It’s a great market to pursue. Those students graduate and they go on and they want to use it in their work. It’s a key strategy."
Indeed, the future of made-to-measure menswear is looking pretty bright. And all you have to do is push the red button.