Is Meepl the answer to the online apparel waste land?

A 3D avatar company wants to make clothes purchasing easier.

I'm (easily) old enough to recall the first dotcom boom when a high-profile early casualty was, an online apparel retailer that burned through money at an alarming rate even for the heady days of the late 1990s boom-and-bust period. One of the many issues that Boo had was that its avatars were slow on dialup modem connections and required plug-ins. Even today, with broadband common if not ubiquitous, the problem of finding garments in the right size persists, hence the wasteful habit of buy-and-send-back being so common.

And hence Meepl, an attempt to conquer that challenge through what is effectively a better mousetrap. Based in Zurich, Meepl is a brand owned by Fision Technologies, a company with roots in visual computing, and it offers what it calls a "virtual dressing room" that makes it easier for people to buy clothes that fit. Meepl thinks its patent-pending cocktail of AI, computer vision and data science represents a good fit for an industry struggling with the current scenario that hammers retailers and exacerbates the crisis of 30 per cent of clothing entering landfill sites.

"Return rates are crazy," says René Stampfl, EMEA VP when we meet for lunch. "Zalando is facing returns of up to 50 per cent. There's a huge impact on the environment and it's already big: two per cent of the carbon footprint is textiles."

Trends such as fast fashion, where consumers purchase in volume at ultra-low prices, are "making the situation worse and the big brands just produce, produce, produce", Stampfl says.

Meepl's attempt to make the apparel ecosystem more sustainable involves "putting the human at the core of the experience by creating a 3D body profile based on front- and side-view pictures. Height must be entered but it's largely an automated phenomenon and this contrasts with alternatives that demand (honest) responses to several questions. Jeans purchasing is particularly traumatic for many buyers apparently, as Sophie Morrow of the firm's PR agency enthusiastically agrees, calling it a "nightmare". It might be that Meepl provides a dispassionate and unbiased question to that most loaded of questions — once a staple of the British Fast Show comedy sketch TV programme, starring Arabella Weir — "does my bum look big in this?"

Founded four years ago, Meepl now has about 30 staff and 15 clients and the company is broadening its scope from workwear uniforms to the broader clothing world. About 30,000 avatars have been created and Stampfl says that more white labelling, customised clothing and making use of data sets could be a big part of the infant company's future. He also predicts that in 15 years, clothes will be designed based on a better understanding of what fits people.

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