Blue jeans and computer a perfect fit

November 10, 1994|By Glenn Rifkin | Glenn Rifkin,New York Times News Service

Weaving together two basic threads of American life -- creeping computerization and the quest for a perfect fit in blue jeans -- the world's biggest jeans maker has begun selling made-to-order Levi's for women.

Sales clerks at an Original Levi's Store can use a personal computer and the customer's vital statistics to create a digital blue jeans blueprint. When transmitted electronically to a Levi's factory in Tennessee, this computer file instructs a robotic tailor to cut a bolt of denim to the woman's measurements.

The finished Levi's, about $10 more than a mass-produced pair, are shipped back to the store within three weeks -- or to the customer by Federal Express for $5 more.

"They fit like a glove," said Beth Gilmore, 32, who paid $56 for a pair of digitally tailored Levi's ordered from a store in Cincinnati. "I'm tall," she said. "In the past, there's always been a compromise -- they're either too big or too little somewhere."

The service, being introduced gradually by Levi Strauss & Co., is the first of its type in the clothing industry. But it is part of an emerging industrial trend toward so-called mass customization, in which computerized instructions enable factories to modify mass-market products one at a time to suit the needs of individual customers.

Some products outside the clothing industry are already being made this way. Motorola sales representatives using laptop computers, for example, can take orders for pagers that allow the customer to set a variety of manufacturing specifications for the devices. Andersen Windows places computers in retail stores, where customers can design factory-made windows in an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes. And technology experts expect the approach to find its way eventually into all sorts of assembly-line goods.

Levi Strauss, which has been offering the service for several months in Cincinnati, plans to introduce it at a store in New York City scheduled to open on Nov. 18, and in Columbus, Ohio, and Peabody, Mass., by the end of the month. Over the next year, the company plans to offer the service at more than 30 Original Levi's Stores throughout the country, including one in Georgetown. None are planned for the Baltimore area.

Levi Strauss will not disclose how much denim it has already sold this way. But since the computer service was introduced in March at the Cincinnati store, sales of women's jeans there have increased 300 percent compared with the corresponding period a year earlier.

"This is revolutionary," said Walter Loeb, a retail analyst with Loeb Associates in New York. "It has the potential to change the way people buy clothes, and it will allow stores to cut down on inventory."

The system was developed by a former software developer for IBM, Sung Park. Mr. Park, 35, said his company, Custom Clothing Technology Inc., of Newton, Mass., was talking to other clothing manufacturers about adopting his technology. He would not identify the companies.

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