Unhappy online shoppers have turned calling out fashion fails into an art form. Always making sure to tag the offending brand, swathes of people are taking to Twitter to post photos of outrageously long trousers, teeny tiny tops and garments that are just flat out a different colour than advertised.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that online sales have risen significantly in the past year, and now account for 18.2% of all retail, an all-time high. That rise, coupled with falling sales on the high street, means more and more of us are skipping the changing room, hitting 'proceed to checkout' and hoping for the best.
Casting an eye over an online size guide and trusting a brand’s interpretation of a size 10 is always a calculated risk, and a saggy waistband or questionably short hemline is par for the course. But how are some brands getting it so, so wrong? Why are customers receiving T-shirts that fit their pre-teen sisters better than themselves or jumpsuits ostensibly made for giants? To answer that, let me allow you a peek into the world of an e-commerce stylist.
Styling for 'e-comm' might not appear to be a particularly complicated job. Put some jeans with a nice top, add a pair of shoes and you’re good to go. Except what many people don’t realise is that e-comm stylists are creative magicians, trained in the art of illusion. And unsuspecting customers are their audience.
The main offenders, judging by Twitter, are fast fashion brands with a lightning quick production model. This new breed of label thrives on logistical agility, responding to trends in as little as two weeks. This not only throws up a plethora of ethical questions but the rapid turnaround means that while a customer can get their hands on a 'must-have' dress within a matter of days, there is little time factored in for fittings and tweaking. And so it’s the stylist’s job to make whatever lands on their rail look amazing, no matter how poorly constructed or ill-fitting it is.
A stylist’s day starts with a rail (or five) bursting with product that needs to be prepped and organised into outfits. If you’re lucky enough to be working for a brand with big budgets, you might get a fitting day. The models will try on the looks and the stylist will pin a garment to perfection before it’s whizzed off to the sewing team who send back the tailored pieces to shoot the next day. Jackets, jeans, joggers; anything that doesn’t fit right will be fitted to the model to create the illusion that it will fit the customer perfectly too.
If you’re working for a smaller brand, you’re on your own, and you’ll need a serious kit to alter garments on the fly. A stylist needs, among other things, "pins, safety pins, bulldog clips, pegs, all the tapes (double sided, masking, gaffer...), Velcro, scissors, needle and thread and a leather hole punch," according to H, a stylist and art director.
You might wonder why a rail of clothes picked out especially for a model who in turn has been picked out for their supposedly optimum body type would need so many alterations. Even if something has unravelling seams or a slightly off waistline, you’d expect that, broadly, a sample size garment would fit a sample size person. But the reality is that sizing is about as far from being a precise science as possible, and the vast majority of the time, sample sizes don’t fit. Which means that none of the other sizes in the range are going to fit well either.
Sometimes you’ll shoot a jumpsuit against a big white board or a wall so that the legs can be superimposed over the images of the model.
Kit in hand, it’s up to the stylist to transform whatever garment they’re presented with into something customers will want to buy. One minute you’re tasked with turning a shapeless smock into a fitted dress and the next you’re trying to make a pair of jeans with a mathematically insane hip to waist ratio wearable, somehow.
"There is so much work that goes into deceiving the public, making them think that something is going to look the same on them as it does on the model," says Aisha Jimoh, a London-based stylist with experience at a range of brands, from high street to high end. "I think if you don’t know anybody that does this for a living, or if you don’t do this for a living yourself, you just have no idea."
H agrees that the visual trickery runs deep. "There’s non-stop pinning and clipping for every garment," she says. And of course, you can’t simply reshape something once; it needs doing over and over so it looks amazing from every angle. Eagle-eyed shoppers might even spot a telltale bulldog clip that a retoucher has overlooked while scrolling for a new dress.
In the game of creative fashion faking, stylists and retouchers are teammates. Caught without a skin-toned slip to hand, a rail full of accidentally see-through dresses (a regular problem) can cause a stylist a serious headache. But a retoucher (also wanting to avoid dreaded reshoots) will undoubtedly have their back and, after a few digital readjustments, unwitting customers will be none the wiser that their Saturday night look might be a little more revealing than expected.
The symbiotic relationship between stylist and retoucher is, without a doubt, the culprit behind many of the worst examples of online ordering disappointments on social media. The average person will be left scratching their head when the jumpsuit that just grazed the tops of the as-stated 5'7" model’s shoes extends a foot past their own toes. But it’s the result of some genius styling subterfuge.
First, the stylist will choose some heels to get an extra few inches of leg length in the bag. Then it’s time to get the pins out. "We fold the leg over around halfway up to create a flap and then they retouch it out," explains Aisha. "And sometimes you’ll also shoot the jumpsuit against a big white board or a wall so that the legs can be superimposed over the images of the model."
After some artistry at the hands of a stylist, a baggy, impossibly long yellow jumpsuit will look like a flawlessly fitted dream on a size 8 model. A little more work from the retoucher and there’s not a pin in sight and it’s a beautiful shade of sunset orange. Does it look like that in real life? No. But will the higher ups expect the team to have taken any measures possible to make their dodgy stock look desirable and rack up sales? Absolutely.
It would be easy to point the finger at stylists – up to their eyeballs in nude thongs, nipple covers and bulldog clips – and blame them for tricking you into buying something that looks laughably different from how it is in real life. But they feel your pain. (Believe me; I was one of these stylists for years.) Working in an industry that is being devalued by the day, commercial work such as e-comm is bread and butter stuff. So blame the big bosses, ask for your hard earned cash back, and then give stylists a round of applause, because they’re out here performing fashion miracles.